Les Misérables, the world’s longest-running musical, is set 200 years ago, in 1815. The story follows the life of a convict / ex-convict, Jean Valjean, who is beleaguered by guilt related to past mistakes made at the time out of desperation, unknowingly, or with good intention. His initial sentence of five years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, extended by 14 years when he tries to escape, affects his life irreversibly.
While Les Mis is a work of fiction set in 19th century France, it is based on the real-life experiences and readings of its author, Victor Hugo, who lived through the time in which the story took place. Watching the musical, or the recent film adaptation, one is compelled to feel relieved and thankful that the world is no longer so unforgiving. Unfortunately, however, one is incorrect to do so. The excesses of criminal (in)justice in 19th-century France continue today in the Western world.
Shaker Aamer, a permanent British resident married to a British national with four British children, has long been cleared for release from the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, having received clearance both from the Bush and the Obama administrations. Whilst working for an Islamic charity in Afghanistan in 2001, he was arrested and then handed to the US and tortured relentlessly until he confessed to anything and everything the interrogators and their masters alleged. The severe abuse to which he was subjected, combined with prolonged sleep deprivation, would delude any human being to the point where they would become completely separated from reality. Despite this, he was charged and imprisoned without trial at Guantánamo.
Although he has been cleared for release, Aamer remains at the Camp Delta detention facility at Guantánamo. In a recent article, written a full 12 years since his initial detention, he notes that he and other detainees are referred to as “packages” as part of an effort to dehumanise them when they are transported. This is an extension to standard Western military dehumanisation tactics (i.e. referring to the “neutralisation” or “destruction” of “targets” or “enemies” rather than the “killing of people”).
In Les Mis, Jean Valjean declares himself to have a name. This is fundamental to his own belief that he is a human being of equal worth to other human beings; it is also his symbol of freedom. Javert, a police officer who embodies the French justice system of the time, counterposes an alternative identity for Valjean, who he refers to only as “24601”, the prisoner’s identification number. This number, used by Javert to address Valjean even when the latter has been away from prison for some time, represents the unforgiving quality of the system and the never-ending dehumanisation of all convicts, regardless of their personal circumstances or human qualities. In Guantánamo, a number is all that identifies one “package” from another.
In Aamer’s aforementioned recent article published by The Guardian, he explains to his lawyers at human rights charity Reprieve the extent of the dehumanisation to which he, like the fictional Valjean of two centuries ago, has been subjected:
“It is not enough that we are called packages. At best, we are numbers. I worry that when I come home that my children will call for “Daddy”, and I will sit unmoving. I am 239. I even refer to myself as 239 these days. I am not sure when I will ever be anything else. It is much easier to deny human rights to those who are not deemed to be ‘human'”.
The number 239 has come to define Aamer, as 24601 did Valjean. Aamer, however, needn’t live for the rest of his days as 239. The British government can put a stop to this if it only recognises that it is dealing with an innocent British resident with a British family, rather than a number. Currently the UK government says that Aamer has only been cleared for release to the country in which he was born (Saudi Arabia), but nowhere in his clearance documents is there any mention that he is to be transferred to any specific country. The onus is on the British government to cease its support for such a draconian system that cannot reasonably even be referred to as one of criminal justice.
While audiences cheer daily performances of this historical quasi-fictitious misery, the latter is actually the lived experience of the detainees at Guantánamo (155 as of December 2013) including Aamer. That the British government can tacitly support such treatment of any human being, let alone a British resident, husband to a British wife and father to British children, is truly bewildering. The onus is on individual members of the British public who do not accept the legitimacy of torture to reject this inaction and call for Aamer and his fellow detainees to be accepted as human beings with human rights and released from the most famous of the West’s current Gulags.