From Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer Tells BBC He Is “Falling Apart Like An Old Car”

31.5.13

On Guantánamo, despite President Obama’s fine words at a news conference a month ago, and in a major speech on national security last week, we wait and we wait and still nothing happens.

Eight days after he promised to resume releasing prisoners, not one of the 86 prisoners cleared for release over three years ago by the President’s own interagency task force has been freed, and the hunger strike that has been raging for nearly four months shows no sign of slowing. I believe that only the release of prisoners will do that, and yet no one has been released in the last week, even though President Obama can use a waiver in the National Defense Authorization Act to do so, bypassing Congress, which has imposed hideous restrictions on the release of prisoners.

As I explained in an article published here yesterday:

Congress imposed restrictions in the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2012 and 2013, preventing the release of prisoners to countries where even a single released prisoner is alleged to have “returned to the battlefield,” and also insisted that, in other cases, the Secretary of Defense would have to certify that any prisoner the government intended to release would not be able to engage in anti-American activities — a requirement that appears to be impossible to fulfil.

To overcome these obstacles, however, a waiver was included in the legislation, which allows the President and the Secretary of Defense to bypass Congress if they regard it as being “in the national security interests of the United States.”

The easiest prisoner release would be to send Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, home to his family in London — his British wife and his four British children. Shaker is one of the 86 cleared prisoners, and the British government wants him back — and has been calling for his return since August 2007. Lawmakers can hardly object about releasing a prisoner to the UK, and even if they did, President Obama could use his waiver.

And yet, Shaker Aamer is still held. It is hoped that there will soon be a full Parliamentary debate about his case, following an important backbench debate that took place on April 24 (see here and here), which was triggered by the successful collection of 100,000 signatures on an e-petition to the British government calling for renewed action to secure his release. In the meantime, as I have been reporting regularly over the last few months, he remains a powerful witness from inside Guantánamo of the despair that fuels the hunger strike, and of the violence with which it has been greeted by the authorities. See, for example, my articles, “From Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer Tells His Lawyer Disturbing Truths About the Hunger Strike,” ““People Are Dying Here,” Shaker Aamer Reports from Guantánamo, As Petition Calling for His Release Secures 100,000 Signatures,” “Shaker Aamer, Abandoned in Guantánamo” and “‘Torture is for Torture, the System is for the System’: Shaker Aamer’s Letters from Guantánamo.”

I don’t know what more I could possibly say to express my disgust regarding the vile injustice of the Obama administration continuing to hold Shaker, and the British government — whatever it says it is doing — failing to insist strongly enough about the ongoing imprisonment of a British resident that the US has said it no longer wants to hold, and whose release cannot be prevented by lawmakers.

However, rather than just banging my head against a wall, I’m pleased to be able to post below the extremely moving transcript of an interview the BBC conducted with Shaker, via questions that were put to him by his lawyers at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity. The BBC Radio 5 Live show is here, but is apparently only available until next week.

BBC interview with Shaker Aamer, broadcast May 29, 2013

Victoria Derbyshire: This morning we hear exclusively the words of the last British resident to be held inside Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. 47-year old Shaker Aamer says he’s “losing his mind and losing his life” inside the high security prison camp. The father of four whose youngest child was born the day he arrived in Guantánamo Bay has been held there for 11 years without charge or trial. US authorities say Shaker Aamer met Osama Bin Laden while he was working in Afghanistan in 2001 and that he led a unit of fighters against Nato troops. But as you’ll hear Shaker Aamer categorically denies either of those took place.

On this programme back in December, we heard how Mr. Aamer is suing the British intelligence services — MI5 and MI6 — over allegations that they were complicit in his alleged torture whilst in Afghanistan. Shaker Aamer confirms this morning to us that officers from the Metropolitan Police have interviewed him regarding those allegations gathering an estimated 120 pages of testimony.

Shaker Aamer has been cleared for release since 2007 by both the last US President George W. Bush and by Barack Obama. The British Foreign Office has told us that securing his release is a high priority for them. He’s been on hunger strike since February this year, along with around 100 of the other 166 detainees.

This is what Shaker Aamer says about his life inside the prison. His words are spoken for him. And the acronym FCE stands for forcible cell extractions.

Shaker Aamer: I am losing my mind, I am losing my health, I am losing my life. They are trying to do as much damage to us as they can before we leave here. They are humiliating us as much as they can. They are harming me as much as they can. For 11 days my heart has been aching very bad. If I sneeze I feel as if there is ice on my heart. It is in my shoulder, on my left hand side. I cannot cough or laugh. It gets a little bit better if I hold my hand on my chest but that does not help much. But without that I feel as though something is going to blow up.

Victoria Derbyshire: Tell us what you want to achieve through your hunger strike?

Shaker Aamer: I have been on hunger strike since February 15th. I am now taking one cup of coffee and one cup of tea a day. I take no sugar in it anymore, no cream and no lemon in it. I don’t want them to say I am not a hunger striker. Even if you put lemon in your tea they will say you are not a hunger striker.

This week they have put me on water bottle loss again as a punishment. They did this before. That leaves me only with the water from the tap which is yellow and which they say is not drinking water.

The hunger strike is a simple matter. It is about justice. There are 86 detainees here including me who have been cleared by the Americans, cleared to leave this place, but they are still here. There are 80 who are not cleared but they have not been tried. It is ironic. President Obama seems to agree with us the place should be closed, so presumably he agrees with our hunger strike.

Victoria Derbyshire: What are relations like with the US military staff there at Guantánamo?

Shaker Aamer: Some of the guards are beautiful people trying to get me to help them with other detainees because they are afraid men will die. Some of the guards are aware of what is happening here. These guards say, “I am sorry, 239.” I honestly forgive them even though what they are doing is wrong.

Not all guards are like that, sadly. People here are dying for lack of a salad. There is a brother on my block with a heart problem. We do not want him on hunger strike as he could not survive it. He needs salad as he cannot eat most of the food they are giving him. So I took the salad they had given me and asked the guard to take it over to his cell. The guard would not do it. In the end though, I managed to get it from the splashbox in my cell to my brother.

I cannot say kind words about the administration now. Captain Robert Durand is their spokesman and I hear from the guards what he is saying on TV. I want this man to come to my cell and speak to me. Please tell him what Detainee 239 says. Everything you are telling the world is totally the opposite of the truth.

Victoria Derbyshire: Have you ever been assaulted whilst at Guantánamo by either staff or other inmates?

Shaker Aamer: Our Prophet told us, “Speak only as people can comprehend, if you want them to understand.” Nobody can understand what it means to be under torture 24/7. It is not just hanging you from the ceiling or being beaten up.  It is fighting for hours for a packet of salt. It is beyond explanation. I met with the Metropolitan Police for 3 days in February and told them some of what is happening to me. They had a statement from me that ran to 120 pages, but that is still only one page for every month of my suffering here.

How can the truth be told in such a short time?  It’s so senseless, all about trying to break me.

The most I can say is to quote George Orwell in 1984: “The system is for the system, the torture is for torture.”

Victoria Derbyshire: Are there any sanctions that could be put upon you because you’ve spoken out in this way?

Shaker Aamer: What more can they do to me that they have not already done?

Victoria Derbyshire: Can you tell us about your day to day routine?

Shaker Aamer: I am in the psych cell. They want to tell the world I’m crazy. They have a man standing outside my cell all the time, staring at me. He writes everything I do: 239 stood up, 239 sat down, 239 scratched his head. This is every day.

This has been going on for over a month. I came here on April 9th. There is a white woman who comes all the way from the control room and she stands in front of my cell with the other guard. She writes on a piece of paper in front of me. She whispers in his ear. She reads a paper from the file.

“I studied psychology before you were born,” I told her. I know that psychology is a package. Someone has created a whole system and they just follow it. So in response, I write everything they do and send it to my lawyer.

The other day I wanted to dry my shirt after washing it. I hung it on the door. There is nothing else, as it is is the psych cell, so they stop you from hanging yourself.  As soon as I did it they told me to take it down. I told them, “You have a camera 24/7. You’re watching me all the time.” But they brought the FCE team. The other brothers on the block argued with them. I knew they wanted to FCE me any way they can. They did it. They FCE me for anything.

I sing to my brothers. Sometimes I sing to the guards. I talk to the guards a lot.

I shout to the other prisoners. I try to lift the spirits. But despite this I am falling apart like an old car. Now the engine of the car is beginning to fail. The heart is really aching. I have not been able to read for a month now. My eyes are going. I cannot remember anything. I forget things. I cannot stand up, I fall down. I don’t want to fall down too much or they will do a code yellow on me when they burst into my cell and step on my hands. They tread on you.

It is cold in here. You might not think so as it is 70.5 degrees. But when you’ve not eaten for 100 days, that’s cold. I try to do exercise in my cell. A brother told me to do gentle things to keep my body warm, but it is hard on my heart and I need to conserve myself.

They took my basic iso [sleeping] mat so it was even colder. I slept without it for 9 or 10 days. Thankfully I got it back.

Victoria Derbyshire: Can you try to describe what it has been like to have been detained at Guantánamo Bay for 11 years without charge or trial?

Shaker Aamer: No. The most I can say is that I have never even met my youngest child, who was born on the very day I arrived into Guantánamo Bay, February 14th, 2002. I have missed my other 3 lovely children for 11 years. I have missed my wife for 11 years. I have missed my life for 11 years.

Victoria Derbyshire: Since 2007 you’ve actually been cleared for release, yet can you imagine leaving Guantánamo Bay?

Shaker Aamer: Yes, and I believe it will happen very soon. But I do fear that when my children call me Daddy I will not respond as I have been called 239 for so long. They may need to call me by a number for a while.

Victoria Derbyshire: Do you believe the British government and the Foreign Office in particular are doing enough to get you released?

Shaker Aamer: It is hard for me to say. For the last month I have not been allowed to see the news. I have never received a letter from the British government. I have even been prevented from writing to William Hague, the foreign secretary. I can only rely on my lawyer for his opinion on this. And it is his opinion that Mr. Hague is sincere in his efforts to secure my release. For that, I thank him. I am not begging for help. I will never beg for help. I demand only justice. But I am very aware of those who offer assistance, and words cannot express my feeling for those who do this of their own free will.

I know that there are dark corners of the British establishment that are working to keep me here. The leaders of the MI6 are doing that. I have a message to MI6. My goal is not to persecute people. Those MI6 in Bagram, Kandahar and Guantánamo, the ones who call themselves John, Lucy and other things. They are under orders. They were doing what they were told. It is not about me wanting revenge on people. I don’t want to do this. Instead, I want to change stuff. We have to stop what is happening. We need to go to the top. We are not looking to the individuals but to the policy since it is the policy that has to change. I want to tell the truth but I don’t want to victimise the MI6 agents. I say this not because I am scared of them. I have principles and I live by my principles. I never wish harm on a human being just because he is doing his job. Even if that job is wrong.

Victoria Derbyshire: What would you say to President Obama who has said on a number of occasions that he would close Guantánamo Bay?

Shaker Aamer: This ugly place is going to close regardless of Obama, regardless of anything. With the help of God we have told the whole world about the injustice of this and now the whole world is with us. So, for Obama it is just a question of how he wants to be judged. Is he a man of his word or is he a liar?

Victoria Derbyshire: What do you believe the future holds for you?

Shaker Aamer: Hmm, I do go back and forth. On the one hand I know I’m going to come home soon. I’m sure of that. On the other, though, they are taking revenge on us in so many ways. I am scared. I am afraid of taking medication from them. It is like a lamb going to the butcher and seeking help. My heart pain is now constant and I don’t want to die in here. When I get out I want to work with KCL [King's College London], with doctors, lawyers, with everyone, to learn the human rights lessons of Guantánamo. It is only by this that we can make sure that we do not do this again.

Victoria Derbyshire: The US authorities have said that they believed that you met Osama Bin Laden while you were working in Afghanistan in 2001 and that you led a unit of fighters against Nato troops. Is that accurate?

Shaker Aamer: I was in Afghanistan for less than 3 months before 9/11. I never met Bin Laden and I never fought America or Nato or anyone else. You have to understand where some of this stuff comes from. There was one detainee here who made up stories on 200 other detainees. He did so so he could get benefits like in the love shack to watch pornographic videos or just something simple, like a packet of cigarettes. He got what he wanted and he has been sent to another country now, while we remain. But I am not angry with him. I don’t agree with him but I understand what he said. Indeed, I even said things against myself when I was being tortured in Afghanistan, so how can I expect anything else?

Victoria Derbyshire: Explain to our listeners why you were in Afghanistan at that time?

Shaker Aamer: I was there with my family and with my friend, Moazzam Begg, and with his family. We were doing charitable work. They are poor people the Afghans, and our religion tells us we must do charity.

Victoria Derbyshire: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Shaker Aamer: Yes, there is so much I would like to say. But I will say it when I am free.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Sharing. Px

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Abzter Ganjakur wrote:

    SUBHANALLAH WHAT A TRAGEDY. WHAT AN AMAZING PERSON TO STILL HAVE HOPE.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Pauline. And Abzter, yes, it’s a remarkable testimony by a man with great strength, integrity and spirit. I very much hope his optimism will finally be rewarded, and soon. I look forward to meeting him!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Abzter Ganjakur wrote:

    PRAY AND HOPE THAT IS VERY SOON INSHA’ALLAH. AM SURE HE FEELS LIKEWISE ANDY

  5. Andy Worthington says...

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Incredible interview with Shaker Aamer. What on earth is our government doing about him?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    This interview should be on William Hague’s FB page.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    It really is moving and powerful, isn’t it, Dejanka? And yes, what does it take to get this man home?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Abzter Ganjakur wrote:

    JUST READ THE ARTICLES ABOVE ANDY. DESPITE ALL THE CRAP HE GETS FROM THE GUARDS IN GITMO HE STILL HAS THE WILL AND ENERGY TO TAKE A STAND NOT JUST FOR HIMSELF BUT HIS INMATES TOO. THIS GUY IS AMAZING AND HE NEEDS TO BE RELEASED ASAP. THE ARTICLES WERE VERY INFORMATIVE THANKS ANDY. UR WORK IS SPECTACULAR MASHA’ALLAH BUT WHAT THE HECK IS THE BRITISH GOVT DOING TO RELEASE HIM? STILL SUCKIN UP TO CORRUPT US REGIME IT SEEMS.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s the truth, Abzter. I have realised, more and more, that Shaker is an exceptional person, with great compassion and care for his fellow human beings.

  11. Thomas says...

    This poor person, beaten and tortured for nothing.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Thomas – and the same for the majority of the men held, I believe, whose stories we rarely, if ever hear. Thanks for the comment.

  13. No War No Torture » Blog Archive says...

    […] these actions.  One of them is Shaker Aamer, the last British prisoner at the torture camp, about whom you can read more on Andy’s website here and in the British Daily Mail […]

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