07 July 2008

Memories of Meltdown


For twelve days, from 13 to 24 June, Reprieve enjoyed the opportunities provided by a unique collaboration – as the charity partners of Massive Attack, curators of this year’s Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank Centre – to publicize our work to a brand-new audience.

On the opening night, Friday 13 June, Massive Attack and the Southbank Centre invited us to attend the official opening of Meltdown. As the light began to dim, and we enjoyed a drink on the roof terrace of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the whole east wall of the Royal Festival Hall lit up with an extraordinary map of the world, on which planes shifted from continent to continent and country to country, tracing the routes and destinations involved in the “extraordinary rendition” of prisoners seized by the United States in its “War on Terror” from one secret prison to another.

The installation, which included text prepared by Reprieve, was produced by UVA (United Visual Artists), Massive Attack’s designers. 3D (Robert del Naja) of Massive Attack explained, “A lot of what UVA do with the buildings and during the gigs at Meltdown is about freedom, fairness and understanding individual human rights, which is what Reprieve are about.”

To Reprieve’s great delight, the installation was in place throughout the whole of Meltdown, as were artworks on the pillars inside the Royal Festival Hall, designed by Stanley Donwood (best known for his work with Radiohead), who produced eerie wallpaper decorated with chains and adorned with the registration numbers of planes used by the CIA in its “extraordinary rendition” programme.

Throughout the week, Reprieve’s staff and volunteers maintained a heroic presence at the Southbank Centre, informing those turning up for gigs as varied as Grace Jones, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Elbow about Reprieve’s work, handing out thousands of leaflets, and signing up new supporters.

The other highlights of the week, from Reprieve’s point of view, were Clive Stafford Smith introducing Massive Attack’s show on Saturday 14 June, and three excellent events in the Purcell Room.

Clearly fulfilling a long-cherished rock star fantasy, Clive strode onto the stage of the Royal Festival Hall before Massive Attack’s show, thanked them for their extraordinary generosity, and regaled the crowd with tales of Reprieve’s work and our initiative to “Pull the Plug on Torture Music”, in which we are encouraging artists to sign up to prevent the use of their music as part of the US military’s torture techniques, to insert a clause in their contracts preventing the misuse of their music, and, in general, to raise awareness of the issue by spreading the word and playing anti-torture gigs.

Highlights of the show were many, but Reprieve was, again, delighted that UVA’s rendition map made another appearance, as part of the backdrop to the set – and that it will be used throughout Massive Attack’s world tour – and was also encouraged that, when the words of Binyam Mohamed flashed up on the screen, the crowd was noticeably moved. A British resident and Reprieve client, who is still held in Guantánamo, Binyam was tortured by or on behalf of the US in Morocco and in a secret CIA-run prison in Afghanistan for two years, and is currently facing a trial by military commission, a post-9/11 invention that has been condemned by Lord Steyn, a retired British law lord, as a “kangaroo court.”

The first of Reprieve’s three events in the Purcell Room, on Saturday 14 June, was a screening of Fourteen Days in May, the award-winning documentary by Paul Hamann, Reprieve’s Chairman, which follows the last days in the life of death row prisoner Edward Earl Johnson. After the screening, Paul Hamann, Clive Stafford Smith, and Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, engaged the audience about the ongoing iniquities of death row and the death penalty.

On Sunday 15 June, there was a special screening of the Academy Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, which covers the US administration’s post-9/11 flight from the law by focusing on the murder by US forces of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver, in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Following the screening, Clive Stafford Smith and former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg took questions from a lively audience, entertaining the audience with their easy relationship, which, as Moazzam noted, dated back to their first meetings in Guantánamo.

The final event, on Sunday 21 June, was a performance of Rendition Monologues, a hard-hitting new play by theatre company iceandfire, which is based on the testimony of prisoners – some released, and some still imprisoned (including Binyam Mohamed) – who have been subjected to the horrors of rendition, illegal imprisonment and torture. The performance was followed by a discussion with Zachary Katznelson and Chloe Davies of Reprieve, who discussed Reprieve’s ongoing research into renditions and secret prisons, and former Guantánamo prisoner Bisher al-Rawi, who spoke eloquently – and with admirable humour – about the rendition programme in which he himself was an innocent victim.

Thanks again to all who made the whole of Meltdown such a memorable experience: in particular, of course, Massive Attack, UVA and the Southbank Centre, but also Revolver Films (the distributors of Taxi to the Dark Side), and iceandfire theatre company. Your support is an inspiration.

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