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It’s rotten here in jail

Of William Shakespeare, it is often said that his works are as relevant today as when he originally penned them. I suspect this will be the same for the legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke, the Bard of Salford, after all some of his work is already part of the national curriculum.

Earlier this week I ventured into town with a couple of old pals - the Bricky and the Painter - to see John Cooper Clarke live at the London Palladium. He was headlining an evening of poetry and music with such luminaries as Mr John Shuttleworth, Simon Day, Viv Albertine, I am Kloot, Dirt Box, Luke Wright, Mike Garry and more.

It was a brilliant evening with English eccentricities and old punk rockers, but what really hit the button for me was when John started talking about the “laudable Amnesty International”. However, John, being John, had something to say about Amnesty, he needed to put the record straight. He explained that a couple of years ago his daughter had come home from school and asked for his assistance in completing her homework. The task? A project to mark the 50th Anniversary of Amnesty International.

Well, as John explained, this got him thinking about how Amnesty may sometimes be a little naive. Do they not realise that some of the people they are working for may be guilty? He told how he is no stranger to Her Majesty’s institutions. In his younger days he served 36 hours behind bars for car theft, despite there being no evidence against him other than that he was caught at the wheel of a car that didn’t belong to him.  He explained that he’s visited many prisons and has yet to meet a guilty person. I thought this was hilarious, as it led into a rendition of ‘It’s Rotten Here in Jail’.

After the show we retreated for some light refreshments and discussed the evening’s entertainment. We all agreed it was an outstanding performance and enjoyed hearing old classics like Beasley Street, Evidently Chickentown and Hire Car. The Painter, I could see, wanted to say something and looked slightly uncomfortable.  Eventually, he explained to me gently and with sensitivity that the general perception of people is that Amnesty is a little naive, that some of the people they campaign for are guilty. I know he didn’t want to hurt my feelings and despite many years of working with rough and ready chaps he really is a considerate and thoughtful bloke.  

Now the Painter and the Bricky don’t fit the stereotype of blokes that work in the construction industry. A stereotype that I must say from my experience is often wrong. They stand up to bigotry, confronting racists, homophobes and misogynists. This isn’t easy, I’ve been there and I know the threat of physical violence is often a deterrent to such confrontations. Whilst you can’t compare this to the courage of people that stand up for human rights in extremely dangerous parts of the world, it's nevertheless taking a stand.

Anyway, I explained to them that I actually understand and agree that many of the people on whose behalf Amnesty work are probably guilty. Guilty of insulting the president, guilty of being gay, guilty of standing up for women’s rights, guilty of challenging racist policies, guilty of changing religion, guilty of joining a demonstration, or guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I explained that it’s often repressive laws, or the total lack of/or avoidance of a justice system that puts many of the people on whose behalf Amnesty work behind bars.

The latter could apply to Shaker Aamer. Shaker is a 44-year-old former UK resident who was detained by the security forces in Afghanistan in November 2001. According to his account, he was in Afghanistan because of his work for a Saudi charity. Transferred to US forces in Afghanistan and then to Guantánamo, Shaker has languished at Guantánamo Bay ever since. He has been denied freedom in this way despite never being charged, tried or convicted of any criminal offence.

In desperation he and many other inmates at Guantánamo went on a hunger strike which is now over a hundred days. Shaker is the last remaining former UK resident detained at the notorious detention centre and whilst the UK government has repeatedly called on the USA to release him, we now need them to make these calls more public. We need the Prime Minister David Cameron to publicly give his support to President Obama who has expressed his wish to close Guantánamo - and what better opportunity than at next week’s G8 meeting in Northern Ireland.

Let’s get Shaker Aamer back home to his family, because it truly is rotten there in jail.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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