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.