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Truth, Lies And Distortions In Coverage Of Shaker Aamer, Soon To Be Freed From Guantánamo – OpEd

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In the week since it was announced that Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, is to be released, to be returned to his family in the UK, there has been a huge sigh of relief from the many, many people who campaigned for his release — supporters of the long-standing Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, which I have been involved with for many years, attending protests and speaking at events, of We Stand With Shaker, the campaign I established with Joanne MacInnes last November, which drew huge support for photos of celebrities and MPs standing with a giant inflatable figure of Shaker, and supporters of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, established last November by John McDonnell MP, who, at the time, was a persistent supporter of worthy causes and fighter against injustice, and, with Caroline Lucas (our sole Green MP), Jeremy Corbyn and Shaker’s constituency MP, Jane Ellison, the most consistent MP supporting Shaker’s cause.

My article celebrating the news of Shaker’s forthcoming release was liked and shared by over 1,500 people on Facebook. Posted on the Close Guantánamo page, it has reached over 21,000 people; on the We Stand With Shaker page it has reached over 11,000 people. Thank you to everyone who has supported the various campaigns to secure Shaker’s release, including the MPs who traveled to Washington D.C. in May to call for his release, meeting with Senators and Obama administration officials — David Davis and Andrew Mitchell of the Conservatives, and Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Slaughter of the Labour Party.

Now, of course, Jeremy is the leader of the Labour Party, and John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor — a wonderful development for those who care about tackling injustice. Jeremy was elected on an anti-austerity platform, and because of his honesty and decency, and all of the above was apparent in his speech as leader to the Labour Party Conference, when he specifically thanked Shaker’s supporters, and in particular the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign:

We have to be very clear about what we stand for in human rights. A refusal to stand up is the kind of thing that really damages Britain’s standing in the world. I have huge admiration for human rights defenders all over the world. I’ve met hundreds of these very brave people during my lifetime working on international issues. I want to say a special mention to one group who’ve campaigned for the release of British resident Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo Bay. This was a campaign of ordinary people like you and me, standing on cold draughty streets, for many hours over many years. Together we secured this particular piece of justice.

John McDonnell also had a few words to say. Hoping, as the Guardian put it, that Shaker “would be able to settle back into civil society,” but predicting that “the experience would be ‘quite traumatic,’” he told the BBC, “I was not sure we would ever see this day but I am absolutely overjoyed and I’m so pleased for the family and all the campaigners.”

The US media’s response

The campaigns were also recognized in the US media. The Washington Post wrote that the Obama administration “has notified Congress of its intent to send Shaker Aamer … back to Britain, yielding to a lengthy campaign to secure the British resident’s release,” and also noted, with a link to the open letter I wrote to President Obama for Independence Day, which was signed by nearly a hundred celebrities and MPs, including Roger Waters, Sting, Patrick Stewart and London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, “President Obama discussed the decision to move Aamer, whose case has become a cause celebre among rights groups in Britain, with Prime Minister David Cameron in a phone call Thursday.”

It was not all good news, however. The Washington Post casually referred to Shaker as “a suspected al-Qaeda plotter,” without asking one of his lawyers to comment on how that would square with him being approved for release by a high-level, inter-agency US government review process, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, as the Post put it, that “he had ‘grave concerns’ about releasing inmates who might take up arms again.” In a statement, Thornberry (R-Tex.), said, “Shaker Aamer certainly fits that bill if he is released to the U.K. because I do not believe that the British Government has the ability to hold or try him. Despite the rhetoric of a sophisticated PR campaign, it is clear to me that this is a dangerous individual whose release will put Americans at greater risk.”

Note how the UK is accused of not being able to imprison or put on trial a man approved for release by the US and never charged with a crime, and how Thornberry insults America’s closest ally by suggesting that the British government will not be able to prevent his release “put[ting] Americans at greater risk.” Depressingly, Thornberry was then allowed to air his groundless scaremongering claims on British TV, brought in to provide the “balance” that broadcasters swear by, but which, in so many cases only allows ill-informed right-wingers to have the oxygen of publicity which they should not necessarily be entitled to have.

The New York Times also made reference to campaigners, linking to the open letter to President Obama and the We Stand With Shaker campaign in the following sentence: “Mr. Aamer has denied involvement with Al Qaeda, and his supporters say he was falsely accused of terrorism and is a victim of arbitrary detention who should long since have been reunited with his wife and children.”

Unfortunately, Charlie Savage of the Times followed this up with a lengthy summary of some of the unsubstantiated allegations found in the classified military files released by WikLeaks in 2011, without approaching Shaker’s legal team for comment. Savage wrote, “Some American officials have portrayed him as a charismatic, manipulative and potentially dangerous Islamist leader who had many links to Qaeda figures before his capture in Afghanistan in late 2001, and who encouraged hunger strikes and maybe even suicides at the Guantánamo prison, where he was taken in February 2002.”

It is one thing to repeat descriptions of Shaker’s behaviour in Guantánamo, and how he was perceived, whether we agree with the analysis or not, but it is irresponsible to air allegations about al-Qaeda connections without questioning them, and allegations that Shaker may have had something to do with men committing suicide. These are grave allegations that should not have been aired so lightly.

Unsubstantiated allegations

Elsewhere, outrageous myths about Shaker were, predictably, peddled by Robin Simcox, of the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing British think-tank that is racist and Islamophobic, and yet, in the interests of “balance,” is regularly allowed to air its objectionable views in the media. I appeared last year on BBC World News with Simcox, and I also recommend readers to watch this interview featuring Clive Stafford Smith and Simcox, when the latter’s presence merely detracted from the time Clive had to discuss what needed to be discussed.

Unfortunately, Simcox was able to sell a disgraceful fable about Shaker to the Daily Beast, which should have known better than to publish something that should only have appealed to fanatical right-wing ideologues. Simcox repeated allegations from the classified military file on Shaker, compiled in 2007, as though what is contained in the files released by WikiLeaks bears any relation to reality. In fact, the files are full of unreliable statements made by prisoners who were subjected to torture or other abuse at Guantánamo, in CIA “black sites” or in other facilities in the “war on terror,” where they were regularly — often relentlessly — shown photo albums, referred to as “the family album,” of other prisoners, and sometimes of genuine terror suspects, until they acknowledged knowing them, or having seen them, whether that was true or not (see this article for an example from a proxy CIA torture prison in Jordan). Prisoners were also bribed with better living conditions, or had mental health issues that were remorselessly exploited by their interrogators, while other prisoners, unable to cope with the unending interrogations, gave up resisting and, by their own admission, said yes to every allegation that was suggested to them, without any care for its relationship to the truth.

The information in the files is, therefore, almost completely worthless without being backed up by further independent investigation, and yet Simcox parades verifiably unreliable witnesses as though they were truthful — Abu Zubaydah, for example, for whom the torture program was invented, whose desperate lies litter the files, Muhammad Basardah, a Yemeni notorious as Guantánamo’s most prolific liar, whose unreliability was well-known to the US authorities, and Abdul Bukhary (aka Abdul-Hakim Bukhari), another recognized liar, who had been imprisoned by al-Qaeda as a spy, and was liberated by US forces from a Taliban jail before being sent, inexplicably, to Guantánamo. As the New York Times explained in April 2011, Bukhari’s file contained the following acceptance, by the US authorities, of his unreliability: “Detainee admitted that he provided information in a deliberately misleading manner in order to receive incentives from his debriefers.”

This is how I described Basardah when I worked with WikiLeaks on the release of the Guantánamo files in 2011:

Yasim Basardah (ISN 252), a Yemeni known as a notorious liar. As the Washington Post reported in February 2009, he was given preferential treatment in Guantánamo after becoming what some officials regarded as a significant informant, although there were many reasons to be doubtful. As the Post noted, “military officials … expressed reservations about the credibility of their star witness since 2004,” and in 2006, in an article for the National Journal, Corine Hegland described how, after a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at which a prisoner had taken exception to information provided by Basardah, placing him at a training camp before he had even arrived in Afghanistan, his personal representative (a military official assigned instead of a lawyer) investigated Basardah’s file, and found that he had made similar claims against 60 other prisoners. In January 2009, in the District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Richard Leon (an appointee of George W. Bush) excluded Basardah’s statements while granting the habeas corpus petition of Mohammed El-Gharani, a Chadian national who was just 14 years old when he was seized in a raid on a mosque in Pakistan. Judge Leon noted that the government had “specifically cautioned against relying on his statements without independent corroboration,” and in other habeas cases that followed, other judges relied on this precedent, discrediting the “star witness” stlll further.

Also see the Guardian‘s article about Basardah, and the graphic showing Basardah and Abu Zubaydah’s unreliability.

The US and UK intelligence services’ responsibility for Shaker’s long imprisonment

In other important articles in the last week, a number of respectable commentators have highlighted the role of the US and UK intelligence services in Shaker’s long imprisonment; in particular, the eight years he has been held since he was first told that the US no longer wanted to hold him. As I described it on Facebook, promoting one of these articles, what has without doubt led to “certain dark forces in the US and the UK work[ing] to oppose his release” is “his knowledge of the rendition of  Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi to torture in Egypt, where al-Libi [the head of an independent training camp in Afghanistan] lied about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that were used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, his insights into the night three men died in Guantánamo, allegedly by committing suicide, in June 2006, and his assertion that British agents were present when he was brutally assaulted by US forces in Afghanistan, prior to being sent to Guantánamo.”

I have written extensively about these issues over the years (see here and here, for example), and in a powerful article for the Guardian, which I’m cross-posting below,  Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, who has represented Shaker for many years, mentions Shaker’s knowledge of the rendition of al-Libi, whose tortured lies were used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, and, more generally, recognizes how those who brutalize others seek to demonize them to justify their position, and explains how “various members of the US military and the UK intelligence services will start briefing against Aamer. They will do this because they know they have done him wrong, and they hate him for it. They feel a very human urge to prove that they were justified and, in their distorted morality, that can only be true if he is a very, very bad man indeed.” As Clive also notes, they have done this before — in 2009, for example, when Binyam Mohamed was released, and in 2005, when a number of British nationals were released.

In the Daily Mail, Peter Oborne, after speaking to Clive, Gareth Pierce and me, wrote a powerful article also highlighting the dark episodes mentioned above, and Shaker’s knowledge of them. Peter also followed up on my suggestion that the British government may use the promise of a financial settlement agreed with Shaker in 2010 — as part of a deal with the former prisoners (and Shaker) to stop a civil claim for damages that was revealing shocking information about British complicity in torture at the highest levels of the Blair government, involving Tony Blair and Jack Straw — to try and buy his silence.

Peter also called for an official, independent investigation into British complicity in the US program of torture and indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, noting, “To its everlasting credit, the US last year came to terms with its grotesque conduct when California senator Dianne Feinstein produced a no-holds-barred report into the horrifying conduct of the Central Intelligence Agency. In Britain we have had no such investigation into the role played by our own intelligence agencies — even though David Cameron promised such an investigation in the run-up to the 2010 General Election.”

To be fair to the government, there was an investigation, but all the relevant NGOs boycotted it because of its serious limitations, and a full inquiry is therefore just as necessary as it was when first promised in 2010.

Peter Oborne added, “With the belated return of Shaker Aamer to his family in London now a matter of weeks away, there can surely be no excuse for waiting any longer. We owe him a full investigation into his terrible claims. More important still, we owe it to ourselves. Otherwise, Britain will no longer be able to regard herself as a law-abiding country with values that shine like a beacon of decency around the globe.”

In the Guardian, Ian Cobain also investigated the role of the security services, noting, “The interrogators that MI6 and MI5 had sent to Bagram were warned that they must not take part in the torture that was being inflicted on the inmates; all received written instructions that ‘we cannot be party to such ill treatment nor can we be seen to condone it’. In practice, this meant that they would remove themselves from the room before the abuses began.” In Shaker’s case, however, these rules appear to have been ignored, leading to the suggestion, in Cobain’s words, that Shaker is “expected to embark upon legal proceedings against the British government once he returns to the UK.”

He also noted that “[s]enior Whitehall sources have told the Guardian that both [William] Hague and [David] Cameron were genuinely committed to doing everything they could to secure the release of Aamer. While Theresa May is said to have been less enthusiastic to see Aamer living in the UK, officials say there is no evidence of any back-channel messages being passed from the Home Office that would explain Aamer’s continuing detention.”

“According to these sources,” however, as Ian Cobain explained, “the same cannot be said of MI6, with one saying that there is a suspicion that some intelligence officers may have been dripping poisonous messages about Aamer into American ears at the same time that the prime minister and foreign secretary were attempting to secure his release. There are some ‘who still consider themselves to be above the law’, the source said.”

In the Independent, Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, also called for an inquiry. “The UK’s own shameful role in this episode is still largely hidden from public view,” she wrote, adding, “That’s why we still need a fully-independent, judge-led inquiry into that role.”

For now, I’m leaving the final word to Clive Stafford Smith, whose article is posted below, but I want to leave the penultimate word to Johina Aamer, Shaker’s daughter, who tweeted the following message after the news broke last week: “Thank you everyone for all the support. The news hasn’t hit yet. We can’t believe we might finally see our Dad after 14 years.”

When Shaker Aamer is free from Guantánamo the slurs will start — By Clive Stafford Smith, The Guardian, September 28, 2015

My maternal grandmother once gave me some advice that has never left me: when someone does you wrong, bizarrely, they will invariably hate you for it. This stems from a very human desire not to admit mistakes. Therefore if you want to salvage a relationship with the person who wronged you, you must go out of your way to be kind to them.

I have discussed my grandmother’s advice with Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo Bay. He has been done a terrible wrong — held for almost 14 years without charges, tortured over and over. He has never met his youngest son Faris, who was born on the very day he arrived in the notorious US military base.

And why has he been held so long? Because not only was Aamer a victim of abuse but he also witnessed the torture of others, most catastrophically Ibn Sheikh al Libi, who “confessed” falsely that al-Qaida was in league with Saddam Hussein on weapons of mass destruction. This was repeated by President George W Bush himself as a reason to go to war in Iraq — so here we are, tens of thousands of dead people later, and we know it was false. Al Libi merely told his torturers what they wanted to hear, to try to end the pain.

The Obama administration gave notice to Congress on 24 September that they finally plan to return Aamer to the United Kingdom. This triggers a 30-day waiting period, after which — when logistics and other bureaucracy is satisfied — he may come home.

What is not predictable is whether they will actually liberate him on 24 October, or some time much later on. For instance, the US announced on 25 June that another man, Abdul Shalabi, could be repatriated, yet he did not leave until 22 September, 89 days later. Aamer was cleared to come home in 2007, some 3,000 days ago, so when they will finally get around to reuniting him with his wife and four children is still uncertain.

There is one matter that is beyond all doubt: various members of the US military and the UK intelligence services will start briefing against Aamer. They will do this because they know they have done him wrong, and they hate him for it. They feel a very human urge to prove that they were justified and, in their distorted morality, that can only be true if he is a very, very bad man indeed.

They always do this. In 2009, when Binyam Mohamed was released from Guantánamo, someone at the Pentagon leaked to the BBC a classified copy of the confession tortured out of him. Binyam had been sent to Morocco where a razor blade was taken to his penis every fortnight for 18 months. Naturally he told them what they wanted to hear. To the credit of the BBC — and in compliance with the UN convention against torture — ultimately the corporation decided not to defame Binyam with this statement.

Before that, the US military timed a leak smearing four other British nationals to coincide with their return from Guantánamo in January 2005. It was not enough that they had spent years in detention without charge or trial; the US authorities wanted to prove that this derogation from the Magna Carta was justified because they were very dangerous people. Given that none has done anything wrong in the ensuing decade, we can now decide for ourselves whether this was true.

In Aamer’s case, the defamation has already begun. The moment the 30-day notice was given, Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry leaked the news to the Washington Post, along with a statement that Aamer was far too dangerous to be released — apparently forever. The Republicans started the mess that is Guantánamo, and it is too much to expect them to admit that it has been a disaster.

More worrying yet, one major British newspaper has already received a “scoop” about Aamer from a “former informant” for the UK security services. Of course, such a leak would violate the Official Secrets Act unless it had been approved by the spooks. The paper did the right thing, checking the story out; and Aamer was not even in the UK when he was said to have had a crucial meeting. Such care reflects the best of journalistic ethics — you do not publish devastating rumours about a person who has no way to defend himself, without checking and double-checking your source.

The government has pandered to populist opinion ever since the Leveson inquiry, proposing greater restraints on the media, yet it sees no problem when government agents themselves sneak around smearing someone — even when it concerns a powerless person held incommunicado for more than a decade, like Aamer.

Aamer understands my grandmother’s advice, and he knows that the people who are responsible for his mistreatment will inevitably hate him. He tells me that he will respond with as much kindness as he can: he does not wish to see those responsible for his torture behind bars, and he has said this to the Metropolitan police, who have been investigating British complicity in what happened. He merely wants everyone to learn from these terrible mistakes, and reinforce the rules against torture, so it never happens to others.

That is admirable. But it is inevitable that some will continue to attack him and we must hope that the media continues with the ethical approach they have shown so far. Those who wish to prove that they were right to indulge in a spot of torture are very sad and misguided people.

Andy Worthington

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.

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