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Afghanistan: 'Road To Guantanamo' Tipped To Win Berlin Film Festival

Scene from the movie "The Road To Guantanamo" (Courtesy Photo) A sometimes-harrowing film about the Guantanamo Bay detention center garners plaudits just as a UN report puts a critical spotlight on the detention of terror suspects by the United States.

PRAGUE, 17 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A film telling how three British Muslims ended up in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay is considered a favorite to take the top prize at this week's Berlin International Film Festival, the Golden Bear, when the award is announced on 18 February.

The film, "The Road to Guantanamo," tells how three young Muslim men left their home town of Tipton, England in 2001 for a wedding in Afghanistan -- and ended up as terrorist suspects in the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The film blends interviews and real news footage from 2001 with staged interviews and reenactments set in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay.

Known in Britain as the "Tipton Three," the men were held at Guantanamo for two years without charge before pressure from the British government led to their release in 2004. The three have never been declared "innocent" and they are now suing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over their incarceration. They accuse the U.S. military of using torture and violating international law by keeping them imprisoned for more than two years without trial.

Journalists who attended the film's world premiere in Berlin on 14 February note that it tells the story of the Tipton Three -- Shafiq Rasul, Rhuhel Ahmed, and Asif Iqbal -- without attempting to verify any of their claims.

Many Americans are likely to be disturbed by the film's graphic depictions of beatings, solitary confinement, and torture allegedly inflicted by U.S. interrogators.

British director Michael Winterbottom says those particular scenes from Guantanamo were shot on a film set in the Iranian capital Tehran.

Winterbottom is unapologetic about his cinematic technique.

And asked how he thinks the U.S. government will respond to his film, he said "I don't know. And I don't really care, to be honest."

"I don't think the film is anti-American in a general sense," Winterbottom continues. "I'm sure there are a lot of people in America who are opposed to Guantanamo -- as there are in Britain. We're not trying to say that the Americans are bad, British are good, Pakistanis are good, or Afghans are good. What we are saying is that what is happening in Guantanamo -- just the fact of Guantanamo's existence -- is shocking. And it shouldn't be there."

The UN And Washington Clash

The film's premiere comes amid calls by the European Union and the United Nations for the United States to immediately close the facility.

In a report issued on 16 February, five independent experts acting as monitors for the UN Human Rights Commission urged Washington to close Guantanamo "without further delay."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan underlined that message on 16 February, saying that, regardless of whether the allegations of torture at Guantanamo are true, the prison should be closed.

Annan called for "charges have to be brought against [detainees]," for them to "be given a chance to explain themselves" and to be "charged or released," which, he said, is "something that is common under any legal system."

But Washington has rejected those calls, insisting that conditions at Guantanamo are both humane and consistent with the Geneva Conventions, the international agreement that sets out the rights of prisoners of war.

U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly denied that detainees are tortured at Guantanamo. He argues that the facility is important in the war against terrorism.

A 'Perverse System'?

A scene from the movie (courtesy photo)

"Winterbottom says he wanted his film to show that some Guantanamo detainees are innocent people who have been denied the basic right to a fair trial and to remind cinema-goers that "people who are there are just normal people like all of us and they've been caught up in this incredible, perverse system."

"The trouble is that after a period of a few years, we've all got used to the idea that Guantanamo exists," the director says. "There are 500 people still kept at Guantanamo. And the idea of the film is, at least for that 90 minutes you're watching it, you remember that it is there."

Winterbottom also defends the way he and co-director Matt Whitecross blended archival news footage with interviews and with reenactments of events in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

"We just wanted to find the best and simplest way of telling the story of Rhuhel and Shafiq and Asif," Winterbottom says. He and Whitecross decided early on the three should be in the film as real people. "But at the same time, we wanted somehow to try and find a way of imagining what that journey must have been like -- and from their point of view."

Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, who both attended the Berlin festival, say they were trapped in Afghanistan by the chaos that followed the launch of U.S. air strikes in the autumn of 2001. They say they tried to flee to northern Afghanistan but were mistaken as Taliban and arrested by the militia of Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Film-goers say Winterbottom's reenactments of events in Afghanistan -- including alleged abuses of detainees by General Dostum's militia -- are among the film's most harrowing scenes.

Rasul, who was at the Berlin festival, says the three "had it rough, but we didn't have it as bad as others, for example the Arabs…[b]ecause we could speak English and communicate with other people."

Any Arab was, he says, considered "a member of Al-Qaeda no matter what -- no matter where you were arrested, what happened, what your situation was."

Ahmed doubts the film will influence governments. "I think it's at the stage where [the U.S. and British governments] can't really say these people are innocent or guilty. They have to keep claiming they are guilty. But the point is influencing public opinion rather than any government out there."

Whether the film will find U.S. distributors is uncertain, Winterbottom says. However, with the film available on the Internet, Americans will have a chance to view the movie even if major U.S. distributors decide it is too controversial for them to handle.

In Europe, the film appears certain to rouse debate in the weeks ahead. In Britain itself, the film will be aired on television, with the broadcast scheduled for March.