Shaker Aamer and the future of Guantanamo

His fear, to his last days at Guantanamo, was that he would not make it out alive.

Jeremy Varon
6 November 2015

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

“Fast for Shaker” supporters outside parliament. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Twitter.

The texts and tweets started flying early in the morning of October 30 with the news: Shaker Aamer, as reported by the BBC, was on a jet plane from Guantanamo to London and to life as a free man. Detained since 2002, Aamer was the last U.K. resident held at the notorious prison.

Charismatic, hyper-articulate and defiant, he was a leader among the detainees. Former prisoners speak near-reverentially about Aamer’s ability to bring a miserable cell block to life and his tenacious defense against the petty cruelties of camp administration. Aamer paid heavily for his protest, suffering hideous abuse according to ex-prisoner and lawyer accounts. The wounds have been both physical ailments and post-traumatic stress. An ambulance met him at the tarmac.

Aamer also became a cause célebre — indeed the great global icon both of unjust detention at Guantanamo and resistance to that injustice. His attorneys insist that allegations of his Taliban affiliation and links to al-Qaida were fantasy, for which his jailers offered no proof. For years, supporters held his picture at protests, told his story and demanded his release.

Perhaps the best guess as to why he was held so long — despite being cleared for transfer in 2007 and 2009, the negligible security concerns of release to England, and clamors for his freedom from top officials in the U.K., including Prime Minister David Cameron — was a de facto punishment for his defiance in the prison.

Even after being told by U.S officials of plans for his imminent transfer, Aamer chose to launch a new hunger strike. (By U.S. law, Congress must be notified 30 days prior to any release.) His fear, to his last days at Guantanamo, was that he would not make out it alive. His hunger was his vigilance.

Nothing in years has galvanized the global community of anti-Guantanamo campaigners like the word of Aamer’s pending release. Attorneys and activists in England did the heavy lifting to amplify Aamer’s vigilance. “Fast for Shaker,” conceived by Aamer’s lead attorney Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve, rallied more than 420 solidarity fasts since October 15.

Fasters included members of Aamer’s family and legal team, former detainees, MPs from across the U.K.’s political spectrum, an ex-guard at Guantanamo, and celebrities like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and actors David Morrissey and Ed Asner. Dozens of U.S. activists, including three who had engaged in months-long hunger strikes in 2012, joined the fast.

The British media admirably covered the campaign. The solidarity efforts succeeding in making Aamer’s arrival in London a leading news item, captured with minute-by-minute drama. The mainstream U.S. media, by contrast, covered the latest of the Aamer saga only sparsely, filing reports on his intended transfer and his eventual release. With an irksome “even-handedness,” much of the U.S. coverage contrasted the government’s claims with Aamer’s denials, suggesting that his innocence may remain in question. Demagogues on the right will doubtless repeat the allegations to argue that closing Guantanamo puts Americans at risk.

As it is, Aamer’s release was delayed several days past the notification period, possibly to accommodate the visit of a delegation of U.S. lawmakers to Guantanamo led by Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Spouting Cheney-esque calumnies, Ayotte has spearheaded efforts in the Senate to thwart Obama’s official policy of closing Guantanamo.

For one bright day at least, none of the “worst of the worst” dreck used to tar all detainees or the suspicion that can cloud even discerning minds seemed to matter. Shaker Aamer was free, reunited with his family.

The statement issued by his U.K. lawyers was unequivocal and defiant: “Shaker Aamer is an extraordinary man who determined for 14 years that he would return to Britain in the face of the determination of the most powerful of states that he would never do so. He achieved this by unimaginable, heroic, sustained courage … [N]o words can describe torture, isolation, despair, even less for the length and intensity that he has endured.”

Aamer himself was extraordinarily gracious in thanking those who stood with him. His brief statement in part read: “I feel obliged to every individual who fought for justice not just for me but to bring an end to Guantanamo. Without knowing of their fight I might have given up more than once; I am overwhelmed by what people have done by their actions, their thoughts and their prayers.”

For years it has been clear — no matter President Obama’s repeated promise — that there would be no cathartic day when the prison’s walls would magically fall, freeing the innocent and bringing those under just suspicion into a fair trial process. Instead, closing the prison has meant the grinding work to free prisoners one-by-one or in small batches when the political winds and the caprice of transfer diplomacy break right. These releases barely tip the grand scales of justice. They only incrementally advance a policy that will most likely fail to shutter the prison by the end of Obama’s presidency. But by another, cosmic measure, they mean everything, bringing to mind the adage — common to the Quran and Talmud, and suggested by other faiths — that to save a single life is to save all of humankind.

Aamer’s release may signal the crossing of a threshold for the Obama administration’s efforts to close the prison. His very notoriety meant that his release would draw new scrutiny to the besieged policy. It was a risk, but the administration took it. Other, quieter signs suggest durable momentum.

On October 23, President Obama announced that he would veto this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, in part because it “impedes our efforts to close Guantanamo” by imposing undue burdens on the transfer of detainees. (The status of this veto threat, however, remains unclear.) And with little fanfare, the United States repatriated to Mauritania Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had spent 13 years at Guantanamo, on October 29 — just a day before Aamer’s release. Even without a worldwide movement behind him, he too is now free.

Attorneys, human rights lobbyists, and grassroots campaigners will continue to push for the final resolution of the Guantanamo disaster. That outcome means pushing past congressional obstacles, executive branch inertia, partisan fear-mongering, public opposition, and the official sanction of indefinite detention for some prisoners. In the meantime, we await the next transfer from the prison, when humankind can be saved all over again.

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