On April 24, 2013, eleven years, two months and ten days after Shaker Aamer, a British resident, arrived at Guantánamo, his case was finally the subject of a Parliamentary debate. The trigger for this was an e-petition to the British government, calling on ministers to “undertake urgent new initiatives to achieve the immediate transfer of Shaker Aamer to the UK from continuing indefinite detention in Guantánamo Bay,” which secured over 100,000 signatures, through the tireless work of numerous campaigners, making it eligible for a discussion in Parliament.
Jane Ellison, the Conservative MP for Battersea, Shaker’s constituency, requested the debate, which took place in Westminster Hall, and it will, hopefully, be followed sometime next month by a full debate in the House of Commons.
Below I’m cross-posting the transcript of the debate, in which, as I explained yesterday when I posted photos from a demonstration in Parliament Square that followed the debate, the MPs who spoke made “an unassailable case for Shaker’s immediate release.”
Primarily, these MPs were Jane Ellison, the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and the Labour MPs John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Yasmin Qureshi. Also present, and making short statements or asking questions were the Labour MPs Kerry McCarthy, Jim Cunningham, Stephen Timms, John Woodcock, Russell Brown, Gavin Shukur, Andy Slaughter and Anas Sarwar, the Conservative MP Mike Freer, Mark Durkan of the SDLP and the Independent MP Eric Joyce.
Most of them feature in this transcript of the first part of the debate, and, to reiterate, the speeches were very powerful and I hope you have the time to read them and also to share them.
In the second part, to follow, I’ll post the government’s reply, via Alistair Burt, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, which, sadly if predictably, was deeply unsatisfying, as Mr. Burt repeated the platitudes to which we have become accustomed and failed to respect the concerns of those who signed the petition — over 117,000 in total — and the gravity of Shaker’s situation.
Shaker is one of 86 prisoners still held (out of 166 in total), who were cleared for release by an inter-agency task force established by President Obama when he took office in 2009 (when he also promised to close Guantánamo within a year), and he was also cleared for release under President Bush in 2007. To hold men without charge or trial, in a vile experimental prison, and then to clear them for release, to tell them that the US no longer wants to hold them, but then not to release them strikes me as a type of cruelty that the most heartless sadists would be proud of, and for it to be happening under President Obama is a bitter pill to swallow for those us who thought, when he took office, that he would be true to his word, and would close the prison.
Those of us who care about the need to close the abomination that is Guantánamo must keep up the pressure on the British government to secure Shaker Aamer’s release, and n the American government to resume the process of closing Guantánamo by releasing the 86 cleared prisoners. Because Congress has raised obstacles designed to prevent the release of any prisoner to any country that lawmakers regard as dangerous, that process has to begin with the release of the only resident of a western country still in Guantánamo — Shaker Aamer, a resident not just of a western country, but of America’s staunchest ally in the “war on terror,” the UK.
I’ll hand over now to Jane Ellison and her fellow MPs, to let them give you their considered and well-researched take on the sad, unforgivable story of how Shaker Aamer, resisting injustice every day, has spent the last 4,089 days in a vile prison that should never have existed, and that urgently and desperately needs to be closed.
Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con):
Good morning. I am pleased to open the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to welcome colleagues here to support this important debate. I thank everyone who signed the e-petition that helped to secure it and I am glad that we were able to do so so quickly after the e-petition hit the 100,000 signature threshold. I thank everyone who made that happen, including the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the Speaker, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).
Guantánamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and the practice of effectively interning detainees without due process are wrong, and worse, a foreign policy disaster for our important ally, the United States. However, I am not here today to try to solve the problems of Guantánamo Bay or make general criticisms of US foreign policy — those debates are for another time. I am leading the debate with the sole aim of understanding what more the British Government and the US authorities can do to make the release of Mr Shaker Aamer, my constituent, and his return back to his family in London — the clearly stated policy of the British Government — more likely.
The debate has been given greater urgency by reports of a new round of hunger strikes, which started on 6 February, and conflicting information about Mr Aamer’s health. His US lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have confirmed that Mr Aamer is one of at least 63 detainees involved in the hunger strike. From previous legal declarations made by Mr Stafford Smith following visits to his client in Guantánamo Bay, I understand that Shaker Aamer’s health was already poor and declining, even before the current round of hunger strikes began. Mr Aamer now fears that he will die in the camp, and his family and I, and many others, are extremely concerned for his physical and mental well-being. The US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, James N. Miller, wrote to me on 26 February stating that Mr Aamer was in “good health”. The Minister wrote to me on 17 April telling me a US official had stated: “Mr Aamer is in a stable condition” and that “he is being offered medical treatment”.
Mr Aamer’s lawyers have a long-standing request that the Foreign Office persuades the US authorities to allow an independent doctor to visit Mr Aamer in Guantánamo. It was arranged at Britain’s request for Binyam Mohamed, a former detainee and British resident. Will the Minister consider reinforcing that request?
Further to that, recent reports of US troops in riot gear assaulting the minimum security wing of the facility with batons and rubber bullets are particularly troubling. Mr Aamer reports to his lawyer that he is being “assaulted”, as he puts it, by the so-called forcible cell extraction team when he asks for anything, including his medication. I am concerned, and Parliament should be concerned, about the apparent disconnect between the various reports from Guantánamo Bay and what US authorities say to our Government. Will the Minister comment on that?
Many people here will be aware of the details of Mr Aamer’s case, but for those who are not, a bit of background might be helpful. Shaker Aamer is a 46-year-old Saudi national and a permanent resident of the UK. He had permission to live in the UK indefinitely, based on his marriage to a British national. Mr Aamer has been held by the US Government, without charge, in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for more than 11 years. He met his wife, Zinneera, in 1996 and started a family in London. His wife and four children, Johina, Michael, Saif and Faris — all of whom are British citizens — live in Battersea and are my constituents. His father-in-law, Mr Siddiqui, who started the e-petition, lives in Tooting, as do many of his supporters. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is in his place; he cannot speak because he is a Front Bencher, but I am grateful for his support for the debate and for the ongoing campaign to free Mr Aamer.
In the summer of 2001, Mr Aamer went with his wife to Afghanistan. Shortly after, coalition forces entered the country. He managed to get his wife and children safe passage out of Afghanistan and they eventually arrived home. He had to separate from his family to protect them because, like many other foreign nationals, particularly Arabs, Mr Aamer was picked up by Afghan warlords and sold to the American forces, who were apparently paying thousands of dollars in bounties for anyone suspected of being an enemy combatant. After a short time at the detention facility in Kabul, he was transferred to the US Bagram airbase and then to the US Kandahar base, before being rendered to Guantánamo. He arrived at Guantánamo Bay on 14 February 2002, the day his youngest child, Faris, the son he has never met, was born in London. The explanation of why he was in Afghanistan is, in my view, beside the point. I have never met Mr Aamer and have never taken a view on why he was there. The fact remains that he languishes in Guantánamo Bay and has been there for more than 11 years without a charge being brought against him associated with his time in Afghanistan or any other period.
Shaker Aamer is one of the last 166 detainees still held at the facility, out of a total of 779 brought there from around the world from January 2002 onwards. He is Detainee 239. He has been cleared for transfer on two separate occasions by the US Government: in June 2007, when the Bush Administration conceded they had no evidence against him; and again in 2009, following the review of detainees initiated by President Obama’s Executive Order 13492, called “Review and Disposition of Individuals Detained at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and Closure of Detention Facilities”. It was headed by Special Envoy Daniel Fried and was one of newly elected President Obama’s first executive orders. The transfer clearance document issue to Mr Aamer in November of 2009 was explicit:
“On January 22, 2009, the President of the United States ordered a new review of the status of each detainee at Guantánamo. As a result of that review, you” — that is, Shaker Aamer — “have been approved for transfer out of Guantánamo. The United States Government needs to make appropriate arrangements for your transfer and this will require negotiation with countries where you could be possibly transferred. We cannot at this time give you a specific time for your transfer. The United States Government intends to transfer you as soon as appropriate arrangements can be made.”
The meaning of the document is clear: he was allowed to go to “countries” — plural, which is important — and it should happen as “soon as appropriate arrangements” could be made. The US now apparently says he has only ever been cleared for transfer to Saudi Arabia. That is not Mr Aamer’s wish, not least because it would mean abandoning his family in London. Three years on, of course, he has not been transferred anywhere: Mr Aamer remains in Guantánamo Bay. Rupert Cornwell, in The Observer, summed up the situation well when he said that “even George Orwell would have been pressed to conceive the plight” of Shaker Aamer and other detainees in his situation, “cleared for release, but denied freedom”.
Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is on a subject on which she has campaigned hard. I apologise that I need to step out for a meeting, but I will return for the rest of the debate. Does she agree that this detention without trial is a stain on a democracy? To hold an individual for that period without bringing charges is not acceptable and is akin to the treatment in Soviet gulags, which the Americans criticised throughout the cold war.
I could not agree more; it is exactly that. It is one of the distinguishing lines that we should draw between our mature democracies and those we have criticised over many years. For many decades, the west criticised the gulags of the Soviet era, yet we seem to have replicated them.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab):
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; she makes a compelling case. Can she shed any light on the change from what we thought was clearance to be freed to clearance to go only to Saudi Arabia? I have seen it reported in the press. Does she know how that change in, presumably, the US position occurred?
In short, no. That is one of the things I hope to tease out in the debate. The US did not specify any countries at the time, but clearly said “countries where appropriate arrangements can be made.” I shall go on to make the case that the UK is the most appropriate country with which those arrangements could be made.
Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab):
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; she has done a good service here today. Perhaps the Minister will give a better answer, but does she know the British Government’s attitude to the change that has meant that the individual can go only to Saudi Arabia?
It is the clear and oft stated policy of the British Government that Shaker Aamer should be released and returned to the UK. There has never been any equivocation, but I am sure the Minister will expand on that more fully.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On the question of “Why Saudi Arabia?”, will she comment on the increasing speculation that Mr Aamer is cleared for only that country precisely because it would prevent him from speaking out against his abuse―abuse in which it looks very likely that the UK authorities might have been complicit?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; I know she is going to make her own contribution later. I have come around to the view that that is one of the only credible explanations, and I will talk about it later.
After 11 years, it is clear that the US does not have sufficient evidence against Shaker Aamer to bring charges, because if it did, it surely would have done so by now, as it has for many other detainees. We are left, therefore, with the fundamental questions: Why is Shaker Aamer still being held, and what are the conditions under which he may return to the UK? I put those questions directly to Brigadier General Mark Martins, chief prosecutor of the US office of military commissions in Guantánamo, when he came to the House of Commons last September, and to Leon Panetta, the outgoing US Secretary of Defence, when he visited the House in January. The official reason they both gave for Mr Aamer’s continued detention was that he was being held under “the law of war … intended to prevent his return to the battlefield for the duration of hostilities in which he was previously engaged.”
That concerns me for many reasons. First, there is no credible evidence that Mr Aamer was ever engaged in “hostilities”. Secondly, the duration period described is incredibly vague. When he responds, will the Minister say whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has an understanding of what that might mean? Does it mean for, for example, the duration of the US deployment to Afghanistan? Will it extend beyond the US troop draw-down from Afghanistan? That is important, because it might lead to an eventual release date.
In our country, even those convicted of very serious crimes know what sentence they must serve before they can be released, yet at this point Shaker Aamer has no such light at the end of the tunnel, even though other such difficult cases have been resolved. For example, the case of another British resident, Binyam Mohamed, who was often mentioned in the same breath as Mr Aamer, was also considered difficult and the US was initially reluctant to release him, but military charges against him were dropped and he was released to the UK in February 2009.
Although I have been encouraged on many occasions by Ministers’ repeated public declarations of official Government policy to return Mr Aamer to the UK, and by the frequency with which his case has been raised, Mr Aamer remains in Guantánamo. It is time, therefore, to explore other means of securing his release. That might, I suspect, involve increasing the pressure on the US Government, and pulling diplomatic levers that have not yet been considered. Diplomatically, how might the Government respond if another foreign Government were holding a British resident without charge? I know that Ministers have called for Mr Aamer’s release, but perhaps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should go further and consider making a public declaration, condemning his continued detention.
The US is one of Britain’s oldest and firmest friends. We are close allies and significant trading partners. Even if Ministers have to ruffle some diplomatic feathers to see Mr Aamer released, our relationship with the US would endure. Indeed, as I have said, releasing Mr Aamer to the UK would surely help President Obama to take another step towards fulfilling his now five-year-old pledge to close Guantánamo Bay.
There are a number of theories about why Mr Aamer remains detained. In The Mail on Sunday last week, David Rose suggested that Mr Aamer might have been present during the torture of another detainee who, I understand, later gave false information that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Clive Stafford Smith and others believe that the UK security services could be briefing against Mr Aamer through intelligence-sharing channels to keep him detained, perhaps to protect their reputation against accusations of complicity in torture. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought assurances that UK security services are not responsible for, or contributing to, Mr Aamer’s ongoing detention? I realise that the content of any such discussions cannot be shared, but have they even taken place?
Another route, which was discussed in detail with the Foreign Secretary and Mr Aamer’s lawyers when we met in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year, is through the US’s National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2013. The NDAA regulates defence spending, including on Guantánamo Bay, and also regulates how and when detainees can be transferred or released. Before 2012, granting certifications for transfers was made all but impossible because of the demanding obligations placed on the Secretary of State for Defence and others — the bar was set very high. However, since January 2012, the NDAA has included a new waiver mechanism, which allows the Secretary of State for Defence to release prisoners if any risk associated with their release has been “substantially mitigated” — that is the key phrase used. In October 2012, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the NDAA 2012 and its new waiver mechanism might make Mr Aamer’s release more likely, and he agreed to pursue the matter of securing a waiver with any new US Administration. Is the Minister able to comment on whether any progress towards identifying and addressing the obstacles has been made?
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op):
I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is asking all the right questions. Does she agree that it is the lack of transparency that is so damaging, and the sense that justice is being perpetually denied and delayed? Ultimately, that gives succour to the enemies of Britain and the US.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. It is the ultimate stain on democracy. A man should know why he is being deprived of his liberty and what he must do to win it back. That is how I come at it; that is one of the fundamental principles on which mature democracies base their thinking.
Will the Minister comment on whether some of the waiver steps have been satisfied, and what further steps we could take in Britain to satisfy the US authorities? One of the US’s concerns is the possible recidivism of released detainees, or, in the case of the many who did not commit an act of terrorism in the first place, whether their treatment in Guantánamo has inspired them to violence. Releases depend largely on whether the receiving country is trustworthy and able to demonstrate that it can significantly mitigate any risks of recidivism, and I strongly suggest that the UK is eminently trustworthy in that regard. After all, the US trusts us in a range of sensitive areas, for example shared intelligence and co-operation on joint military operations. Additionally, the NDAA requires the publication of a detailed report on incidences of recidivism and the countries in which they take place.
The UK has an exemplary record on reintegrating released detainees. To my knowledge, among all the Guantánamo detainees released to Britain, the sum total of recidivistic activity is a single speeding ticket. Indeed, I understand that the UK has the best record of any country to which a significant number of prisoners have been returned. The UK itself lives with a significant ongoing threat level from international terrorism, and the fact that the UK Government are pressing for Mr Aamer’s return to this country is surely the clearest possible demonstration that they do not regard him as a risk, especially given that he is not a British citizen.
Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab):
I congratulate the hon. Lady — on behalf, also, of my constituents — on raising the case today and on the detail with which she is going into the case. I want to highlight recent comments made by my constituents, which state that there is clearly no reason why Mr Aamer cannot be handed over to the UK authorities for them to carry out the investigation. The UK authorities are trusted by most people in this country, and my constituents feel that that would be the right step, and the very least that could be done to move the case forward.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and it is a question not only of trust but of track record, as I have laid out. It is not something that has to be taken on trust; it is something that the British authorities have demonstrated, time and again, they are capable of doing.
Perhaps there are other simpler steps that our Government could take to mitigate the risk in the eyes of the US authorities. As I have said, if Mr Aamer is apparently being held under “the law of war” to “prevent his return to the battlefield”, could the UK Government not seek assurances that he would not travel back to Afghanistan, or to any other prescribed country that the US considered a battlefield, to satisfy the concern? Could travel restrictions be placed on him? Indeed, I understand from his US lawyer that Mr Aamer has agreed voluntarily to accept any such travel restrictions, and even to report regularly to the police.
Here we have it: in simple terms, the President of the United States says that he wants to close Guantánamo Bay, and a trusted ally wants to bring that ambition one man closer to fruition. It must be possible for one of the world’s leading nations to explain to a trusted ally what is standing in the way of making that happen.
This might surprise some people, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the security services, which probably keep us safe every day in ways we will never know. However, if someone in the intelligence community is blocking Shaker Aamer’s release, and if mistakes have been made in the past, they will come out in the end because that is the nature of our free societies. But how much worse would it be if, when they did, they showed that a man was allowed slowly to die, to shield the institutions of our democracies from embarrassment and exposure? Our institutions are more robust than that.
We are here today discussing a political problem, but behind the politics and the diplomacy there is a family tragedy. On behalf of Mr Aamer’s wife, Zineera and his children, Johina, Michael, Saif and Faris, I call upon everyone of good will to work together to secure the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on securing this debate. Shaker Aamer is not one of my constituents, but his case has been followed by many people over the years, as has what is happening in Guantánamo Bay. I will try not to repeat points already made by the hon. Lady, but I will deal with some other issues.
When there is an incident such as 11 September, one can understand that, to protect its citizens, the natural reaction of the state is to scoop up everyone, put them in prisons or detention camps, and then search for the evidence to prosecute them or do whatever needs to be done. In this case, it seems that for 11 years — that is a long time — someone has been kept in detention, with no charges brought against them and no trial carried out, which cannot be right.
The European convention on human rights says that in times of conflict, countries can derogate from certain articles, even from the right to a fair trial. Cases of people imprisoned for four to five years have gone to the European Court of Human Rights, which has said that such treatment is not unlawful because of the individual circumstances, but all those cases involved people who had actually been charged with an offence and were awaiting trial, although delays had occurred for whatever reasons. In this case, the person has not even been charged, which is the really important point.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op):
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the tone in which she is continuing this debate. She is making some powerful points. Does she not go to the heart of the question when she says that we understand that situations will always emerge that are in some way murky, but that an important part of the process is normalising relationships back to what they were? This case serves only to show how little we have advanced in the past 11 years.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should try to normalise and humanise all such situations, and to resolve the conflict. At the end of the day, America is one of the greatest democracies in the world, under the rule of law, for which we admire it. The situation has been a big stain on its reputation internationally, and dealing with all this―resolving the issue of Guantánamo Bay and, of course, the case of Shaker Aamer―would help its reputation in the world. That would give it back its credibility and respect, which it is losing as it continues the Guantánamo Bay detentions, including of Shaker Aamer.
As I have said, there have been cases in the European Court of people who have been in custody for a long time, but no charge has been made in the case we are discussing. As a former prosecutor, I know that international criminal laws are so wide that if people have committed an offence — they do not actually have to have set off a bomb or to have shot someone, but all jurisdictions in the world have the concept of attempting to commit a crime, where people try but do not manage to complete the offence — they can be charged. However, that is not relevant to this case. There is also what is called aiding and abetting, which means that if people counsel, aid, procure, encourage or in any form or shape assist in the commission of an offence, they can be prosecuted. In virtually all jurisdictions, such people are treated as though they were the main participator — although sentences tend to vary — so individuals can be caught even under those provisions.
The fact that that has not happened in relation to Mr Shaker Aamer and others in Guantánamo Bay, who have still not been charged with anything and still languish in prison, is, legally, fundamentally wrong. Eleven years later, it cannot be right that people are being detained in custody apparently for eternity — there seems to be no foreseeable release.
I am grateful to our Government for making efforts to get Shaker Aamer released. The Foreign Secretary has said that he is anxious to get him back, so that we can repair some of the damage done to him. Britain has of course said that it will not charge him with any offence. That again shows that we cannot just have people in indefinite detention, perhaps for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, he was there legitimately, teaching — as he has said — and, because of the bombing, he tried to leave the country where he was working, but was then detained.
Fundamentally, this all boils down to the fact that either someone is prosecuted or they are not. The American Government say that Shaker Aamer is an unlawful combatant and does not therefore come within the parameters of the ordinary criminal law. However, international conventions state that somebody cannot just be held for ever; they must be prosecuted or released.
In relation to the frequently used term “unlawful combatant”, a soldier serving a country in an armed conflict who is arrested by another country would be a “lawful combatant”, meaning that they might be treated as a prisoner of war, and only if they were not part of the armed services of a particular state but were involved in some kind of illicit fighting or wrongdoing would they be an unlawful combatant. Even so, they are entitled to rights, including to a proper trial by an independent tribunal.
Many international organisations have found that the trial system in American military courts has no transparency and contravenes all principles of natural justice and fairness of trial. I would therefore say that even a trial in the American military courts would be wrong, but even that has not happened. No legal process is being carried on. I know that that has been emphasised, but why this is happening is beyond understanding.
It has been suggested, certainly by his lawyer, that one reason Shaker Aamer has not been released is that he has stood up for his rights in prison. He certainly did so when he was arrested. There is also the fact that he is now on hunger strike. He has not seen his children or wife; in fact, one of his sons was born soon after he was detained and he has not even seen him.
I therefore ask the Minister what discussions there have been with the Americans about their having breached international laws, which is clearly happening in this case. I could stand here and give chapter and verse on all the cases, but I do not want to bore everybody stiff with the legal niceties. As someone who specialises in human rights law and is a former prosecutor, I can honestly say of this case and the law in this area that what is happening to Shaker Aamer is completely illegal, fundamentally flawed and against all principles of justice.
Before I sit down, I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who has campaigned vigorously about the case of Shaker Aamer in particular — as well, of course, as the issue of Guantánamo Bay generally — for several years. He raised it with the previous Lord Chancellor and other people, and has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Shaker Aamer and his family. Unfortunately, as he is shadow Lord Chancellor, he is not able to participate in this debate today, although he is present in the Chamber, and has been here from the start of the debate. I want to thank him and pay tribute to him for his hard work over a number of years. I also want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Battersea for securing this debate.
The Minister is an honourable and good man, and the Foreign Secretary is of the same calibre as well. I urge them to carry on with the negotiations so that we can please have the return of Shaker Aamer, as his detention is a blot on the reputation of America for upholding freedom and rights.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay tribute to my colleague, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has secured this debate today, for doing her utmost to represent Shaker and to press for his release. Many of my constituents in Brighton, Pavilion have been active in the campaign to bring Shaker home, and I want to pay tribute to them and to everybody who has kept the issue at the top of the agenda by standing opposite the House of Commons, come rain or shine, reminding people that this is a stain on all of our reputations and that, until it is sorted out, we are not worthy of being called a democracy.
Shaker Aamer is the last British resident being held in Guantánamo Bay. He is a legal permanent resident of the UK and has a wife and four children living in London, all of whom are British citizens. He has never met his youngest son who was born on 14 February 2002 — the day that he was transferred to Guantánamo. During his 11 years of detention, Shaker has been tortured by US agents by having his head repeatedly banged against a wall, and has witnessed the torture of another UK resident. He has spent more than 1,000 nights in a windowless isolation cell, and, when first detained, he was starved, kept awake for nine days in a row and chained into positions that made the slightest movement unbearable. Under those conditions, Shaker said he was delirious and confessed to whatever the Americans wanted just to make the torture stop.
Shaker has recently been subjected to a number of violent forced cell extractions, or FCEs, which have resulted in bruising and other injuries. Specifically, Shaker has been FCE-d while trying to pray and also in a manner that was excruciatingly painful as a result of a long-term back injury that he sustained during his treatment at Bagram air force base in Afghanistan.
Shaker has been subjected to sleep deprivation as a result of excessive noise made by the guards, but, as of the end of March, his official complaints have been ignored. In 2005, he was placed in isolation for 360 days for his role in organising a hunger strike after military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying. The prison rules permit isolation for only 30 days. Shaker has seen other prisoners treated in gratuitously violent ways, including being hospitalised and/or rendered unconscious as a result of FCEs. He also reports that a fellow prisoner has recently attempted suicide.
Shaker’s treatment and the existence of Guantánamo Bay is a clear reminder that some of the worst consequences of the war on terror remain with us today. It is worth repeating, because it remains so shocking, that Shaker has never been charged with any offence. The ongoing torture that is the hopelessness of indefinite detention has resulted in Shaker embarking on a desperate hunger strike that has lasted more than 70 days to date. Experts say that the possibility of death becomes an imminent risk after 40 days.
The impact of 11 years of detention and mistreatment and now this hunger strike has understandably taken its toll on Shaker’s health. Reprieve’s Clive Stafford Smith reported last year, after meeting Shaker, that his health is increasingly fragile; he has extreme kidney pain and serious asthma problems. There is a real chance that, unless he is released as a matter of urgency, Shaker will die in Guantánamo. That fact makes this debate more urgent than could possibly be imagined. Very rarely when we say that issues are a matter of life or death do we mean it quite so literally or quite so imminently as is the case this morning.
As hon. Members have heard, Shaker was officially cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo in June 2007 when a security assessment by the US Government acknowledged that it had no concrete evidence against him. He is also in possession of a US official document that 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 …”
Shaker remains in detention despite that clearance, which is a complicated process involving multiple federal agencies, 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, widespread international condemnation and a pledge by President Obama at the start of his term of office to close down Guantánamo. That is why we underline the question, “Why is Shaker still there?” That is the question to which I hope the Minister will supply some answers in his response.
Neither of the two clearances of 2007 or 2009 limited its application to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, there has been no clearance that has been geographically limited in that way in the past. However, according to Shaker’s lawyers, the US has told the Foreign Secretary that Shaker’s clearance is limited to release to Saudi Arabia. As the hon. Member for Battersea said, that makes no rational sense. Britain has the best record of all countries in taking prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. Of the 14 people released to Britain, nine nationals and five residents, none has any involvement in extremism. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia, which has a vaunted rehabilitation programme, a larger number have committed subsequent acts.
That is what leads us to the uncomfortable conclusion that the only possible reason for sending Shaker to Saudi Arabia is to stop him from speaking out about his abuse — abuse in which the UK authorities have been complicit. As was reported at the weekend in The Observer newspaper, Shaker is allegedly able to describe in detail how a UK intelligence agent was present while he was beaten. He also claims that a British operative was present while a US interrogator repeatedly smashed his head against a wall shortly before he was sent to Guantánamo.
According to Shaker’s US lawyer, Britain’s intelligence agencies have also been defaming Shaker to the US, passing on false information and accusing him of extremism, which is also holding up his release. If he is right, Shaker is being deprived of his liberty on the basis of lies that he is unable to challenge, which is why he has begun defamation action against MI5 and MI6. Ironically, such action could be pushed into a secret court under the terms of the Justice and Security Bill, leaving him once again unable to confront his accusers or to challenge the evidence used by the Government against him.
The Metropolitan police has now opened three new investigations into UK intelligence collusion with torture and rendition, including Shaker Aamer’s case, and that is in addition to MI6’s role in the kidnapping of Libyan residents and their families in 2004 for which the Government have already paid out more than £2 million in compensation. Earlier this month, Scotland Yard detectives interviewed Shaker Aamer in Guantánamo, which is perhaps why the Government are so keen to force through their secret court hearings in national security cases through the Justice and Security Bill.
The US has repeatedly turned its back on international law, giving a green light to detention without trial and to the gross violations of human rights at Guantánamo and at prison facilities around the world. However, it is not enough to sit back and blame the US authorities when so many questions about the UK’s role remain unanswered, and when, despite welcome public statements from our Government about their commitment to securing his release, Shaker is still not free.
I hope the Minister can answer some of these questions today, including whether or not UK intelligence agencies have been passing false information to the US regarding Shaker, the result of which is his continued detention. Will the Government confirm whether such information that has been passed was marked “not for executive action”, by which I mean that it should not have been used for actions such as holding someone in prison, particularly in illegal indefinite detention such as at Guantánamo Bay? Have steps been taken to ensure that any information that was previously provided to the US should not be used against Shaker on pain of sanctions? What response has been given to each of the Government’s requests for Shaker’s return? Has the Secretary of State received letters that Shaker has sent to him directly, as he is concerned that they may not have cleared Guantanamo censorship? Have the Government raised with the US authorities any possible breach of international law by the Americans, and, critically, will the Minister assure us today that he can absolutely guarantee that we really can hold our heads high and say that the UK has not been complicit in the abuses that Shaker has suffered?
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab):
I will just make three simple statements.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and others who have assisted in securing this debate, but more importantly I thank Joy Hurcombe and the campaigners on this issue. I thank them for being outside Parliament year after year, in all weathers, and to be frank it has been a privilege for us to be able to stand alongside them each time; I and a number of hon. Members who are here today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), have stood with them. I just want to place that on the record — Joy and the other campaigners have been the conscience of this country throughout this campaign in support of Shaker Aamer’s family.
My second point has just been touched upon, but I just want to be very clear about why this situation has happened. The reality is that, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has just said, Shaker is a key witness in exposing the torture and rendition that were undertaken; it was not only undertaken by the US but this country’s intelligence services were complicit with it. I think that this detention is an attempt to ensure that that witness never appears in a court, because Shaker would be able to expose all of that, and he would do this country a service, whereby we might make some attempt to regain control of this country’s intelligence services, which I believe have been operating out of control for a considerable number of years.
Thirdly, what are the efforts that have taken place? My own view is that the efforts have been slight. I do not doubt that Ministers have raised this matter time and again with the US Government. I must say, as an aside, that I am deeply disappointed with Obama. I am deeply disappointed that he has not closed down Guantánamo; I am deeply disappointed that he seems to have put off closing it even further; and in his second term there is nothing for him to lose. He could actually close down Guantánamo and release Shaker immediately without any political cost at the end of the day.
Although I do not doubt the sincerity of Ministers, I am not sure about the scale of the efforts that have been made and their effectiveness. I also have to say that even if Ministers have been sincere and even if efforts have been made, the reality is that our own intelligence services have been undermining those efforts and representations throughout this period, and that issue should be part of the investigation that we now need to undertake. Reference has been made to the supply of information by intelligence services to the US that seems to have undermined the case that our own Ministers have made.
My view is that the Foreign Secretary should be summoning the American ambassador now, to say that this Government have had enough. We have had the conversations, year after year, and they have had no effect whatever. If that causes an international incident, I do not care any more. We are talking about someone whose life might be lost in the coming months. That is more significant than upsetting one of our supposed allies.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to go back to the Prime Minister and say that we now need — at least in the next week, if not in the next 24 hours — a telephone call from our Prime Minister to the US President to say that this matter is a key issue of concern for our Parliament and our Government, and that we insist upon the release of Shaker Aamer.
Let us leave the last words to Shaker himself. Let me just quote from his statement in The Observer:
“I hope that I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children and watch them as they grow. But if it is God’s will that I should die here, I want to die with dignity. I hope, if the worst comes to the worst, that my children will understand that I cared for the rights of those suffering around me almost as much as I care for them.”
That was his statement. Our job is to ensure that he does not die in custody, and the responsibility of our Government is to confront our own intelligence services and ensure that he does not die in custody.
That is a basic responsibility that we have, and we cannot put it off any further. We cannot resort again to using mellowed words with the US Government. We need to be more direct and more forceful in that relationship.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab):
First, I apologise for missing the first part of the contribution of the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). I commend her for securing this debate and I also commend the campaigners who have done such an incredible job for so long.
What we have in Guantánamo Bay is a legal black hole, where no law applies, no justice applies, and those who remain there must wonder if they have any future whatever. That goes on with the complicity of the United States and — because of our inability to gain the release of everyone else from Guantánamo Bay — the complicity of many other Governments around the world.
In the recently produced “Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report”, there is — commendably — a section on Guantánamo Bay, in which the Government say:
“The Government maintains that the indefinite detention without trial of persons in Guantánamo Bay is unacceptable and that the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay should be closed.”
The report goes on to say that the issue has been raised with “the then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta” and that the Government will work with the USA to secure the release. I hope that, when he responds to the debate, the Minister can tell us what possible justification the US Government continue to offer for maintaining Guantánamo Bay despite the many protestations of President Obama before his election five years ago that the first thing he would do would be to close it down. There has been no problem whatever, as hon. Members have pointed out, with any of the British nationals who have been released from Guantánamo Bay, who, in fact, have made a commendable contribution to arguments for justice and for closing it down.
The treatment of Shaker Aamer is appalling by any standards. The stories he will be able to tell will frighten an awful lot of people, and they will show just how precious an independent legal system is and just how precious it is to be able to represent yourself and your case in court. He is stuck there, experiencing great difficulty and with no right of access to US justice. Indeed, if he was able to get into court at the present time I do not think that any British or European court would accept the case, because somebody who has been in detention for so long, who has been so badly treated and who has spent such a long period in solitary confinement could not possibly give any credible evidence. As a result, he would have to be released immediately.
I conclude by saying that our function as a Parliament in a democracy is to hold the Government to account, and it is the function of the Government to try to ensure that all British nationals and residents are able to enjoy freedom, democracy and access to justice. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he can tell us exactly what excuses the USA continues to offer for this travesty of justice that is still going on and this appalling detention that is continuing.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I, too, join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on securing this debate on behalf of Shaker Aamer and his family. His case is a cause of great concern to MPs of all parties, as demonstrated by the turnout in Westminster Hall today and, of course, by the number of signatures — more than 117,000 — on the e-petition site. I know that the hon. Lady has already done a great deal to push for Mr Aamer’s return to his family, who live in her constituency. As others have done, I also want to mention the role played by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I know that it is very frustrating for him not to be able to speak in the debate today, given his previous work — during his time not only in the House, but as a human rights lawyer — on this and related issues. However, he is obviously with us in spirit, if in silence.
First, although I am sure that it does not need restating, I want to place on the record that Labour is completely opposed to Guantánamo Bay. We removed all British citizens and all but one British resident from Guantánamo Bay through our diplomatic efforts when we were in government. Indeed, we were the first country to ensure that all its citizens were removed from Guantánamo Bay. We are now left in a position whereby Mr Aamer is the sole remaining British resident there, and every effort should be made to end his detention without trial.
As we have heard, although Mr Aamer is a Saudi citizen he is a British resident, married to a British national and the father of four British citizens, the youngest of whom he has never had the chance to meet, as he was actually airlifted to Guantánamo Bay on the day that his youngest son was born.
I understand that the Minister is responding to this debate as his portfolio includes counter-terrorism. Although national security is, of course, a paramount concern for both the US and UK Governments, the continued existence of Guantánamo Bay is also a fundamental human rights issue, which, many have argued — indeed, it has been said by Members in Westminster Hall today — is more likely to have jeopardised than safeguarded American security.
After Mr Aamer’s arrest in November 2001 in Afghanistan, he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay on 14 February 2002; as I said, that was the day that his youngest son was born. Mr Aamer’s legal representatives at Reprieve claim that his treatment at Bagram airfield, allegedly including sleep deprivation and physical abuse, led him to make a false confession, which has since been used to justify his detention without trial for more than 11 years. Mr Aamer denies all accusations of involvement with al-Qaeda, but has not had the opportunity to answer any of these charges in a trial.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that, apart from sleep deprivation and everything else, Mr Aamer’s head was banged against the wall quite a few times when all these things were happening?
These suggestions have been put forward by Mr Aamer and his lawyers. Obviously, there would be grave concerns if that were the case. We also know that defamation cases are going on in terms of other suggestions that have been made against him.
Mr Aamer not been charged; that has come out during the debate. Perhaps we could understand it if he were being held without charge just while investigations were proceeding, and there were reasons that could not be revealed to anyone for why he was being held without trial, but he has been cleared for release. That is what people find baffling. It is estimated that 86 of the remaining prisoners have been cleared for release. Mr Aamer was first cleared under the Bush presidency in 2007 and subsequently by President Obama’s Administration in 2009.
That Guantánamo detainees are held indefinitely, without the right to a fair trial, is itself a serious affront to international human rights standards. Indeed, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned Guantánamo Bay, asserting: “The continuing indefinite incarceration of many of the detainees amounts to arbitrary detention and is in clear breach of international law”. She also referred to, “the systematic abuse of individuals’ human rights”.
It is not only prisoners’ detention that is of such concern to human rights campaigners, but the reports of their treatment, which Mr Aamer’s lawyer has described as “gratuitous torture”. We have heard accounts of that.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP):
Does my hon. Friend share the conclusion that many of us have reached: that this man continues to be detained, not because of any evidence against him, but because of the evidence that he can offer against the torture system that he has experienced, including the complicity of British intelligence services? Does she also appreciate that there is suspicion that the American authorities say they are getting one message from the political wing of the British Government, but getting very different, and damnable, messages from the intelligence wing of the British Government?
All hon. Members in this Chamber, with the exception perhaps of the Minister, can only speculate about the reasons why Mr Aamer has not been released. I hope that the Minister will tell us all that he can about the discussions that have taken place about the reasons given for his continued detention.
I do not think that the suggestion that Mr Aamer would be likely to be involved in terrorism activities, or would in any way be a danger to the public if he returned to Britain, holds water. As has been said, the other people who have returned to this country have not been involved in such activity. As far as I know, that has not been alleged.
As I said in my speech — I wonder whether the hon. Lady agrees — whatever might be revealed, it will always come out in the end, because in free societies it does. Our institutions are robust enough. Many hon. Members voted to go to war on what turned out to be a false precept under the last Government. It turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, yet our democracy has survived. Our institutions might be bloodied, but they are unbowed. Does the hon. Lady agree that, whatever might come out, we will survive it and be better as a result?
I agree. The bottom line is that we are fundamentally opposed to any collusion or complicity in torture or mistreatment. It is wrong if British or American forces were involved in any such activities. Mistreating somebody who might expose such activities in a world where we are upholding human rights law must be wrong. If such activities did occur, they need to be flushed out into the open.
Obviously, there is always that underlying security issue. The United States has the right to defend its citizens, and we have the right to defend ours, against the threat of terrorism. That sometimes means that things cannot always be as transparent — as open — as we would like them to be. However, if there is any suggestion that we are not upholding the international laws that we claim to hold dear, that is a serious matter and we cannot hide behind that.
As has been said, this debate is so urgent because Mr Aamer has now been on hunger strike for more than 70 days and experts warn that he is now beyond the point of “irreversible cognitive impairment and psychological damage”.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned reports that he is suffering with arthritis, asthma, prostate and kidney problems and severe backache. It is said that he can no longer read and is dizzy, but is reluctant to call the guards when he falls because of their previous treatment of him. Worryingly, it is claimed he is being denied water or has to endure a “forcible cell extraction” first — we have heard about that already — and there are other reports of hunger strikers being given only dirty water. According to his lawyers, Mr Aamer’s knee and back braces have been taken away, as has the blanket that he needed for his rheumatism. Papers recently filed with US courts cited “deliberate indifference” to detainees’ medical needs. Even if there were valid reasons for continuing to hold Mr Aamer in Guantánamo Bay, I think that all hon. Members would agree that he ought to be treated with respect and in accordance with the normal processes that we would expect to apply to anybody held in a prison — and not to be subject to this kind of treatment.
This is not Mr Aamer’s first hunger strike. He allegedly initiated a strike in 2005, following which he was punished with solitary confinement for 360 days. I understand that the US authorities deny the claims that Mr Aamer has been held in solitary confinement for three years. Again, we are not in a position to know whether that is so.
It is understood that 84 Guantánamo detainees are on hunger strike and five are being treated in hospital. There were reports of clashes just over a week ago, when the guards allegedly tried to end the hunger strike. It is difficult to verify conflicting reports, but it has been said that 16 people are being force-fed, in breach of the 1975 World Medical Association declaration of Tokyo, the guidelines for physicians concerning torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in relation to detention and imprisonment.
It is on the record that the Government have repeatedly called on the Obama Administration to return Mr Aamer to the UK and that must remain the pressing goal, but will the Minister say what representations have been made regarding his treatment during his detention, and the conduct of the Guantánamo guards towards the other 165 detainees? Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought information on how long and under what circumstances Mr Aamer has been held in solitary confinement? Given the grave concerns about Mr Aamer’s health, what discussions have the UK and US had on medical facilities at Guantánamo Bay; and will the FCO seek assurances that Mr Aamer is receiving the medical care he needs? What efforts have been made to ensure that Mr Aamer is, at the very least, able to speak to his lawyers?
Given the clear statements of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the USA is in breach of international law, have the Government in recent months discussed the USA’s obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights, or encouraged co-operation with UN special rapporteurs? Similarly, has the Minister raised the right to a fair trial or any objections to the military commission system?
It has been suggested that the latest hunger strike followed the reassignment of Dan Fried, President Obama’s special envoy, tasked with transferring prisoners and fulfilling the pledge to close Guantánamo Bay. Have the Government discussed the implications of that with the Obama Administration, and does the Minister still think there is a political will, within the White House at least, to eventually close the centre?
Congress and the National Defence Authorisation Act have been identified as the greater obstacles. Although the NDAA essentially precluded any transfers from Guantánamo Bay, when its provisions were renewed in 2012, I understand that a degree of flexibility was introduced for the Secretary of Defence, which the hon. Member for Battersea mentioned. Despite this, there were no releases last year. Can the Minister tell us more about the implications of the Act, as renewed in 2012, for Mr Aamer and the other detainees, and whether the Secretary of Defence is able to exercise such discretion? Have the Government raised this matter with the White House, the Department of Defence and representatives from Congress?
The question remains why, despite being cleared for release some six years ago, Mr Aamer remains in Guantánamo Bay. Can the Minister say whether, in either 2007 or 2009, Mr Aamer’s release depended on any conditions being met? For example, was he cleared to return home to his family in Battersea? We have heard that he may only have been cleared to return to Saudi Arabia. If that is the case, does the Minister share our concern that somebody with indefinite leave to remain in this country, who has a family in the UK, is married to a British citizen, has four children who are British citizens, and has not been convicted of a crime, should be sent to Saudi Arabia, about whose human rights record we have grave concerns, and which he left when he was only 17 years old?
The US authorities may dispute some of the reports emanating from Guantánamo Bay, but it seems beyond doubt that the latest hunger strike, which is seemingly one of the most serious, is a sign of the increasing desperation of detainees and perhaps a fear that the remaining 166, out of the 779 who have been held there over the years, have been completely forgotten. Can the Minister assure us that the Foreign Office remains determined to secure the release of the last remaining British resident and, more generally, to press for the closure of Guantánamo Bay? Does he share our concern, which many Members have expressed in their speeches and interventions today, that its continued existence undermines the USA’s ability to promote human rights around the world and, given that the USA is such a close ally and friend of the UK, risks undermining our credibility on international human rights as well?
Note: The photo at the top of this article is from my set on Flickr here.
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, 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 “Close Guantánamo campaign”, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Pauline Kiernan wrote:
Thanks Andy. Sharing.
Sahida Uddin wrote:
Thank you. Sharing too.
Pauline Kiernan wrote:
I so admire your tenacity, Andy. WHEN will this end?
Charmaine Dolan wrote:
Thanks again Andy.
Thanks, Pauline, Sahida and Charmain, for your interest. The MPs’ words really are very powerful. And Pauline, thank you for recognising my tenacity. I don’t know, of course, when it will end, but the injustice of it is clearly permeating parts of the US establishment, who are recognising that something needs to be done. It needs to happen before people die, as I point out in my latest article: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/04/26/exclusive-a-warning-from-guantanamo-four-prisoners-are-close-to-death-and-the-authorities-dont-care/
[...] conclusion, action is not only needed, it is needed urgently, before prisoners die. Sending Shaker Aamer, the last British resident, back to his family in the UK would be a sensible start. After all, no [...]
[...] are prepared to take them, or by returning them home as swiftly as possible, as in the cases ofShaker Aamer, the last British resident, whose family awaits his return in London, and the last five [...]
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