Guantánamo Bay and Spanish political prisoners: dissent and resistance by Ruth Littlewood

It is amazing how often an article jumps out at me from the British press in relation to the topic of my PhD, which looks at writing by female political prisoners in Spain in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It happened last week, with The Guardian publishing an extract from Ahmed Errachidi’s memoir The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/28/ahmed-errachidi-guantanamo-bay-general ).

After travelling to the Middle East to try and find work, Errachidi became embroiled with the refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, was arrested by police in Pakistan and ‘sold’ to Americans in an airport. This led to a five-and-a-half year stint in the Guantánamo camp, after being falsely accused of training with al-Qaida, before lawyers were allowed access to his case and proved him to be indisputably innocent. The excerpt goes on to describe how, being one of the few English speakers in the camp, Errachidi rose to a leadership position amongst his fellow prisoners, earning him the nickname ‘The General.’

There are fascinating parallels between the acts of resistance wrought by the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay and those of the female inmates in prisons in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Errachidi details the importance of solidarity in helping those incarcerated to resist the hopelessness of incarceration: ‘if one was denied food, we would all refuse to eat, and if one was deprived of his blanket, we would also discard ours.’ Similarly, Angeles Malonda, who was imprisoned in Valencia in the 1940s, tells an anecdote about one woman having her head shaved in punishment and eight other women deliberately provoking the same penalty in solidarity.

However, what strikes me most about this extract is that, even today, nearly 75 years since the end of the Spanish Civil War, we still have such a fragile grasp on our civil and political liberties. Many of the women I look at from the Civil War occupy a similar political position to Errachidi; that’s to say, they aren’t really political prisoners at all, having no connections to political groups and being held indefinitely without knowing what they have been charged with. Political prisoners are incarcerated for dissent (real or imagined) towards a regime that has international legitimacy. Because the very existence of dissent challenges this legitimacy, however, the prisoners enter a sort of No Man’s Land, often being hushed-up by the government. And, as is evident, if you don’t really exist then you don’t really have rights.

Although there are organisations such as Amnesty International (https://www.amnesty.org.uk/) and Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/about) which work towards publicising and aiding people that are suffering political persecution, I think that we need to take a more active role in considering our own stance on this issue. Rather than seeing political dissent as a threat to our own personal security, as many governments internationally would like us to believe, we need to question how the questions that political prisoners ask expose the weaknesses in our own society.

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5 Responses to Guantánamo Bay and Spanish political prisoners: dissent and resistance by Ruth Littlewood

  1. Alun says:

    Really interesting post, Ruth.

    At the end, you mention threats to our ‘personal security’, and suggest that this sense of threat, however vague, is the reason that people were and are incarcerated. But I’m keen to hear how, if at all, the way that Franco’s regime justified its actions differed from the way that the Bush/Obama administrations defended the existence of Guantanamo (and still do)?

    Instinctively it seems that in American political discourse the inhabitants of Guantanamo are generally seen as outsiders, but the 20th century authoritarian regime I study more often focused on the enemy ‘within’. I would have expected fascist Spain to understand dissent in a similar way to the USSR, particularly dissent among women?

  2. Pingback: Guantanamo Bay Prison — The 21st Century Manzanar? | The Universe According To Samuel Cummings

  3. It is my understanding that political prisoners exist in countries where the restriction of free thought is necessary to maintain a desperate grasp on power. Alternative views create a threat to this power. If those in power were as interested in their people as they were power, they would listen instead of silencing these views. They’re not, so they don’t. I would be interested to hear whether you feel the stories of the prisoners from the Spanish Civil War resonate in our society today. I think Murdoch has used some similar techniques over the years!

  4. Ruthie says:

    Thanks for the comments – sorry it has taken me a while to respond! I’d probably start by saying that I don’t think that people were incarcerated as political prisoners in the past or today because whichever state thinks that they pose an actual threat to the average citizen. I was implying more that this is how their imprisonment is portrayed and perpetuated through media controls in order to justify their imprisonment. Obviously, there are some dissident groups that use violence and terror as a means, which makes the whole situation more complex, but the majority of the people who were imprisoned in Spain throughout Franquismo were people who simply held political beliefs that did not conform to the state ideology. As drugsworkertowriter says, it is more about power and control than protecting the individual.

    It is interesting, Alun, that you mention the outsider/insider issue in relation to Guantánamo. Francoist propaganda actually portrayed dissidents as ‘non-Spanish’, describing them as an invading tripartite foreign force compiled of Jews, Marxists and Freemasons. This seems to have been fairly successful as a propaganda campaign, with a lot of the prisoners reporting instances of people in the street accusing them of being devils and looking for their horns and forked tails! This also led to many political prisoners going into exile upon their release, as the felt that they were ‘foreigners in their own countries’. I can’t really comment on the situation in the USSR as I don’t know enough about it but would be interested to hear more!

  5. Alun says:

    I don’t know much about the Soviet Gulag after the 1930s and Stalin’s Great Purge, but one of the interesting things about Soviet penal policy is that in the early years it had some quite rehabilitative aspects. Proletarian crime was more often (albeit briefly) blamed on economic circumstance, not personal weakness. Eventually (inevitably?) this changed and personal responsibility became more important again, and I think criminals became very much alienated from the majority of the population just as you say they were under Franco. Later still the Stalinist state came to rely on older archetypes, such as Jews. But for a while I think there was a sense that the enemy were counterrevolutionaries, Trotskyites etc, and that they were embedded within Soviet society and had to be extracted.

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