After two screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film I co-directed wth Polly Nash — at UCL onThursday evening, and at Roehampton University on Friday — it was more than I could do to get down to Nine Elms for 12 noon on Saturday and the start of “A Day for Shaker Aamer,” an event organized by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign and sponsored by Cageprisoners, Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council and Labour CND, to raise awareness about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, and to mobilize action to secure his return to the UK, and to his wife and family.
I’m glad to report, however, that the students in the Human Rights Society at UCL, and the human rights students at Roehampton were thoroughly engaged audiences, who peppered the speakers (myself and former prisoner Omar Deghayes at UCL, and myself and Polly at Roehampton) with questions, and listened intently as Omar spoke about his experiences — and those of his fellow prisoners — in US custody throughout the darkest years of a “War on Terror” that has not, sadly, been brought to an end by President Obama.
In addition, I told the sorry story of how Obama’s plans to close the prison have ground to a halt, but reminded the audiences that they can act to secure the return of Shaker Aamer — by writing to William Hague, writing to their MPs, encouraging their MPs to sign up to a Early Day Motion on Guantánamo proposed by the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and sending a postcard to Shaker in Guantánamo — and that they should take heart that the time has come for the exhaustion of any and all excuses to prevent his return.
This is because of the British government’s recent financial settlement with 15 former Guantánamo prisoners, and with Shaker, whose settlement cannot ultimately be agreed without his presence, because of an ongoing Metropolitan Police investigation into his allegations of torture in US custody in Afghanistan, while British agents were present, which cannot conclude without his presence, and because the judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture, which David Cameron announced in July, and which he wants to use to “draw a line” under the whole sordid affair, cannot even begin while one of the men whose evidence will need to be considered by the inquiry — Shaker Aamer — is still held in Guantánamo.
Those of us who have been studying his case closely for many years know that, ultimately, Shaker — who was cleared for release by a military review board under President Bush in 2007 — is not held because of any threat he poses to the national security of either the US or the UK, but because of his deep knowledge of American involvement in torture — and, perhaps, murder — at Guantánamo and his equally deep knowledge of American torture (and British complicity) elsewhere, which he learned and/or experienced as the foremost defender of the prisoners’ rights, and as an eloquent and passionate man who will not stand for injustice.
For Saturday’s event the BBC, the Press Association, AFP and Scotland on Sunday all reported on the rally at the site of the new US embassy, but failed to follow the march to Battersea Arts Centre for the main focus of the day, attended by many hundreds of people — a public meeting, chaired by the journalist and playwright Victoria Brittain, at which the speakers included Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo prisoner and director of Cageprisoners, human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, the journalist Yvonne Ridley, and Anas Altikriti, the President and founder of the Cordoba Foundation. Press TV did turn up, however, and a report on the day’s events can be found here.
By the time I arrived later in the afternoon, the crowd had thinned out, but around 150 people stayed to watch “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” and afterwards there was a very lively Q&A session with myself, Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes and Polly Nash, in which Moazzam, in particular, was called upon to explain in detail how the recent financial settlements arose, which he did with some dignity, explaining how senior government ministers had, for the first time, listened to the prisoners and taken their stories on board, stressing that the release of Shaker had been central to the negotiations, but that the former prisoners had not been allowed to make the settlement reliant upon a firm promise that he would be freed, and refuting a claim that they had somehow sold out, or been bought off, by pointing out that, had they refused the settlement, those who were working would have been unable to pursue the case, because of the huge expenee involved, and those who were not would have had their legal aid cut off.
Personally, I believe that so much has already been exposed — including, in summer, direct evidence of the complicity in torture of Tony Blair and Jack Straw — that the settlement to bring to an end the civil claim filed by seven former prisoners is not the end of the story, especially as all the men have not been “gagged” as a result of the settlement, and have not been obliged to drop any of their allegations about British complicity in their treatment in US custody — and, in some cases, in their abduction.
When I spoke, I was at pains to stress, as I had at UCL and in Roehampton, that, at present, everyone who is concerned about these matters should focus all their energies on securing Shaker’s return, which clearly cannot be put off for much longer, despite a rather feeble statement from the Foreign Office, as reported by Scotland on Sunday. A spokeswoman told the paper, “The Foreign Secretary raised the case of Shaker Aamer with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his visit to Washington in November and was told that the US government continues to consider the case. As the Prime Minister has made clear to Parliament, the government continues to make best efforts to secure Shaker Aamer’s release and return to the UK. Ultimately this is a matter for the US.”
This last sentence is particularly worrying, as Shaker’s return is not just “a matter for the US,” but involves two countries — both the US and the UK — and the British government must not be allowed to forget that it can — and must — make Shaker’s return a priority.
Unfortunately, one of the star guests for Saturday’s event, Mayoral candidate and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, was unable to attend, but he sent along a message, which was read out at the end of the event, and which, I believe, provides a suitable conclusion to this report. He wrote:
It’s an absolute disgrace that prisoners including Shaker Aamer have been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and it’s now imperative that the British government starts to make real efforts to end this fundamental breach of human rights.
No one should be imprisoned without the basic human right to a trial. Guantánamo Bay is a stain on global politics and a symbol of everything that went wrong under Bush.
The impact on the families of those whose human rights are breached through indefinite imprisonment without trial is massive. It is impossible to imagine the effect on those people. Despite claiming they were doing “as much as they could,” it has now become clear that the issue was only raised sporadically and with little drive by previous foreign ministers.
It is a continuing scandal that the US will not simply release Shaker Aamer back to Britain.
Guantánamo Bay must be permanently closed, Shaker returned to Britain and never again must we allow our government to destroy human rights internationally at the behest of the US or any other power.
My thanks again to the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign for their hard work in organizing and promoting the event, to the sponsors, to everyone who turned up, and also to the organizatons who supported it: Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism, Love Music Hate Racism, Guantánamo Justice Centre, South London SWP, Kingston Peace Council, Brighton Against Guantánamo, Brighton and Hove Mosque, South London Communist Party of Britain, London Guantánamo Campaign, Justice for Aafia Coalition, Sutton for Peace & Justice, Norwich Amnesty Group, Battersea Islamic Culture & Education Centre, and Kingston Amnesty Group.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.
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