Are we leaving a Londoner to die in Guantanamo?

Imprisoned for nearly thirteen years and twice cleared for release, Shaker Aamer is still waiting to return home.

Harry Blain
12 December 2014
Shaker Aamer protest

Protests continue against Aamer's detention. Flickr/Justin Norman. Some rights reserved.

In order to be released from Guantanamo Bay, a prisoner requires unanimous clearance from the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Defence, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 70 of Guantanamo’s remaining 142 detainees underwent this rigorous review process, and were cleared for release by the Obama administration five years ago. One of these men is the only British resident still held in America’s gulag: Shaker Aamer.

“We are tired,” he yelled from his cell last year, “either you leave us to die in peace – or either tell the world the truth. Open up the place. Let the world come and visit. Let the world hear what’s happening.” Aamer is not only “tired” but also extremely ill. After being kept “in an open-air cage at Camp X-Ray” – where he “was exposed to sun, weather, insects and other pests” – and being subjected to coercive interrogations, he suffers from psychiatric trauma, depression, hallucinations, paranoia, worsening vision, chronic constipation and kidney pains. Now, we are not asking why he is still locked up or when he will be released, but whether the British government will let him die in Guantanamo.

“It is a matter for the United States authorities”

On November 24 – the thirteenth anniversary of Aamer’s capture by one of the many US-funded bounty hunter groups in Afghanistan – the investigative journalist Andy Worthington launched the “We Stand with Shaker” campaign. As we now know, despite claims that Guantanamo inmates were “the worst of the worst,” many were, like Aamer, simply swept up in mass battlefield raids, often by Afghan warlords. Yaser Hamdi’s experience embodied this arbitrary and chaotic process – after he was captured and thrown in Guantanamo, the authorities later learned that he was a US citizen born in Louisiana. He was eventually released without charge.

Aamer entered Guantanamo Bay on the same day that his youngest child was born: February 14, 2002. After his initial capture, he was handed over to American forces at Bagram Air Base, where he was allegedly beaten and exposed to the interrogation techniques that British forces deployed on Irish republican prisoners, such as sleep deprivation and prolonged hooding. In Guantanamo, he has led hunger strikes and campaigned for the rights of prisoners. “He was born to be a leader,” a former inmate said, while the former prison warden, Mike Bumgarner, likened his presence to that of “a rock star.” Aamer is an agitator and an activist who has fought for the application of the Geneva Conventions to himself and his fellow inmates, while courageously conveying images of the prison to the outside world.

Why, after being cleared for release not only by Barack Obama but also George Bush, is this man still behind bars? Since 2007, Conservative and Labour governments in Britain have repeatedly called for Aamer’s release. But they have done so in typically supine language. Alistair Burt, then under-secretary of state for the foreign office, provided a list of empty platitudes when asked about Aamer’s case in 2011: “we continue to make what representations we can,” “conversations do indeed take place,” “the foreign secretary raised the matter directly,” but “we can’t go into the details of the conversation,” as “it is a matter for the United States authorities.” For a legal British resident held without charge or trial for nearly thirteen years, with a wife and four children still living in London, “conversations” and “representations” are disgracefully inadequate. It is unsurprising, with this pattern of hopes being raised and shattered, that Aamer’s physical and psychological state has deteriorated.

Incompetence and collusion

The British government has, in the past, successfully lobbied for the release of its citizens from Guantanamo. Moazzam Begg, for instance, was, after three years, finally freed and awarded financial compensation. Begg, however, constitutes a similar threat to Aamer: he is charismatic, critical and unafraid of challenging his government and its security apparatus. Seeing his experience in the broader context of the “war on terror,” he has not only consistently advocated for and defended other victims of prolonged detention and mistreatment, but also highlighted British collusion with regimes such as Assad’s Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya in intelligence sharing and “extraordinary rendition” (the jargon for transferring someone to a country where they will be tortured).

Thankfully, in exposing the abuses of British security agencies, Begg has not received the same treatment as Pat Finucane, the Belfast solicitor and human rights advocate whose murder was facilitated by an army intelligence unit and carried out by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. But he has been routinely harassed, especially after recently travelling to Syria – an act which now apparently makes you a terrorist until proven innocent. In March this year, Begg was arrested on seven Syria-related charges, and kept in Belmarsh prison until his release in October. Remarkably, the case collapsed because “MI5 belatedly gave police and prosecutors a series of documents” detailing the agency’s approval of his trip and their contact with Begg afterwards. This former Guantanamo detainee spent seven months in prison and had his bank accounts frozen before MI5 chose to bring this information to the attention of the Crown Prosecution Service. Conspiracy or gross incompetence?  Perhaps both.

“Their liberties, our security”

A powerful campaign and protest movement played a key role in freeing Moazzam Begg first from Guantanamo and then Belmarsh. It is, therefore, vital to now support Shaker Aamer and the goals of rights movements such as the London Guantanamo Campaign. If Aamer is released, he still faces the prospect of being returned not to his family in Britain, but instead to his birthplace, Saudi Arabia, so our friends in the Gulf can keep him quiet. Without popular action, he will not be brought home.

Often, though, the public and the media remain silent on these cases, appearing indifferent or dismissive. The majority of us are not directly affected by arbitrary arrest and detention, so why should we care? Abuses or “mistakes” (as officials prefer to call them) unquestionably occur, but this is inevitable and, perhaps, a price worth paying. As David Cole has noted, western governments have grown more adept at re-framing the “liberty versus security” argument as one of “their liberties, our security.”

Yet it is not just “their liberties.” With the government proposing greater counter-terror powers – from passport confiscation to the banning of “extremists” at universities – the targeting of a “suspect community” is one element of a wider attempt to stifle meaningful criticism and dissent. The message from cases like Shaker Aamer’s is clear: you are free to express yourself, as long as you leave politics and the law to us, the experts. This message is at the root of the democratic crisis in modern Britain, and we need to fight it. We can begin by standing with Shaker. 

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