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10 years in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer, cleared for release but still held

Written by Andy Worthington Wednesday, 15 February 2012
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Exactly ten years ago today, on February 14, 2002, Shaker Aamer, a British resident, and originally one of 16 British prisoners in Guantánamo, arrived in Camp X-Ray, the rudimentary prison in the grounds of the US naval base in Cuba's easternmost bay, which was used to hold prisoners until the first blocks of a more permanent facility, Camp Delta, opened for business in May 2002. On the same day, his fourth child, a son, was born.

A hugely charismatic figure, Aamer, born in Saudi Arabia in 1968, had moved to London in 1996, and had worked as an Arabic translator for a firm of solicitors working on immigration cases. He met and married a British woman and was granted residency. In June 2001, he took his family to Kabul -- as did his friend Moazzam Begg -- to volunteer for an Islamic charity. As his British solicitor Gareth Peirce noted in the Guardian yesterday, "Their work was teaching the sons and daughters of Arabic-speaking expatriates in the capital," but after 9/11 and the U.S.-led invasion, "the school was flattened in the first days of the bombing."

Shaker made sure his pregnant wife and their three young children were safe, but was seized by Afghan bounty hunters, at a time when bounty payments of $5,000 a head were widespread. He was then sold on to other bounty hunters on two occasions, and on the third occasion was bought by Northern Alliance soldiers, who eventually handed him over -- or sold him -- to U.S. forces.

In U.S. custody in the prison at Kandahar airport, he apparently called almost immediately for hunger strikes to protest about the abusive treatment to which the prisoners were subjected, and he also claimed that he was subjected to serious abuse by U.S. forces, but also in the presence of a British intelligence officer, after he was transferred to the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase. This was not revealed until December 2009, in a court case in the U.K., when a judge granted his lawyers access to information in the British government's possession that dealt with his claims.

On August 19, 2002, in one of several heavily censored letters that have only just been made publicly available, and which, according to the Independent, contained "scrawled drawings to entertain his children," Shaker wrote to his wife, "I just became 41... but physically I'm 50. I got arthritis, kidney problems, hearing problems, eye problems, my hair has fallen out, my heart is aching."

As the regime in Guantánamo became tougher, under the watch of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was in charge as the prisoners' treatment was made entirely dependant on their perceived cooperation with the interrogators, and a torture program was introduced via defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Shaker continued to stand up for his fellow prisoners, to liaise between them and the authorities, and to translate documents for them, and he was regarded as a significant presence within the prison.

On March 9, 2005, in another letter to his wife, he showed, nevertheless, that he could not manage alone, and that the support of his wife remained hugely significant, even though he was separated from her. He wrote, "You are the soul of my life. You are the best of my heart. You are the light of my eyes. You are the oxygen in my lungs, you are the sun on my back, the sweetest taste of my mouth, you are everything, you are everything I need to live, to love, to be ... Do you know how much you are important for my life. If you break I will break, if you become weak I will become weak and if you go I will go. You are my soul twin. I need you to be strong."

That summer, as a widespread hunger strike broke out throughout the prison, Shaker helped to bring it under control, and, with a handful of other prisoners, was part of a Prisoners' Council involved in negotiations to secure better rights for the prisoners. However, when the authorities suddenly soured on the Council, which was disbanded, Shaker was thrown into solitary confinement, where the remained for at least a year and a half.

During that period, in June 2006, he claimed he was beaten for hours and asphyxiated during an interrogation on the same day that three other Guantánamo inmates died. The official story regarding these three men was that they committed suicide, but a number of soldiers who were present on the night in question cast doubt on the official account in an article published in Harper's Magazine in January 2010, which was also the first time that Shaker's account of that night came to light.

In June 2007, Shaker was told that he was cleared for release, because the Bush administration acknowledged that it had no evidence against him, but he was not freed. The Bush administration wanted him to be released in Saudi Arabia, where he would not be allowed to speak openly about his experiences. Gareth Peirce noted yesterday, "As is clear from an internal ministerial memo written in 2007, the U.K. government was actively assisting the U.S. to achieve Aamer's permanent removal to detention in Saudi Arabia." She also wrote of the U.S. government's "continuing private belief that this is achievable."

In August 2007, the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, marking a break with his predecessor Tony Blair, officially called for the return of the five remaining British residents at the time, but although three were freed in December 2007, Shaker and another man, Binyam Mohamed, who was subjected to extraordinary rendition and torture, continued to be held.

Gareth Peirce noted that, throughout this period, ministerial memos "betrayed a passing concern" that Shaker, like other prisoners, "might launch litigation in the U.K.," which, along with public pressure, led to their release. However, Shaker "had no lawyers throughout the key years to bring out news of his treatment -- savage attacks by U.S. guards, brutal force-feeding to break his hunger strikes, and years of isolation in punishment for protest." As a result, she noted, "after 2007, Britain, shamefully, felt able to 'close its file'" on him.

On August 9, 2008, however, Shaker was still unbowed and unbroken. In another letter to his wife, he wrote, "My sweetheart, yes I lost a lot of weight, yes I have a lot of sickness, yes I got short sight, yes my bones are aching, yes I got white hair, yes I got old but I love to tell you my heart is still young, my mind still strong, stronger than ever."

Around the same time, Binyam Mohamed's lawyers secured a legal review of his particular case, in which the judges ruled that the British government had been mixed up in "wrongdoing," when they fed intelligence about him to their U.S. counterparts without apparently knowing where he was being held. Foreign secretary David Miliband fought a running battle with the judges to prevent the release of what he regarded as sensitive information shared by U.S. intelligence with their British counterparts, but in February 2009, in an attempt to shut the story down, Binyam Mohamed was released, leaving Shaker as the only remaining British resident in Guantánamo.

After that, his lawyers secured the U.K. court victory mentioned above, relating to his abuse in Afghanistan while a British agent was present in the room, which released important documentation to help him in the U.S., where President Obama had convened an interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force to review the cases of all the prisoners, to decide whether they should be released, held indefinitely, or charged.

As a result, Shaker was cleared for release, although this was not known publicly until December 1, 2011, when four British MPs -- Jeremy Corbyn, John Leech, Caroline Lucas and Michael Meacher -- wrote an open letter to Congress seeking Shaker's return to the U.K., and mentioned in that letter that he was “cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo” as a result of the Task Force's review and was notified by way of a document that also informed him, “The U.S. government intends to transfer you as soon as possible.”

Shaker, therefore, is one of 89 of the remaining prisoners cleared for release (in other words, over half of the remaining 171 prisoners). However, most of these 89 men have not been freed for one of three reasons: because Congress imposed onerous restrictions on releasing prisoners, refusing to allow any prisoner to be released to a country where lawmakers have doubts about the ability of that country to monitor them adequately, or where there is a single alleged case of recidivism; because they face torture if repatriated, and are awaiting new homes; or because they are Yemenis, whose release has been prevented by both President Obama and Congress, following hysteria about the security situation in Yemen after it was revealed that a would-be Christmas 2009 plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, had been recruited in Yemen.

For Shaker, none of the above should matter, as the U.K. is not remotely dubious from a security perspective. Moreover, in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, as Tom Wilner has written about here, the Congressional obstructions mentioned above are offset by a provision allowing the administration to issue a waiver, bypassing Congress.

And yet, despite this, Shaker is still held, which is a thorough disgrace. While his ongoing detention without any sound reason has continued, the British government was replaced in a General Election in May 2010, although the policy regarding Shaker has evidently not changed at all. Encouraging noises are made in public, but Shaker remains imprisoned in Guantánamo.

Shortly after taking office, the new Conservative-led coalition government reached a financial settlement with 15 former prisoners -- and also, apparently, with Shaker -- to bring to an end a damaging civil claim for damages filed by some of the former prisoners which was leading to the public disclosure of enormously embarrassing information about how senior Labour ministers -- including Prime Minister Tony Blair, foreign secretary Jack Straw and Home secretary David Blunkett -- had supported Guantánamo and the Bush administration's "war on terror."

As Gareth Peirce explained yesterday, on January 10, 2002, "Jack Straw was urging in emails to colleagues the transfer of U.K. detainees to unlawful imprisonment in Guantánamo as the 'best way to meet our counter-terrorism objective,' rejecting 'the only alternative of repatriation to the United Kingdom,'" and on January 14, 2002 "a Cabinet Office note records that no objections 'in principle' had been raised to transfers to Guantánamo." In February, at the time of Shaker's transfer, another note records David Blunkett's opinion: "The longer they stay in Cuba/Afghanistan the better." Soon after, Tony Blair intervened to prevent another British prisoner, Martin Mubanga, from receiving consular assistance after he was seized in Zambia.

While the financial settlements were being arranged, all the former prisoners surprised the new government by explaining how their most fervent wish was for Shaker's return. Promises were made that ministers would do all in their power to secure his return, but still nothing happened, leading commentators to conclude that either the U.S., or the U.K., or both countries, were putting off his release for as long as possible to avoid having to deal with what Shaker knows, and his probable desire to talk about it.

Whatever the exact excuse, Shaker has remained held despite the reasons piling up to further justify his return -- an inquiry set up by David Cameron in July 2010 to investigate British complicity in torture abroad (for which Shaker would have been an essential witness), the financial settlement that cannot be concluded while Shaker remains in Guantánamo, and the Metropolitan Police investigation into his abuse claims, which was opened in February 2010, and which, for some time now, has involved suggestions that Met officers will have to travel to Guantánamo to interview him.

The torture inquiry has now been dropped, after it was criticized as a whitewash by NGOs and lawyers, but Shaker's perspective remains of crucial importance. Instead, however, he continues to be held in isolation at Guantánamo, in a block known as "Five Echo," whose existence was only reported in December, although he managed to play a part in establishing a peaceful three-day protest and hunger strike last month, to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, and to show solidarity with the Americans campaigning to close the prison.

However, in November, one of his attorneys, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, returned from his first visit for many years, and reported that Shaker was suffering from a huge list of physical ailments. In a letter to the British foreign secretary William Hague, urging an independent medical assessment, he wrote, "I do not think it is stretching matters to say that he is gradually dying in Guantánamo Bay."

In notes from that November visit which were only unclassified by the Pentagon in the last few days, Clive Stafford Smith has only now been able to report that Shaker's most recent period of isolation began on July 15, 2011. "It is not for doing anything wrong," Stafford Smith explained, "merely asserting the human rights of his fellow prisoners."

As Shaker stated, “There is meant to be a 30-day maximum on isolation as a punishment. So it’s not called isolation any more, it’s called ‘separation.’” Stafford Smith added, "He is in a cell with no view to the outside, just a one meter by 30 centimetres of opaque glass, and no real toilet, just a hole in the ground."

Significantly, Shaker reported that he has been reading (and re-reading) Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and that it "has made a big impact on him." He told Stafford Smith, “You must read this book because you need to understand what is happening here in Guantánamo. Torture is for torture, the system is for the system." He added, "Please torture me the old way. Here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks.”

Shaker also explained that he "does not expect President Obama to do anything better than his predecessor, President Bush. Presidents are, he thinks, hemmed in by the powers that surround them." In his own words, “The White House is a straitjacket. You just wear it.”

Another of Shaker's lawyers, Cori Crider, Reprieve's legal director, who visited him in Guantánamo just last week, had the last word for now on the man whose ongoing detention remains unexplained and unjustifiable. "Shaker has dropped to perhaps 150lb [68kg]," she said. "His face bears the marks of suffering, and while he has a nigh-irrepressible spirit, the authorities seem determined to grind him down to nothing."

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