It is when he reads about the repeated cuts–short, calculated incisions–that Moroccan authorities savagely inflicted on his brother’s genitals, that he begins to break down. We are listening to the brother of Binyam Mohamed–an Ethiopian national living in Britain “disappeared” in April 2002 and transferred among black-sites in Afghanistan and Morocco before descending on Guantánamo Bay, where he remains imprisoned. His brother (who requested anonymity) reads from Binyam’s diary, which managed to make its way from Guantánamo to his family. He gives voice to his brother’s words: “It was an agony, trying desperately to suppress my feelings. But I was screaming. There was blood all over…”
Human rights advocates estimate that since September 11, 2001 hundreds, possibly thousands, of others have been subjected to the system of detention and rendition–called collectively, extraordinary rendition– employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Binyam and a German citizen Khaled El-Masri, who was recently released after a five months of interrogation, torture, and isolation, make up the core of Outlawed. The film is the work of Witness, an American human rights group with national and international affiliates that uses video advocacy to reach and empower viewers around the world. Outlawed, released this June, is one of Witness’s latest efforts.
A couple of years ago, Americans may have claimed simply that they hadn’t known what the its government was doing in their names. But since 2004, evidence–both reported in the news media and in testimony from former detainees–has steadily mounted. Yet despite the indisputable facts of a blatantly immoral policy, the issue of extraordinary rendition has not seemed to generate widespread attention or outrage in the US.
“I’m surprised at how little traction the stories will get,” explained Aziz Huq, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Arar, El-Masri–these stories get little press. People tend to look at these stories and think ‘this is not us.'”
Gillian Caldwell, executive director of Witness, is mindful of precisely this phenomenon–the inability of the American public to identify with terror suspects brutalized by agents of its government. “We’re not getting a reaction to this story,” she said, speaking of the circumstances that motivated Witness to produce its recent documentary. “And I think the fact that [the victims] are not American and that they’re not speaking English…and that they’re not white,” she continued, has made their stories inaccessible to a public still preoccupied–downright obsessed–with pursuing national security at any and all costs.
What has become a characteristically American failure to engage with the impact of its government’s policy abroad seems even more dramatic when compared to the European community’s response to extraordinary rendition. In Europe, a combination of factors has propelled the issue to the forefront of the public and political dialogue. Swiss Senator Dick Marty recently released a report –the second of its kind–to the Council of Europe detailing the involvement of European countries that have colluded with the US in the secret imprisonment and torture of suspected terrorists. Witness released Outlawed to coincide with the June presentation of the Marty report.