NS Readers’ Choice
In the week when the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was five years old, campaigners staged a protest vigil opposite Downing Street. Interest was high, and many reporters, photographers and TV crews were there to record the event.
As someone with a personal appeal to deliver, Anas el-Banna was at the heart of it. He was just getting ready to say his piece when someone asked, as they do, if he would wear a radio microphone.
“I’ve done this before,” he said, every inch the seasoned activist. “I know how to do it.”
So he fixed it to his coat himself, then walked out to face the cameras and, betraying fewer nerves than most would in such a position, said what he had to say. His voice is soft but a silence descended as he spoke, and his words were heard.
Anas was ten years old.
Now this slip of a boy, who has challenged two prime ministers and – his supporters say – helped shame the second of them into an important retreat, has been voted Person of the Year for 2007 by New Statesman readers. They recognise in him a model of youthful courage and loyalty, and perhaps also an emblem for the broken families of Guantanamo captives.
The timing of the award was good, because, just as the votes were counted, Anas’s campaign (he is now 11) reached the very brink of success. Lawyers for his father, Jamil el-Banna, learned that after five years in custody he was about to be freed and allowed to return to his home in north London.
“The whole family are beside themselves with excitement,” says Cori Crider, a lawyer with the legal organisation Reprieve, who has worked on the case. “There’s going to be a huge party when he gets back.”
Among those involved in the campaign – who include the local MP, Sarah Teather, the local paper, the Willesden and Brent Times, Amnesty International and Reprieve – there was unanimity that Anas deserved much of the credit.
Gordon Brown, for his part, will surely be grateful to have received his last letter from the young man. In all, Anas wrote five times to Downing Street, the earlier letters going to Tony Blair, and his style had developed to a point where they must have been almost unbearable to read.
“Dear Mr Brown, how are you?” they would begin, and they would end with something like: “I hope you have a good Father’s Day with your children.” In between, in his untidy schoolboy script, Anas would deliver a potent cocktail of entreaty, observation and reproach. The most recent contained a topical allusion: “I was very happy when I saw you on the news showing interest in Madeleine McCann who was kidnapped from her parents. I also hope that Madeleine is reunited with her family safely because I also know what it is like to have someone in your family kidnapped . . .”
And Jamil el-Banna was indeed kidnapped. He was arrested in 2002 while on a business trip to Gambia and handed over to the United States, which flew him secretly to a CIA interrogation centre in Kabul before transferring him to Guantanamo Bay. George Brent Mickum, his attorney in the US, says: “He has been through hell, mistreated and/or tortured everywhere he has been, and his weak link has always been his love for his family. I believe US officials used that against him, keeping all his letters from him for years.”
Mickum says the accusations against el-Banna and the justifications for holding on to him have always been feeble. He was accused of helping transport a bomb, which was in truth nothing more than a battery charger, and of association with various individuals who have never been convicted of anything, notably his business partner Bisher al-Rawi, who has been free and back in Britain since last spring.
Anas had to grow up fast in the years of his father’s absence.
“He has had some difficulties,” says Sarah Teather. “Other children have not always been kind, but he is a serious young man and he has taken on the role of man of the house.
“There are five of them and the other children look to him for leadership. He and the youngest, especially, dote on each other. He has a soft spot for her.” That is Mariam, born six months after the arrest of a father she has never seen.
Anas plays football and computer games like any other 11-year-old, but in helping his mother in the campaign he revealed communication skills far beyond his age. Seasoned activists marvelled at his composure in front of reporters and cameras, where, though usually with his mother, Sabah, or brother, Mohamed, he almost always did the talking.
Those supporting the family worried about the impact of this on a child. “He’s withdrawn at times, and there is a real sadness about him,” said one. “He has had a fear of letting his dad down.” But there is agreement that the el-Bannas have been better equipped than many Guantanamo families to cope with their ordeal.
Anas was proposed for Person of the Year by the director of Amnesty UK, Kate Allen, and she was delighted by the result. “He’s been an amazing face for the campaign,” she said. “It’s terrific he has received recognition from your readership.”
Best of the rest . . .
The following nominations formed our readers’ top ten . . .
Campaigning comedian and writer
Veteran Liberal Democrat politician
BBC journalist kidnapped in Gaza
Former UN weapons inspector, opponent of Iraq War
Blogger and victim of 7/7 bombings
Palestinian journalist based in Gaza
Mental health nurse sacked after criticising Britain’s NHS
The Dalai Lama
Exiled spiritual leader
International Space Station’s first female commander
. . . and our winning reader . . .
The names of the readers who nominated Anas el-Banna went into a prize draw. First out of the hat, winning a luxury ethical food hamper and a six-month subscription to the NS, was Rob Shuster, from London EC2.
Ten runners-up receive quarterly NS subscriptions