On Monday, Harry Ferguson, 52, a former officer with MI6, the British intelligence agency, began a week-long hunger strike, as part of the Stand Fast for Justice initiative launched by the legal action charity Reprieve, in support of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay — and, in particular, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who continues to be held despite being cleared for release by a military review board under President Bush in 2007 and by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010. Others who have been hunger striking as part of the campaign include Julie Christie, the comedian Frankie Boyle, and Reprieve’s Director, Clive Stafford Smith.
Shaker is one of 86 men cleared for release by the task force but still held at Guantánamo, because of a lack of political will on the part of President Obama and obstruction by Congress, and has been part of the prison-wide hunger strike that began in February. At its peak, the hunger strike involved up to 130 of the remaining 166 prisoners. That figure has apparently fallen recently, but 37 men are still being force-fed, a painful process that medical experts condemn as torture.
Explaining his reasons for embarking on a hunger strike in solidarity with Shaker and the other prisoners, Mr. Ferguson gave a statement that ought to shame everyone in the British establishment who has colluded with the Bush and Obama administrations in the lawlessness of the last 12 years, since the 9/11 attacks.
As an MI6 officer I took part in the struggle against terrorism and other threats to the UK and US. I am not some ‘bleeding heart’ liberal who believes that harsh measures are never justified. But I am ashamed that an organisation of which I was once proud to be a member now supports policies including assassination, rendition, torture and detention without trial.
He added, as the Observer described it, that “recent claims that British intelligence officers had been covertly campaigning against Aamer’s repatriation had proved the final straw” for him. He told the newspaper, “In fact Reprieve has recently uncovered evidence that MI6 is directly briefing against his return to this country because once he arrives here he will reveal that MI6 officers were present while he was being tortured.”
He also said, as the Observer described it, that “the shame he felt over such disclosures was heightened by recruitment work he had carried out for MI6 and lectures he had hosted defending the security services.”
As he put it:
Sadly, my advice today to any aspiring recruit who values the defence of human rights would be to stay away and do something better with their lives. The intelligence services are not what they were. Above all, they have forgotten the lessons that we learned during the struggle against Irish terrorism: that brutality and injustice are not the answer, they simply fuel the next generation of terrorists.
On his blog, Mr. Ferguson has been describing his fast, and this is what he had to say after his first day:
Well, that’s the first day over. Constant pain from stomach cramps and for some reason my energy level dropped to zero mid-afternoon. I could barely lift myself out of the chair at one point, but at least that passed. All this only serves to remind me of what Shaker and the other prisoners are going through. I have my family, especially my children, to support me (and occasionally taunt me with crisps in a good-natured way). Shaker has four children and he has been separated from them for more than ten years. All those missed birthdays, all those missed memories. How is it possible to withstand that kind of pain, never knowing when or even if it will ever end? And all this for a man who has never even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted. What happened to our supposed standards of justice in the Western world? When did we all agree to ditch them? Did I miss something?
That’s why all of us who are on the hunger strike are doing this. We can imagine the pain and suffering that Shaker’s captors can not or will not. We know it has to be stopped.
By yesterday, Day 2, Mr. Ferguson was struggling. In the afternoon, he wrote, “my temperature suddenly shot up and I was hit with wave after wave of nausea and retching. As I sit shivering and writing this, I am now running a proper fever.” He added, “I hope that Shaker and the other prisoners get some news of the efforts that all of the hunger strikers in the Stand Fast for Justice campaign are making. They are all heroes. I hope it gives them the strength to hang on.”
In the run-up to his fast, Mr. Ferguson also described his preparations. He began by buying lots of fruit because “Shaker’s advice is to eat nothing but fruit for the last two days before beginning the strike,” but after two days was already “painfully hungry,” although he added, “But it doesn’t really matter. I know I don’t have to face the horror of someone ramming a steel-tipped feeding tube down my throat. By comparison with that, simply being hungry seems almost pathetic.”
Mr. Ferguson’s reference was to a comment Shaker made early this year, when he told Clive Stafford Smith during a phone call, “The force-feeding itself is simple torture. Now they are using the metal-tipped tubes, forcing them in and pulling them out twice a day, leaving people vomiting on themselves in the restraint chair, and so forth.”
Describing Harry Ferguson’s hunger strike, Kat Craig, Reprieve’s Legal Director, said, “Harry’s protest sends a powerful message about just how far British and American intelligence agencies have strayed from the principles they are meant to protect. It is disgraceful that Shaker is still being held beyond the rule of law.”
Clive Stafford Smith added, “It is a big deal that someone who is so linked in with MI6 is willing to make such a strong statement.”
Note: If you’re in London tomorrow (August 15), the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign is holding “a noisy protest” outside New Scotland Yard from 1pm to 3pm (see map). SSAC will also deliver a letter to the Commissioner of Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. As they explain, “The protest is to draw attention to the lack of information from the Metropolitan Police following their investigation into Shaker Aamer’s allegations that he was tortured in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 in the presence of British intelligence Officers. Three years ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions asked New Scotland Yard to report on these allegations. SSAC believes that the investigation was intentionally delayed to prevent public knowledge of wrong-doing by Government secret agents. Eventually, earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police interviewed Shaker Aamer in Guantánamo. They were there for three days and took 120 pages of notes. Since then, there has been silence.”
They added, “However, there is already independent evidence to support Shaker Aamer’s allegations. In 2009, the High Court ruled that Shaker’s lawyers should have access to documents held by the Government. Lord Justice Sullivan stated that, “If this information is to be of any use, it has to be put in the client’s hands as soon as possible.” He said that the documents proved that UK agents were present on at least two occasions when Shaker was subjected to torture in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. The papers were withheld from Shaker and his lawyers on the grounds that disclosure would endanger national security. We call for this vital evidence to be made public. The only danger is to those who are trying to hide the truth. The Metropolitan Police have made their investigation. Their report should be made public.”
About the author: Andy Worthington
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.