Hollywood‘s latest take on kidnapping and torture in the war on terror is surprisingly bold and realistic but won’t change people’s views overnight, a prominent lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners says.
“Rendition,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, tells the story of an Egyptian man abducted by the United States as he steps off a flight in Washington.
He is sent to a North African state investigating a suicide bombing, and systematically tortured under the eyes of a CIA agent, played by Gyllenhaal.
“I thought it was surprisingly courageous for Hollywood and it will be seen by millions. Now, will we persuade the world in a moment? No, of course,” lawyer Clive Stafford Smith said at a preview showing in London ahead of this week’s release.
However, he said the media had a vital part to play in shaping public opinion on the issue, and obtaining justice for more than 300 prisoners still held as terrorist suspects at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Not one single person has been ordered free by the court of law. The court of public opinion, on the other hand, has been quite successful,” said the British lawyer, whose charity Reprieve represents more than 40 Guantanamo inmates.
“We’ve freed more than half of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay … We (lawyers) legally expose the truth. You (journalists) follow up on it. That’s really important.”
FACT AND FICTION
Although “Rendition” is a fictional tale, Stafford Smith said the scenario and many of the details were authentic.
He knew, for example, of two Syrian men whose names had been deleted from passenger records in the same way that Anwar El-Ibrahimi, the central character in the film, is erased from the flight list of the plane that brought him to Washington.
Stafford Smith said he had also seen at first hand how even close family members can begin to wonder if a detainee really has militant links — a form of doubt that briefly troubles Ibrahimi’s American wife, played by Witherspoon, in the movie.
The story has strong echoes of real cases such as that of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was arrested during a stopover in New York in 2002, deported to Syria and tortured.
The United States acknowledges it has conducted renditions — secret international transfers of terrorist suspects — and held detainees at secret prisons, but it denies torturing them or handing them to countries that torture.
It says intelligence gained from interrogating such prisoners has helped save many lives by thwarting international terrorist plots — a point made in the movie by a senior CIA official played by Meryl Streep.
The film strives for balance by showing the militant Islamist threat as real, and posing the question whether one person’s rights can take precedence over the security of thousands.
Stafford Smith said the reality for a victim of rendition is bleak: “He’ll spend the rest of his life in therapy, and he’ll have nightmares every night for the rest of his life.”