Accessibility links

U.K.: ‘Guantanamo Guidebook’ TV Show Stirs Controversy

  • Jeremy Bransten --> A prisoner at the real Guantanamo Bay detention facility (file photo) One of Great Britain's top television channels is preparing to air a "reality-style" show that purports to show the effect of torture on detainees. The "prisoners" in question are all volunteers who agreed to subject themselves to stress techniques allegedly used by U.S. interrogators on terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons. The show's producers says their aim is educational, but others wonder whether broadcasting such programming serves any useful purpose.

Prague, 10 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The world expressed shock last year after seeing pictures showing the torture of prisoners by U.S. personnel in Iraq.

The U.S. military blamed the abuse at the Abu Ghurayb prison on a few rogue individuals, some of whom have already been convicted for their actions. But the scandal raised broader questions about U.S. treatment of terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba and other facilities and whether interrogation techniques officially condoned by the military are, in fact, torture.

Now, a commercial British television channel known for its provocative programming has stepped into the fray. Channel 4 has filmed and is planning to broadcast a show later this month that it claims will let viewers decide for themselves what constitutes torture.

The show, titled "The Guantanamo Guidebook," will be part of a series of programs on human rights. It involves a group of seven volunteers -- all men -- who agreed to be filmed as they were locked up in cages over a period of 48 hours and subjected to a range of punishments and humiliation. Three of the participants are Muslims.

The program, as presented to viewers, will include edited "highlights" and run for one hour. Yad Luthra, a spokesman for the production company that prepared the program, describes what the participants had to endure.

"We certainly do try to include techniques such as stress positions, sleep deprivation, removal of clothing, exposure to extremes of temperature, mild noninjurious physical contact, interrogation, etc.," he said.

Luthra says the techniques used in "The Guantanamo Guidebook" duplicate procedures outlined in declassified U.S. documents and as described by released detainees. Although the exercise lasted only 48 hours and the volunteers knew ahead of time what they would have to endure -- unlike the detainees at Guantanamo Bay -- the results were dramatic, says Luthra.
"If this program helps people to understand how entirely unacceptable in practical, in moral, and in legal terms, the things are that go on at Guantanamo, then I would like to think it could serve a beneficial role." -- Steve Crawshaw, Human Rights Watch

"Obviously, what the volunteers endured was mild in comparison to the treatment of the real Guantanamo detainees," he says. "Yet two of them vomited, another soiled himself, and one had to drop out after only seven hours due to the onset of hypothermia. So, even though they were aware of what was going to be expected of them, until you've actually experienced it -- [until] reality actually hits you -- you don't really know."

Luthra says this is the point that the program seeks to make. He denies any commercial motive. No prizes were awarded and no winners or losers declared on the program.

"The use of torture or information gained through torture has been justified as essential in the war against terror," he says, "and this season of programs, we hope, challenges viewers to watch torture techniques that we know are used in Guantanamo. We're showing photographs of men tortured to death in countries which supply information to the U.S. and Britain, so it's really to raise questions about whether torture is ever justified and does it work and how are the values of Western society undermined by our involvement in torture? So it is not there for titillation, nor is it an exploitative thing. It is really there to raise questions."

No one -- aside from the show's producers -- has seen the finished program, which makes it difficult to judge. But the show's concept is eliciting debate among human rights advocates.

The Danish-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, a highly respected advocacy group that campaigns against the use of torture worldwide, opposes the idea of the program.

As spokesman Paul Struve Nielsen tells RFE/RL, the United Nations Convention Against Torture prohibits all forms of torture, which includes degrading treatment against detainees for any reason at any time. It is a crime whose merits or faults should not be relativized and do not need to be discussed -- especially on a commercial television show.

"There is an absolute prohibition against torture. Torture can never be justified," he says. "It is irresponsible, and it cannot be justified that a TV channel now starts a debate on the justification of such serious violations of human rights."

Steve Crawshaw, director of the London office of Human Rights Watch, holds a different view. His organization was consulted by Channel 4 for other programs in the station's series on human rights.

Crawshaw has not seen "The Guantanamo Guidebook," but says that if the show's aim is educational, as its producers claim, it could have a positive impact.

"If this program helps people to understand how entirely unacceptable in practical, in moral, and in legal terms, the things are that go on at Guantanamo, then I would like to think it could serve a beneficial role," Crawshaw says.

He says U.S. denials that it sanctions practices that amount to psychological and physical torture at Guantanamo are not convincing in the face of testimony from former detainees and the refusal by Washington to open the camp to inspections by human rights organizations and lawyers. The Red Cross has made visits to Guantanamo but does not publicize its findings, in line with its official policies.

Crawshaw says the public in the United States, Britain, and some other European countries has a tendency to downplay what is going on at Guantanamo when what they are in fact doing is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. If the show changes their opinion, all the better, he says.

"I think there is still a very serious problem -- certainly in the United States but also elsewhere, of people downplaying the kinds of things that are going on, saying: 'Well, you know, lots of people can be kept alone for long periods. I'd like some time to myself,'" Crawshaw says. "People use quite frivolous ways of treating things or fail to understand the importance, for example, of the disrespect made to a religious book and don't see this as degrading treatment -- which would be illegal. I think if a program can give the sense of how important this can be, then it will play an important role. But I must frame this with the caveat that I assume -- I take on good faith -- that the medical protection was put in there by Channel 4 to make sure that the participants did not suffer long-term damage."

Luthra says that before their ordeal, some of the volunteers on the program supported what they thought was taking place at Guantanamo.

"[Among] the volunteers, there were people who were supportive of what they knew or what they thought was going on in Guantanamo Bay," he says.

They soon changed their minds, Luthra says. "The Guantanamo Guidebook" is due to air later this month or in March.