December 1, 2011
In Truthout today, four British MPs — Jeremy Corbyn, John Leech, Caroline Lucas and Michael Meacher — wrote an open letter to Congress seeking the return to the UK of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison. Mr. Aamer’s story is familiar to those of us who have long campaigned for the closure of Guantánamo, and I have been covering his story since I began writing articles about Guantánamo on a regular basis in 2007.
His story features prominently in the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” that I co-directed with Polly Nash. In August, I publicised a report that he was on a hunger strike, and just last week I cross-posted, with my own commentary, an article by his lawyer, Ciive Stafford Smith, who had just paid his first visit to Guantánamo for a number of years, and a letter Stafford Smith had written to the British foreign secretary William Hague, revealing how ill Shaker Aamer is after ten years in US custody.
In their open letter, the MPs eloquently called for the return of Shaker Aamer to his wife and children in the UK, and mentioned, for the first time ever in public, that he was “cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo” as a result of the review of all the remaining prisoners’ cases that was conducted throughout 2009 by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, established by President Obama when he came into office. The document that contained that information also informed him, “The US government intends to transfer you as soon as possible.”
Although it was well-known that Shaker Aamer had been told that he had been cleared for release from Guantánamo early in 2007, that was never officially confirmed, and, when WikiLeaks released classified military assessments for the Guantánamo prisoners in April this year, his file, dated November 2007, recommended him for “Continued Detention Under DoD Control.”
Given that it has now been confirmed that Shaker Aamer was cleared for release under President Obama no later than January 2010, when the Guantánamo Review Task Force issued its final report, it beggars belief that he is still held, because, although Congress passed legislation almost a year ago insisting that, as the MPs put it, “detainees from Guantanamo must be ‘certified’ before being transferred” — meaning that the defense secretary must guarantee to lawmakers that any prisoner the administration intends to release is not being sent to a country where they might be at liberty to take up arms against the US — there is obviously no way that lawmakers could possibly argue that what they had in mind was the UK, one of America’s closest allies, and the firmest of friends in the “war on terror,” unless they wanted to expose themselves to ridicule.
It is my contention that this announcement about Shaker Aamer’s status must lead to his release in the near future, but in the meantime, I am delighted to present, below, the letter that Britain’s only Green MP, the formidable Caroline Lucas, sent to Congress, along with her hard-working colleagues, the Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Meacher, and the Liberal Democrat MP John Leech.
As a group of elected members of Parliament (MP) from all the main parties represented at Westminster, we are outraged by the current position of the US Congress which, apparently, means that Guantánamo Bay prison will never be closed, and, of particular concern to us, that a British resident who was cleared for release more than two years ago, cannot return here.
The US official document given to him states, “On January 22, 2009 the president of the United States ordered a new review of the status of each detainee in Guantánamo. As a result of that review you have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo … The US government intends to transfer you as soon as possible …”
Mr. Shaker Aamer, who has a British wife and four children, has now been held for nine and a half years, despite the fact that officials in the US governments of both President Bush and President Obama have been aware for several years that there was never a case for him to answer.
During this period Mr. Aamer has been tortured by US agents — for example, by having his head repeatedly banged against a wall — and has witnessed the torture of another UK resident.
In January of this year, with eight other prisoners, Mr. Aamer started a new hunger strike to press for his release. In a scribbled note to his lawyers on the official paper saying he could be released, he urged them to work fast and get him home to his wife and kids “before it’s too late.”
In recent days, new evidence has emerged via a legal representative who has visited Mr. Aamer about his fragile state of health, including extreme kidney pain and serious asthma problems. He is clearly in urgent need of an independent medical assessment.
The British foreign secretary has raised this appalling case with the US secretary of state, stressing its high importance to the UK government and to many people in Britain who are shocked by the painful injustice Mr. Aamer and his British family have suffered at the hands of our ally.
In Britain, we have seen nine UK citizens and five UK residents returned from Guantánamo, after prolonged negotiations and court action, and the UK government took the responsibility for those men’s conduct on their return. All have been exemplary members of our society ever since. There is no reason to believe Mr. Aamer would be any different, and the UK government is responsible for verifying that.
Mr. Aamer was not returned with the others during the Bush period, perhaps because he knew too many terrible stories from the prison. As a Saudi citizen, educated in the US, with a warm and outgoing personality, he had language and social skills that made him a chosen leader in several negotiations with the US authorities in Guantánamo Bay prison — notably over ending earlier hunger strikes. The negotiations failed when the prison authorities did not keep the bargains made, according to lawyers familiar with that period in the prison. Mr. Aamer’s prominence among the prisoners has been reported by former prisoners, by several US guards and a number of lawyers with experience in his case.
We understand that the US government at one point planned to return him, against his will, to Saudi Arabia. Once there, he would have entered a re-education program, and it is likely his British family — who do not speak Arabic — would not have had the necessary status to be able to join him. He has told his family — in two phone calls in the entire period — his wish is to return to them in London and recover from his ordeal by living a quiet family life.
For all these years, his family have kept as far as possible out of the public eye, maintaining their privacy and dignity in very difficult times, without husband and father. This unimaginable pain has gone on longer than anyone should have to bear. It is difficult for us to understand this is going on in our country because of the attitude of the elected leaders of US friends and allies.
The loss of their father came after the family was living quietly among aid workers in Kabul where Mr. Aamer was building schools and digging wells. When the US bombing of Kabul began a month after 9/11, he took his family to Pakistan for safety and returned to look after their home and effects in Kabul. We do not know how he then came to be in US custody, but we know enough about the bounties paid then by the US for foreigners to be extremely uneasy about what may have triggered his long incarceration — unprotected by the Geneva Conventions, which are the common heritage of our nations that fought together in World War II to defend a world free of fascism and injustice.
We know that the National Defense Authorization Act 2011, which came into force in January of this year, means that detainees from Guantanamo must be “certified” before being transferred, and that new draft legislation is currently being debated in the Senate for when this act lapses in September. What “certification” beyond the word of our foreign secretary do you need to send home a man your own military authorities have cleared as innocent?
We strongly urge members of Congress to take action on Mr. Aamer’s case to end this intolerable situation, which casts a dark shadow over America’s reputation here.
Jeremy Corbyn, MP
John Leech, MP
Caroline Lucas, MP
Michael Meacher, MP
House of Commons, London SW1
Read all posts by Andy Worthington