I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.
As we approach the 11th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, those of us calling for the prison’s closure, as President Obama promised on his second day in office nearly four years ago, are still waiting for a sign that, in his second and final term, the President will revisit that promise and, first of all, address the disgraceful and unacceptable fact that, of the 166 prisoners still held, 86 were approved for transfer out of the prison by the Guantánamo Review Task Force that he established soon after taking office in 2009.
One of these men, and the one who, we believe, ought to be the first to be freed, is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who is one of the 86 cleared prisoners — and was one of 55 cleared prisoners named in an important document released by the Justice Department in September, which, for the first time ever, identified these men publicly.
Although the President faces opposition from Congress regarding the release of the majority of the cleared prisoners — because lawmakers have spent the last two years raising obstacles to the release of any prisoner to any country that they regard as dangerous — this cannot be said of the UK, where Shaker Aamer, born in Saudi Arabia, lived for many years before his capture in Afghanistan, and his transfer to Guantánamo, and where, crucially, his British wife and his four British children await his return.
To date, neither the US government, which has cleared him for release, nor the British government, which claims to have been asking for his return since 2007, has provided a realistic explanation of why he is not a free man. It was understandable — if unacceptable nonetheless — that the President refused to free Shaker Aamer during the run-up to the election, because Republicans would have seized on it to portray him as irresponsible on national security issues, but now that he has been reelected, there should be no obstacle.
One indication that the stumbling block may not just be the Obama administration, but may also be the British government, came last Friday when, in London, Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 of the men still in Guantánamo, including Shaker Aamer, announced that their client was suing the British government for defamation. As the Guardian explained, he “blames the security and intelligence agencies for his continuing detention,” and “has accused MI5 and MI6 of making false and highly damaging claims about his alleged involvement with al-Qaeda.”
At a press conference, also attended by the comedian Frankie Doyle, who is supporting the campaign to free Mr. Aamer, his lawyers explained that they have written to William Hague, the foreign secretary, and Theresa May, the home secretary, “demanding an explanation for the false claims they say UK officials have made against him to the CIA, and an admission that his indefinite detention constitutes a war crime.” They also made reference to the fact that Mr. Aamer “has repeatedly implicated British officials in his mistreatment in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay,” and that these allegations are currently being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, who are planning to visit Guantánamo imminently to talk to Mr. Aamer.
As the Independent explained three weeks ago, “Mr. Aamer asserts that he was tortured, including having his head repeatedly bashed against a wall, by US investigators in the presence of British spies at Bagram, Afghanistan. He also says the British agents were aware of his torture in Guantánamo, which involved beatings and long periods in solitary confinement. This treatment continues, he says, despite at least three visits from British secret service personnel.”
The Independent also explained that, although his children “have no memories of their father,” they “speak to him on Skype every few months, with the help of the Red Cross.” His youngest son, Faris, who was born on February 14, 2002, the day his father was transferred from Afghanistan to Guantánamo, said that “when he spoke to his father for the first time, he thought ‘he was very funny.'”
The Independent also noted:
The children have written letters to President Obama in the hope that their voices would be heard after his re-election. “My dad is still in prison, and even though he has been cleared for release he’s been tortured,” Michael, 13, wrote. “I find it very difficult without my dad. I can feel how hard it is for my mum.” Mr. Aamer’s daughter, Johina, 15, added: “Why don’t you imagine being locked up for 11 years of your life and possibly more years to come. Try imagining being treated like a circus animal in a cage and being taken away from your home and everyone you love.”
At the press conference last Friday, Mr. Aamer’s lawyers claimed that American interrogators “were supplied with ‘knowingly false information’ by the UK security services, including the allegation that Mr. Aamer was paid directly by [Osama] Bin Laden and that he also recruited people to fight for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” as the Guardian described it. As his lawyers stated, “One of the most serious, knowingly false statements made by the UK security services is that Mr. Aamer is an al-Qaeda member who was part of al-Qaeda in London.”
The lawyers also described claims that Mr. Aamer was associated with mosques which served as an “attack planning and propaganda production base for al-Qaeda” as “emphatically false” in their letter to William Hague and Theresa May, adding, “Mr. Aamer emphatically denies that he is a member of al-Qaeda. He never has been.”
The BBC added that Mr. Aamer’s lawyers also stated, “The British Security Services will be able to produce not one shred of reliable evidence to the contrary.” Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s founder and director, said, “I’m utterly convinced that Shaker was not involved in extremism. But don’t take my word for it, lets have a trial — that’s the British way of doing things, and it’s the American way too. But if you presume people guilty we may as well lock everyone up.”
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, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
At first, considering the govt’s claim of “national security” in all of this, some MSM editor might have a moment like the late great Jason Robards (as Ben Bradlee) in “All the President’s Men”: Where’s the ******* story? However, now that we know the story is there, we’re going to see the standard responses. No comment. Denial. Freedom of Information Act requests turned down. Then, when the powers that be are forced to start revealing facts, it becomes spin control. How do we do this and still make it look like we’re in charge and not scared of “terrorists” so we won’t get sacked in this global depression (call it what it is)?
Then, a non-denial denial. If it goes to court, the govt. says we can’t do that because all information is “classified”. Therefore, the defense has no case. Hang on a minute. That’s a Wikileaks move. How can you say information is “classified” when it’s in the public domain? If it’s “classified”, why hasn’t the govt. prosecuted every journalist who’s revealed it? Answer? Because that’s how the “real world” works. You manipulate to your advantage and to then maintain it. Then, various former high level MI5 and MI6 people essentially say, look people. Without us, the “terrorists” would have finished you off a long time ago. You should be grateful for what we’re doing to protect you. The press won’t criticize them because if they do they’re considered “unpatriotic”. Which means you don’t exist and you’re cut off from all govt. access.
Obama’s doing the same thing. As long as you outsource torture, then I’m not lying when I publically say we don’t torture.
Thanks, Tom. How sad that we have to try and work out what’s happening to create such a seemingly impenetrable wall of injustice regarding these men, cleared for release in a situation where that apparently means nothing. Franz Kafka would have had something to say about it.
Thank you for yet another really essential article Andy.
You are so right that now is the moment when President Obama, who should be having sleepless nights about four years of failing to keep his word on Guantanamo, can free the 86 men cleared so long ago by his own teams.
Shaker Aamer is of course the name we in London know best, but he would be the first to remind us of all the other names of innocent men whose grieving families are in the same situation as his – here are two more names, already well known in the arab world, but who should be equally well-known in the US and Europe: Fawzi Al Odeh and Fayiz Al Kandari, two innocent Kuwaiti nationals.
You write that Shaker’s lawyers are looking to the UK government for “an admission that his indefinite detention constitutes a war crime.”
I am going to take the liberty of repeating that the Geneva Conventions require that war crimes trials use the same procedures, and apply the same standards, when trying foreigners, as when trying the citizens of the country holding the trials. It seems to me that the failure to do so makes war crimes trials a hollow charade.
So many war crimes happened to the USA’s captives while in custody. I think if you were to compile a realistic, by the letter of the law, interpretation, and add up each individual incident, many captives experienced hundreds of war crimes upon themselves. I suspect most captives experienced dozens, by a strict interpretation of the law, and that the 14 “high value captives” who were in CIA custody, sent to Guantanamo in September 2006, and the other dozen or so former CIA captives sent there in September 2004, may each have experienced more than a thousand war crimes each.
There is a short story I read, when I was still a child, that had a lasting influence on me. It was entitled “My trial as a war criminal”. Leo Szilard, the author, played a key role in the early development of the first Atomic Bomb. The premise of the story is that shortly after World War 2 (when the story was written), the USSR launches a sneak attack on the USA, using Germ Warfare, and the USA surrenders. Key Americans are going to face war crimes Tribunals, similar to the Nuremberg trials.
Szilard waits for his arrest. But first a young Russian Physicist visits him, and invites him to immigrate to the USSR, where he can have his own lab, working on Soviet projects, and where he could forget about being charged with a war crime. Szilard doesn’t say so, but this was the same offer as Werner von Braun, and his team accepted, and was offered to the anti-communist branch of Germany’s Abwehr.
At his trial Szilard tries to defend himself, by pointing to his public writings where he argued against using the A-bomb on cities, and suggesting the bomb should be used on isolated and uninhabited Islands, first, as a demonstration to the Japanese. He tried to use his pre-war and post-war arguments for a moratorium on research on the military uses of atomic energy as a defense. His prosecutors dismiss those arguments, because, due to his secret security clearances, Szilard could have been arguing the exact opposite — in secret. Szilard is convicted, but not yet sentenced, and, as a special courtesy, is allowed to sit in on the War Crimes trials of Truman, and former Secretaries of War and of the Navy, Stimson and Byrnes.
Truman’s Defense counsel tries to argue that the use of the Atomic Bomb was no more a war crime, than the use of Germ Warfare, which the judge dismissed as irrelevant, as this ws the trial of Truman, not of somebody else.
Szilard was not a gifted fiction writer. But I found this story, and the other stories in the slim collection of his Science Fiction, both funny and profound.
The collection the story is in is entitled “The voice of the Dolphins and other stories”. I think “My trial as a war criminal” is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand war crimes trials. I found the other stories also worth reading — with the exception of the longest, “Voice of the Dolphins”.
Some lawyers have suggested that the captives who have a genuine association to bombings or other acts of violence, should face regular civilan trials, under civilian standards of justice — as bombing and acts of violence by those who aren’t lawful combatants are also civilian offenses.
With regard to the false information supplied by UK security officials to their opposite numbers in the USA — I think this illustrates the most profound danger the secrecy security officials demand is necessary poses to public safety.
In openly run institutions there are checks and balances. Audited financial statements have to be published. Reports have to be published, and are thus open to the scrutiny of experts who are not affiliated with the government that prepared them.
This is not true for security organizations. The secrecy they insist on means that their mistakes remain hidden, and their procedures can be profoundly sloppy and unfair, and no one will ever find out. Due to excessive secrecy, their mistakes can remain hidden for years, decades.
While this is, of course, profoundly unfair to individuals like Shaker, who end up being the target of security officials’ mistakes, I think it is important to remember the profound risk the entire public faces when vast counter-terrorism resources are marshalled, based on bad information, or bad reasoning.
I know I am repeating myself, but since the decision to invade Iraq is a good example of a decision based on bad information, I am going to repeat how correct you have been Andy to make public the discrepancy between what Colin Powell said the interrogations of Ibn Al Shaykh Al Libi established, and what we can now presume was the actual relationship between Al Libi and Al Qaeda and between Al Libi and Iraq.
I think you and I, and most people who have looked into it for themselves, have concluded that Ibn Al Shaykh Al Libi, with the assistance of Abu Zubaydah, ran a training camp that was not an al Qaeda camp, as torture apologists have claimed. Rather theirs was a rival camp. Their camp competed with al Qaeda for sponsors among the pool of oil-rich donors, who believed all observant muslims should undergo military training, and were willing to bankroll camps where the less well off could get that military training. I think the more responsible counter-terrorism analysts have quietly acknowledged that neither of these men were ever members of al Qaeda — although they were once touted as number 3 in the organization.
Colin Powell also claimed that Al Libi confessed Iraq sent trainers to Al Libi’s camp to train recruits in how to use weapons of mass destruction.
Thanks, Victoria. Good to hear from you, and interesting that you note the cases of Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah, both of which are very important to me, as they are regarded as “too dangerous to release” by the US government, even though there is no reliable evidence against them.
Thanks, arcticredriver, for the fascinating comments, as ever. I had not heard previously about the author whose story left a profound impression on you, but it made me think how important it is to allow young people access to material that questions authority.
As for al-Libi and the important anecdote about how torture produces false confessions, I think it can safely be repeated until those who defend torture recognize that they are wrong, and that nothing good will come of their violent enthusiasms.
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