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HOW SHE SEES IT Detentions resemble apartheid


Published: Thu, March 23, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.


By GILLIAN SLOVO
LOS ANGELES TIMES
In 1963, the South African police turned up at our Johannesburg home. This wasn't, in itself, unusual. My parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, were prominent anti-apartheid activists, and police raids aimed at catching them breaking any one of the government's multitude of racist prohibitions had long been part of our family life.
By 1963, however, things had turned more serious. That year -- when I was 11 -- the apartheid government decided to stop the opposition with detention and force. Nelson Mandela was already in jail, as were many leaders of the African National Congress. And now the police had come to arrest my mother. She asked what the charge was. No charge, they said: 90 days.
Section 17 of South Africa's General Law Amendment Act, the notorious 90-day law, allowed the police to detain any person suspected of a political crime and to hold them for 90 days without access to lawyers. Prisoners could be released after 90 days and immediately rearrested. In the words of then-Minister of Justice John Vorster (later South African prime minister), they could thus be held until "this side of eternity."
My mother was kept in solitary confinement for 117 days after which she was released without charge. We left to make our home in London, where my mother lived until eventually taking a university job in Maputo, Mozambique. She continued to work against apartheid.
Fast forward to Guantanamo
Many years later, I embarked, with Victoria Brittain, on a series of interviews that were to be the building blocks of a documentary play, "Guantanamo." We traveled through Britain to interview families whose relatives were being held in detention by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
We would sit, in ordinary people's houses, hearing about that first knock on the door. In these cases it wasn't the South African police but British authorities who had come to tell them their sons or brothers had been picked up in a foreign country and flown to an offshore prison thousands more miles away. And there they could be left. Without, initially, access to any lawyers and without charge. Until this side of eternity.
South Africa's policy of detention without charge had been roundly condemned, and yet here was a democracy, the United States, justifying a similar set of actions in Guantanamo -- all in the name of safeguarding democracy.
The prisoners, according to the U.S. government, were the worst of the worst -- captured on the battlefield. But how then to explain the story of British residents Bisher Rawi and Jamil Banna, who were in Gambia on business when they were arrested by the Gambians and flown first to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo, where they are still incarcerated?
Or the strange tale of Jamil Harith, who was imprisoned in Afghanistan by the Taliban on suspicion of being a British spy and then, after being released when the Taliban fled, was taken by the Americans to Guantanamo, where he was held for two years? Or Moazzam Begg (released after three years), who was kidnapped by a team of Americans and Pakistanis from the place he was staying in Pakistan with his wife and three children?
Detention on suspicion
Here, writ large, was the old South African practice: detention on suspicion, and for as long as the authorities require. When South Africa did this, and when people were held in solitary, as my mother was, the world accused the apartheid regime of using psychological torture. And yet now, even though an 18-month U.N. investigation has said that torture is being used in Guantanamo, the denials of the American government are long and loud.
And of course, solitary confinement is not employed. Or is it? The Guantanamo rule is that solitary can last no longer than 30 days. But the South African trick seems to have been well learned. After 30 days, prisoners can be released into the presence of other prisoners and then immediately returned to solitary. British resident Ahmed Errachidi has the dubious honor of a record of 21/2 years almost exclusively in solitary.
In Guantanamo, there are people from all over the world. Some may indeed be people who have violated international laws, who might indeed be terrorists. But others may not. These people have not been charged, let alone tried.
The repression in South Africa continued for a long time. In 1982, my mother, living in Mozambique, was killed by a letter bomb sent to her by the South African police.But eventually, the government's unjust practices backfired and even helped accelerate apartheid's downfall.
If Muslims see that a belief in Islam can lead a person into what the British jurist Lord Steyn has called the "utter lawlessness of Guantanamo," then democracy will have lost the argument.
X Slovo's latest novel, "Ice Road," is published by Norton. She is also the author, with Victoria Brittain, of the documentary play "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom."


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