Gravely Ill, Shaker Aamer Asks US Judge to Order His Release from Guantánamo

15.4.14

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 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. Please also sign and share the international petition calling for Shaker Aamer’s release.

Last Monday, lawyers for Shaker Aamer, 45, the last British resident in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, asked a federal judge to order his release because he is chronically ill. A detailed analysis of Mr. Aamer’s mental and physical ailments was prepared by an independent psychiatrist, Dr. Emily A. Keram, following a request in October, by Mr. Aamer’s lawyers, for him to receive an independent medical evaluation.

The very fact that the authorities allowed an independent expert to visit Guantánamo to assess Mr. Aamer confirms that he is severely ill, as prisoners are not generally allowed to be seen by external health experts unless they are facing trials. Mr. Aamer, in contrast, is one of 75 of the remaining 154 prisoners who were cleared for release from Guantánamo over four years ago by a high-level, inter-agency task force established by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009.

As a result, the authorities’ decision to allow an independent expert to assess Mr. Aamer can be seen clearly for what it is — an acute sensitivity on their part to the prospect of prisoners dying, even though, for many of the men, being held for year after year without justice is a fate more cruel than death, as last year’s prison-wide hunger strike showed.

In her submission, based on 25 hours meeting with Mr. Aamer from December 16-20, Dr. Keram, an independent psychiatrist who has previously examined other prisoners facing military commission trials, reported and analyzed what Mr. Aamer had told her about his initial detention by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in late 2001, his initial imprisonment by the US — at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan — and his 12 years at Guantánamo, and her conclusions are that he has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and “additional psychiatric symptoms related to his current confinement that are not included in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD but which also gravely diminish his mental health.”

The detailed list of his mental ailments is alarming, but Dr. Keram also provided an additional psychiatric prognosis, noting that, “In addition to the psychiatric symptoms discussed above, Mr. Aamer has suffered a profound disruption of his life, dignity, and personhood.”

She added: “The length, uncertainly, and stress of Mr. Aamer’s confinement has caused significant disruptions in his underlying sense of self and ability to function. He is profoundly aware of what he has lost. He discussed the struggle he faces if his detention were to continue indefinitely. Additionally, we discussed the struggle he will face, were he to be released, in regaining the ability to function in his family and society. He is aware that it has taken some of the former detainees years to begin to recover to the extent that they have some degree of meaning and productivity in their lives.”

That reference to “the length, uncertainty, and stress” of Mr. Aamer’s imprisonment reminded me of what Christophe Girod, an official with the International Red Cross, said back in October 2003, when the prison had been open less than two years. Girod said, “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem,” and it is disturbing to realize how those factors can only have been hideously exacerbated with the passage of 12 years — not just for Shaker Aamer, but for many, if not most or all of the 154 other remaining prisoners.

In her analysis, Dr. Keram continued: “The chronic and severe psychiatric symptoms described above have gravely diminished Mr. Aamer’s mental health. In order to maximize his prognosis, Mr. Aamer requires psychiatric treatment, as well as reintegration into his family and society and minimization [of] his re-exposure to trauma and reminders of trauma.”

Dr. Keram recommended that Mr. Aamer “should receive psychiatric treatment in England in order to obtain meaningful therapeutic benefit,” and also stressed that returning him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth — where the US has expressed an interest in returning him, even though he has a British wife and four British children, and was given indefinite leave to remain in the UK prior to his capture — would be disastrous.

As she explained: “The severity of Mr. Aamer’s psychiatric symptoms would worsen were he to be involuntarily repatriated to Saudi Arabia. He reported that should this occur he would not be reunited with his family for many years, if ever. His ongoing separation from his family significantly exacerbates his psychiatric symptoms. Additionally, the impact of a move to Saudi Arabia on his family would likely re-traumatize Mr. Aamer, as his wife and children are unaccustomed to Saudi culture. Finally, Mr. Aamer’s probable further confinement in the Saudi rehabilitation program would likely be re-traumatizing, as its goal would be to re-acclimate him to the norms of Saudi society. Mr. Aamer identifies as a British Muslim and is most comfortable in that culture.”

Dr. Keram also analysed Mr. Aamer’s extensive physical ailments, which include severe edema (swelling caused by fluid retention in the body’s tissues, and also known as dropsy), severe migraines, asthma, chronic urinary retention, otitis media (middle ear infection), tinnitus, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or acid reflux disease) and constipation.

In reporting the motion filed on behalf of Mr. Aamer, the New York Times helpfully explained that it represented “a new tactic by lawyers seeking the release of Guantánamo detainees by building on a court’s decision last year that a Sudanese detainee should be allowed to leave because of health problems.” The Times continued, “Both the Sudanese case and now Mr. Aamer’s focus on laws and regulations governing the repatriation of prisoners of war that could become increasingly important as the detainee population at Guantánamo ages.”

The New York Times added: “The law of war permits detaining enemy fighters without trial to prevent their return to the battlefield. But it requires repatriating those who are seriously wounded or sick even before an armed conflict is over. A Geneva Conventions article says detainees shall be repatriated if their ‘mental or physical fitness seems to have been gravely diminished’ and they seem unlikely to recover within a year.

The Times continued: “A United States Army regulation says wartime detainees who are ‘eligible’ for repatriation include sick or wounded prisoners ‘whose conditions have become chronic to the extent that prognosis appears to preclude recovery in spite of treatment within one year from inception of disease or date of injury.”

In the motion submitted last Monday, Mr. Aamer’s lawyers argued that he “should be released immediately because his illness has become so chronic that recovery, even with optimal circumstances and care, is precluded within one year, and is likely to take many years or the full course of his remaining natural life.”

The New York Times noted that Mr. Aamer’s condition “appears less severe” than that of the Sudanese prisoner, Ibrahim Idris, who was freed in December after the Justice Department refused, for the first time, to challenge a prisoner’s habeas corpus petition (Mr. Idris’s, in October). Mr. Idris’s lawyers had described him as morbidly obese and schizophrenic, and had argued that his “long-term severe mental illness and physical illnesses make it virtually impossible for him to engage in hostilities were he to be released.”

However, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, whose legal clinic represents Mr. Aamer, refuted the Times‘s claim about the gravity of Mr. Aamer’s illness compared to that of Ibrahim Idris. “The law does not require a prisoner’s total and permanent incapacitation,” he said in an interview, adding, “The grave illnesses with which Shaker has now been diagnosed, taken together or separately, meet the legal standard for release under international and domestic law.”

I thoroughly endorse Ramzi Kassem’s analysis, and fervently hope that the judge in his case in the District Court in Washington D.C. — Judge Rosemary Collyer — agrees.

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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “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.

19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, when I published the link to the version of this article on “Close Guantanamo” yesterday, I wrote:

    My apologies for making this available so late, my friends. I’m on holiday in Mexico, but I couldn’t let this pass me by without comment, as Shaker’s case is so close to my heart, and Dr. Keram’s analysis of his many mental and physical ailments is so compelling. As I mention in the article, I very much hope that the judge – Rosemary Collyer – grants Shaker’s request based on the precedent set recently in the case of Ibrahim idris, a severely ill Sudanese prisoner whose release was ordered by a judge after the Justice Department failed to challenge his habeas corpus petition. Mr. Idris went home in December. Shaker should be returned to London as soon as possible. Please sign and share the international petition here, if you haven’t already: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/shaker-aamerguantanamo-bay/

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Shaista Gul wrote:

    Done.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Malak Saib wrote:

    I sign it

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    April Michelle Parker wrote:

    Done!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Aisha Noor wrote:

    Done, thanks for sharing and caring:)

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Shaista, Malak, April and Aisha for your interest. It’s very much appreciated.

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy.

    The truly stunning impact of indefinite detention without charge was pretty clear to me when I read the 66 articles McClatchy reporters wrote after seeking out former captives. Sadly, I am afraid the McClatchy reporters themselves failed to recognize how many of the former captives were (1) profoundly depressed; (2) unable to re-integrate into society.

    I think it is much more debilitating to face indefinite detention, instead of a fixed sentence from a court — even a kangaroo court.

    I think it is much more debilitating to face indefinite detention if you don’t understand why you are detained — as opposed to if you know you are guilty, or know that your detention was one of the possible consequences you chose when you decided to become a militant (or a revolutionary, fwiw).

    I think even a fixed sentence from a court, if still feel you were wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted would be easier to take than indefinite detention with no meaningful opportunity to plead your innocence, and no idea how much longer you would be held.

    I am afraid many of those 66 men McClatchy interviewed will never be able to lead even halfway normal lives.

    Many of them seemed genuinely fearful that the Taliban would retaliate against them, on the premise they cooperated too much with their American captors. Many of them seemed genuinely fearful that the security forces monitoring them represented a constant threat to them. And some of those men feared both the Taliban, and security officials.

    I am very afraid that the fears of some of the men whose interviews we read proved foresightful, and that the interviews did lead to their assassination or further imprisonment.

    What possible reason does the USA have for not releasing Shaker Aamer, when even Binyam Mohammed, who was able to give his account of horrible torture under CIA direction, has been released?

    I am afraid the reason is something we have discussed in other threads — that the USA’s fears over Shaker Aamer’s account of dryboarding on the night the other men died while being tortured by rogue Colonel Baumgardner in Camp No are stronger than their fears of Binyam Mohammed’s account of torture under CIA direction.

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, thanks for sharing the URL of Dr Keram’s report. I think anyone who can set aside the torture apologist meme that every report of torture in US custody should be attributed to advice in the Manchester Manual to lie about torture, can’t help but be moved by her account of his condition.

    I wonder what President Obama would say if his daughters read it, and asked him about it?

    I think we have discussed this before, but maybe it bears repeating — while spin doctors like Commander Gordon routinely cited the Manchester Manual as advising all its reader to lie about torture — having read the chapters about interrogation and incarceration, I don’t think it gave that advice at all. I also doubt that more than a handful of Guantanamo captives ever had an opportunity to read it.

    It does tell its intended readership to inform the judge of their torture, if they ever appeared in a court. But I think it is a stretch to interpret that as advising them to lie about torture. Rather, at the time it was written (several years before 9-11) its intended readership, if captured, would have been captured in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, or other states that were notorious for their routine use of torture. The author’s advice was not to lie about torture. Rather, I think, the author simply assumed that anyone from his intended readership faced a 100 percent certainty of being tortured.

    The manual also advised its intended readers to try their best to find a pretext to get medical staff to give them a full examination, prior to their interrogations. He advised them that the prior medical examination would be useful to refute the prosecutions claims that the scars left by their torture were from pre-existing conditions. I see this as confirmation that the author assumed everyone faced torture in those torture states. I think the medical examination, prior to their interrogation, would undermine attempts to lie about torture, and the author would not have advised getting that medical examination if he really thought it would be necessary to lie about torture.

    We know now that ALL captives in Kandahar and Bagram spent their first few days hooded, with their wrists shackled above their heads, where there were helpless and could not sheild themselves from the random blows passing guards were encouraged to dish out. Since some captives actually died from the use of this technique, this technique passed the threshhold John Yoo set for how painful a technique had to be before it could be considered torture. Yoo said a technique had to be as painful as “death or organ failure”. A technique can’t get more like the experience of death, as actually causing subjects to die.

    Since all captives were subjected to this technique, they were all tortured, and none of them lied about torture.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Apologies for the delay in replying. I’m now back from Mexico, but have been online for very little of the last five days. Very useful comments, as usual. Indefinite detention is indeed horrific, but sadly most people don’t seem to recognize it as such. It appears to remain one of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies that has become normalized, along with torture. I also appreciate your comments about the men interviewed by McClatchy, and wonder how many of the Afghans in particular, after having their lives ruined, then became fodder for the US’s wildly exaggerated recidivism claims, as a result of being re-imprisoned without any sound basis, for example, or even after retuning home and attracting the unwanted attention of the Taliban or other forces opposed to the ongoing US presence in Afghanistan.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks also, arcticredriver, for your thoughts about the Manchester Manual, which we really don’t hear much about anymore, even though, under Bush at least, it was routinely used by Pentagon spokespeople to claim that prisoners at Guantanamo were al-Qaeda members who had been taught to lie via the lessons in its pages. I hadn’t appreciated before the perspective you bring to your analysis, and I think you may well be correct about the countries where torture was expected.
    That said, I do recall Omar Deghayes telling me that, when the manual was first mentioned by interrogators, the prisoners believed it had been made up by their captors and wasn’t a genuine document at all.

  11. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy.

    Would you consider conveying to Omar D. that some of your readers thought about your accounts of his efforts to re-integrate back into mainstream of UK society, when they read of the death of his nephew in Syria earlier this month? You told us about how Omar continues to struggle with the after-effects of his custody, and how he completed his law degree, and has been working as a human rights worker.

    I anticipate that torture apologists will claim that Abdullah’s death somehow casts reflected suspicion back on Omar, that it somehow suggests Omar himself was sympathetic to militant jihadism after all. That would be extremely unfair.

    First, we don’t know that Abdullah traveled to Syria to work with groups whose goals and methods were similar to al Qaeda’s. He may have intended to be a humanitarian worker. His brother Amer was injured, driving a truck — which may have been a truck full of food, or blankets, for refugees.

    Second, even if, for the sake of argument, Abdallah had fought beside individuals whose goals and methods were similar to al Qaeda’s, how would this have been a reflection on Omar? I would encourage all young UK muslims who were moved by Omar’s plight to follow his example and use legal channels to support human rights, from within the UK.

  12. arcticredriver says...

    Could the Manchester Manual have been a bogus document, one actually written by US or UK security officials? I agree with Omar D that this is a strong possibility.

    One of the CIA’s campaigns they were most proud of included a large measure of disinformation. A moderate socialist leader had been elected in Guantemala in 1954, and this was unacceptable to the USA. They backed a coup leader, and supported him by fake radio broadcasts. They took a leaf from Orson Welles famous radio dramatization of, “War of the Worlds”. Their broadcasts were made to sound just like the radio broadcasts of the stations Guantemalans were used to listening to, and they falsely described the coup leader leading a triumphal progress to the capital, with army barracks and police forces defecting to his side.

    If I had the ear of Police Forces and Intelligence agencies, I would encourage them to abandon most forms of subterfuge, particularly during interrogation.

    Police sometimes get incriminating statements from suspects when they say stuff like:

    You told us that you were alone, asleep, in your bed, at the time this crime was committed. Well, what if we told you we now have a reliable eye-witness who places you in the vicinity of the crime scene?

    Police interrogators feel authorized to shake up suspects stories by confronting them with lies like “we now have a witness who places you at the crime scene.”

    This technique may seem successful, because it produces incriminating statements, but innocent people struggle to explain how a reliable eye-witness could have seen them. Were they sleep-walking? Was that the night they realized they had run out of cat-food, and had to make a midnight run?

    I thought I saw echoes of the use of this technique in the statements of Majid Khan’s father.

    Lying to interrogation subjects pollutes the intelligence pool.

    I think secret projects to distribute disinformation, unless handled very carefully, also pollute the intelligence pool. During the first weeks of the Falklands War the Royal Navy successfully fooled the Argentinians that Britain’s most advanced submarines were patrolling the waters off the Falklands Islands, long before they were able to arrive on station. All kinds of newspapers, like the NYTimes, printed articles about the subs being on station, and how much damage they could do to the Argentine Navy’s one big cruiser or its aging aircraft carriers.

    But the USA has 16 agencies with intelligence responsibilities, and spends billions on intelligence projects contracted out to private industry. When those agencies initiate a disinformation project, they withhold knowledge of that disinformation project from other agencies, practically guaranteeing the disinformation becomes part of the intelligence pool, and thus something Guantanamo captives have to answer.

    In the 2002, 2003 period I saw a brief news report on a video the USA claimed had been found in Afghanistan. It showed a mean looking guy, in a primitive rural hut, wearing flowing muslim clothes.
    He roughly stuffs a dog into a cage, and the voice-over says that what we were watching was a test of nerve gas, on the dog. I think I saw the same report, twice, over the course of a few hours.

    In retrospect, this video wasn’t credible. You need a modern lab to make nerve gas. You can’t make it in a primitive rural hut. Nor could you safely test it in a primitive rural hut. I now believe this was part of a disinformation campaign, that the middle eastern guy it showed was just an actor.

    Was it prepared after they choked false confessions from Ibn Al Sheikh Al Libi? If so maybe it was made to make his confessions seem more credible. If it had been made prior to his false confessions,maybe it inspired his interrogators to press him on WMD.

    In either case it polluted the intelligence pool.

    I should have said this in my earlier message Andy — I hope Mexico was relaxing, and a good time was had by all.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I haven’t seen any negative and thoroughly misplaced comments about Omar, but that may well only be because I haven’t looked at any comments on various newspapers’ online pages, although in general, I have to say, I think less ordinary people are fired up by Islamophobia and false associative chains regarding “terrorism” than in the earlier days of the “war on terror.” That said, there are obviously still far too many bigots out there, as well as professional right-wingers with malevolent agendas.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for your thoughts about the manual, and, more generally, about the dangers of misinformation by one agency being treated as reliable information by another. I hadn’t thought of the dangers in that way before. I also appreciate your comments about the nerve gas video, which I haven’t seen but have heard about. I can’t recall which camp it was supposed to have been at (Tarnak Farms, perhaps?), but I agree that it sounds extremely suspicious.
    And thanks also for asking about my Mexico trip. It was indeed relaxing and a wonderful time was had by myself, my wife and my son. I cannot recommend Mexico highly enough for a visit. Wonderful place, wonderful people.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Mohammad Ibrar wrote:

    12 years in jail with no trial. This is the pinnacle of #Americanjustice the #landofthefree

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    April Michelle Parker wrote:

    Thank you for all you do! It’s absolutely ridiculous that this place is open and people…innocent people are being treated like they are even though Obama said he would have already closed Guantanamo by now. This is the hold that Israel has on the US!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mohammad and April. Great to hear from you both.

  18. Detention and Injustice | Radical University says...

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Just to provide a necessary update: On June 24, 2014, as the New York Times reported, Judge Rosemary Collyer “rejected a request by Shaker Aamer … that she order his release because he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and physical ailments.”
    See: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/06/24/us/25aamer-denial.html

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