The uniform is typically reserved for the detention center’s more defiant detainees. But Aamer, 43, wanted to show guards and inmates alike that, as the prison’s last British detainee, he plans to fight his way out of the Cuba facility and meet his son for the first time.
Joint Task Force guards refused his request. Instead, he wore a solid white uniform. But on Tuesday evening, Aamer’s lawyers and human rights activists held a panel discussion at The New School, insisting Aamer’s conditions are anything but pristine.
“I want to remind you that this place still exists,” said Ramzi Kassem, one of Aamer’s attorneys. “And it is still the same.”
The discussion was held in collaboration with the Eugene Lang College history department, The New School for Public Engagement, and Amnesty International. Other panelists included Colonel Morris Davis, the Guantanamo military commission’s former chief prosecutor who resigned in opposition to the tribunal’s policies; Jeremy Varon, chair of the Lang history department; and Andy Worthington, author of the 2007 book, The Guantanamo Files.
Just before the allied invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001, the Saudi-born Aamer lived with his family – his wife, Zin, and their three children, with a fourth child on the way – in Kabul, where he taught Arabic to expatriates. When military forces bombed the city, his school was destroyed, and he was forced to flee. Two months later, American forces captured Aamer and helped him under suspicion that he associated with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida operatives.
Since Aamer arrived at Guantanamo Bay on February 14, 2002, 779 accused terrorists – 16 with British citizenship – have been detained inside the facility. He is now one of a remaining 169 inmates. The rest have either been released, convicted, or have died in incarceration. Aamer claims that he has lost over 40 percent of his body weight and that his hair has become thin and gray, due to abuse, solitary confinement, uncleanliness, and a diet of “thick, heavy, oddly non-circular-shaped falafel.”
“I take water and shower from the same place I take shit,” Aamer wrote in a letter to his attorneys.
Other letters from Aamer claim that guards shake the locks of inmate cells during the night, while spraying highly potent quantities of pine oil detergent into the air.
“Because of the conditions of his confinement, because of the way riot squads forcefully extract him from cell, because he is deeply involved in protesting, Shaker fears death,” Kassem added.
In late February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague met with Aamer’s family and attorneys, urging the United States government to release him and ultimately close down the facility.
“The U.K. believes that indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay is wrong,” said Hague after the meeting. “And we will continue to call for it to be closed and for Mr. Aamer to be released to his family.”
Aamer has been cleared for release twice, first under President Bush in 2007, and again in 2009 under President Obama. The Obama Administration ended the Guantanamo Bay court system that same year, hoping to reduce the use of hearsay and to delegitimize evidence extracted under torture. Aamer’s future at the prison is currently under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s jurisdiction. Panetta must certify that Britain is a safe place for him to return. But amidst continued conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, those at the panel discussion doubt that the American government is placing Aamer’s welfare on its list of priorities.
“We used to hold ourselves out as the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Colonel Davis said at the discussion. “For the past decade, we have been the constrained and the cowardly.”
Panelists argued that with the passage of time, Americans are gradually accepting Guantanamo’s presence as part of the status quo. Many college students, Varon said, have spent more than half their lives under Guantanamo Bay’s existence.
“It’s interesting how this hasn’t captured the imagination of young people,” Varon said. “There is a tremendous potential to make this a passionate and devout discussion for what justice should be.”
Now into his eleventh year at Guantanamo Bay, Aamer has sat across the table from more than 200 interrogators; all of whom, he has said in letters, appear convinced that he is a terrorist. If the prison guards kill him, he has added, they will publicly report it as a suicide. But his letters, handwritten despite arthritis, signify a determination to leave the detention center one day. And although Aamer gave his wife permission to divorce him, she refuses to do so. She would rather continue waiting for him in London, she has said.
“My sweetheart, yes, I lost a lot of weight,” Aamer wrote in one of the letters. “Yes, I have a lot of sickness. Yes, I got old. But I love to tell you my heart is still young, my mind is still strong, stronger than ever.”