Two weeks ago, lawyers for Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, submitted a motion to the District Court in Washington D.C. asking a judge to order his release because of his profound mental and physical health problems. These were confirmed in a report by an independent psychiatrist, Dr. Emily A. Keram, who had been allowed to visit Shaker for five days in December, following a request by his lawyers last October.
I wrote about the motion in an article last week, entitled, “Gravely Ill, Shaker Aamer Asks US Judge to Order His Release from Guantánamo,” and I’m following up on that article by reproducing the passages in Dr. Keram’s report in which Shaker talked about the torture and abuse to which he was subjected in US custody, primarily in the prisons in Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, following his capture in Afghanistan in late 2001. Also included are passages dealing with his 12 years of torture and abuse in Guantánamo, as well as passages dealing with his torture and abuse during his initial detention in Northern Alliance custody. Please note that the sub-headings are my own.
I’d like to thank my friend and colleague Jeff Kaye for posting most of these excerpts from Shaker’s testimony last week, in a widely-read article for Firedoglake entitled, “‘You are completely destroyed’: Testimony on Torture from Shaker Aamer’s Medical Report at Guantánamo,” and I hope I’m not treading on his toes by posting it again in the hope of reaching some readers who didn’t catch it the first time around.
Shaker’s account is of great significance, as Jeff explained in his article. “From my experience,” he wrote, “it is one of the most remarkable and disturbing documents to have come out of Guantánamo, as Shaker Aamer is an intelligent, sensitive man who speaks English. He has left us a record of his torture that cries out to be read.”
Jeff added, “I reproduce portions of Shaker’s testimony here in the hopes of mobilizing support for freeing him from Guantánamo (he has been “cleared for release” for years now). I also hope this helps mobilize support for freeing or transferring all the detainees/prisoners to humane incarceration with the certainty of quick adjudication of their cases. Those detainees who are not guilty of anything should be released, and at this point — read the following and you will understand fully — given the surety of medical treatment as long as they need it.”
I throughly endorse Jeff’s comments, and would only add that, as well as revealing the centrality of torture and abuse to America’s post-9/11 detention policies in the “war on terror,” Shaker’s testimony also explicitly exposes the extent to which this torture and abuse was designed to produce statements that could be used to foster the illusion of evidence of the prisoners’ involvement with Al-Qaeda — an alarmingly influential illusion that I have worked to expose for many years, in part through my work with WikiLeaks on the classified military files from Guantánamo three years ago, and one which, sadly, is still not recognised as widely as it should be, either in the corridors of power in the US, in the mainstream media, or amongst the American people in general.
1. Conditions of interrogation and confinement
Mr. Aamer has been continuously detained since late 2001. He was first held by the Northern Alliance. On approximately December 24, 2001 he entered American custody and was held in Kabul for several days. He was transferred to Kabul Airfield after several days where he remained for approximately one month. He was subsequently held at Kandahar Airfield until his transfer to Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, where he arrived on February 14, 2002. We discussed his conditions of confinement in each setting.
Detention and torture by the Northern Alliance
Mr. Aamer described his detention by the Northern Alliance.
“I lost all sense of time. I was in a basement with a lot of people who were also being tortured. I was hearing people screaming from the torture day and night. I was treated with respect in terms of privacy in the bathroom, preparing for prayer, and meals. But they would beat you two to three hours a day with a metal braided wire, belts, and a hose. They beat you in public. Everyone could see. Five people would beat you. They’d kick your face, body, and head.
“Once I arrived I was beaten up for a few days without interrogation. Then they told me a man would come the next day and that I should tell him whatever he wants to hear and the torture would stop. I said I would. They told me I would have to agree that I was working with bin Laden in a high intelligence service like the CIA, working undercover collecting information. I said, ‘No problem.’
“The next morning a man in western clothing came with a video camera and filmed me and the other brothers in my cell. Then a Northern Alliance interrogator sat at a table with me and the other man videotaped my confession. I said I was working with al Qaeda and was working in high value intelligence. It was a short meeting. The interrogator held up the wire to the camera and said, ‘This is how the Taliban torture and get confessions. But as, as you see, our interrogators just sit and talk, and the prisoners voluntarily tell us what they’ve done.’ Two days later I was in American custody.”
Mr. Aamer stated he decided to confess to end his torture. He understood from what he had heard about prisons in Saudi Arabia that his maltreatment would end if and when he agreed with his interrogators.
“This is a transaction, a deal. ‘You say what we want you to say and we’ll stop torturing you.’ It’s a deal. The torturing stops if and when I confess. I knew that if I didn’t sign I would have more beatings. The decision to make a false confession is not shameful, because it’s not about being a man; it’s about ending the torture. In Saudi, once you confess you live like a king in prison. You’re only there for six months usually. They help your family while you’re there. Even if you get sentenced to 15 years, one third will go away for good behavior; one third goes away for memorizing the Koran. At most, you might serve five to seven years.”
Detention and torture by the US at Bagram
Mr. Aamer and I reviewed his conditions of confinement at Bagram Airfield. He reported severe maltreatment by guards, interrogators, and medical personnel working in concert, by means of humiliation, sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, manipulation of food and water, stress positions, threats of sexual assault against his young daughter, and beatings.
“The nakedness made me feel animal-like. I was not a human being anymore. I meant nothing to them. I lost my dignity, my pride, being a man. I had to take off my underwear and hand it to them. You lose your humanity. You are an animal. You know if you don’t do it, they will do it by force and it will be a lot worse. I respected and believed they would give me a fair chance because they were Americans. I was happy that I was with Americans because of their human rights.
“I had sleep deprivation for 11 days. That made me crazy. They poured cold water over me. They kept me standing for 20 hours a day. I had to hold my hands and arms out. If I dozed off they would bang on the concrete with an axe. The sleep deprivation caused hallucinations. It started with noise. Then I heard old music from my childhood. I wondered, ‘Where did they get those tapes?’ I heard people talking. I started looking for who was talking. There was no one there. No one else heard them. Finally I heard music from my childhood that I knew they never could have found. I talked to the doctor about it. He said I was going crazy. He told me, ‘You should talk to the interrogators so then you can relax.’
“They withheld food, except for frozen MRE’s. They would give you a bottle of frozen water. You didn’t want to drink because it would make you have to pee. The guards won’t take you to pee so I peed where I was sitting. I didn’t have a bowel movement for 25 days. My stomach became like a stone. I didn’t see a doctor initially because the interrogators were happy because I was telling them everything, whatever they wanted. [Interrogators controlled access to medical personnel] Then the doctor gave me a laxative. They took me to a hole. Female and male guards were watching. A guard pulled down my coveralls and told me to shit. It was very hard. I had to push hard. The female and male guards were joking. A female said, ‘Look, he’s having a baby.’ I passed what felt like stones. The guards gave me a tissue from an MRE to wipe myself. It was bloody. I felt so humiliated.
“All of the statements I made at Bagram were during the sleep deprivation. I would have said anything. I told them, ‘I will tell you I am bin Laden if you want me to tell you I am bin Laden.’”
Mr. Aamer described the effects of maltreatment on his mental state.
“It’s a process of losing your mind. First it’s knowing you are not in control of yourself anymore. Someone else is in control of you. So you fool yourself and think, ‘Well, he’s only controlling me physically, but not mentally.’ They’re not in your head. But then you realize you’re wrong and they control your mind.
“Then it’s welcome to the microwave. It’s easy to crack an egg from the outside. It’s hard to blow up the egg from the inside. They let you recover so you think you’re strong again. And then they break you again. And you thought you were strong again. And you don’t know your thoughts anymore. Like the microwave, they boil you from the inside to the outside until you explode.
“After the microwave, the eggshell may be intact because the heat penetrated to the inside. The shell looks strong. But if you crack the egg, inside you will see charcoal.
“So I would go to the interrogators thinking, ‘How can I lower the level of torture? What can I say to please him? I am going to be so easy with him today, I will please him.’”
Mr. Aamer stopped himself at this point. After a moment he explained his fear that the material we discussed would be used as the basis of creating manuals for how to effectively interrogate him or manipulate his behavior in the future.
“It makes me scared to talk about it. I’ve been keeping it all inside. I’m scared because they are listening to us now and they’re learning; I’m teaching them how to interrogate. And now they will write a whole new book on interrogation with what they have learned.”
After a few minutes, Mr. Aamer returned to discussing the interrogations.
“It’s a terrible procedure. The interrogator starts to talk with you about things that are small and well known. You agree. But he is driving you to a cliff. The more you drive with him on his interrogation, he starts throwing out fish bait, so little by little they show you that they are interested in knowing who you are. They do this by saying, ‘Shaker Aamer, we know you; we know who you are. We know you are nobody. We know you are a small fish rubbing shoulders with the big fish.’
“My goal is, ‘How can I minimize the torture? I just want to sleep.’ I never had a goal more than that. It was never my goal to get out of the facility and be freed. My goal was just to lessen the torture. The problem is, not all the small fish know the big fish; but you want to lessen the torture.
“So, their interest in you makes you trust them. You start to tell them the truth; you build the truth by telling the story in chronological order. You build the building one story at a time. Until I separated from my wife and go [sic] to hide in the mountains and wait for the man to take me through the mountains. The interrogators asked me the name of the mountains, the name of the man who would guide me. I didn’t know. And that’s when the interrogators went crazy.
“The interrogators threw chairs. They put me in a grey disc with my legs spread. They banged the chairs. And you are just trying to avoid any hit. They shook me. They threw me on the ground. They banged my head into the wall.
“I was telling them the truth. Their interest made me trust them. It made me hope the torture will decrease. But when I couldn’t tell them what they want [sic] to hear they made me stand for hours, they scream at me, they bang into me. You aren’t even thinking beyond how to protect yourself and not attack them so that you don’t get a bullet in your head. They do that until you are shivering, until they have broken you, until your mind is completely empty. You feel like you’re not real anymore. Like it’s a dream.
“And now the worst part comes. They treat you with kindness. It destroys you completely. Your thinking is paralyzed. Your feeling is paralyzed. And the interrogator says, ‘I am trying to help you.’ You don’t know what to love and what to hate because it’s all happening at the same time. You don’t know anything anymore. You can’t tell apart good and bad, kind and evil. You lose the sense of the meaning of kindness.
“You ask yourself, ‘Are they really trying to hurt me or are they trying to help me?’ You can’t tell anymore. They bang your head on the wall and then they give you a hot meal. One interrogator talked about what he would do to my five-year-old daughter in details that destroyed me. He said ‘They are going to screw her. She will be screaming, ‘Daddy! Daddy’’ You are completely disorganized. You are completely destroyed.
“It happened many times. You learn they don’t really want to hear what the truth is. The truth only results in the same; more torture. So you begin to follow their story; they ask you questions, they give you descriptions and you agree. What was the color of the car? Did the driver look like this? Was the driver from al Qaeda? I answered, ‘How should I know.’ They said, ‘Well, a taxi driver wouldn’t drive to this compound would he, so he must be al Qaeda. The taxi driver takes you to the Arab guesthouse so the taxi driver is al Qaeda and the Arab guesthouse is al Qaeda.’
“The interrogators give you the details, but they don’t want you to agree. They say have you seen a fat guy? A guy with a turban? This guy? That guy? Guess what? Those guys are al Qaeda. And then you feel like that you are al Qaeda. Then the interrogators tell you that al Qaeda recruited you without you knowing it; they were behind funding your travel.
“Then they ask you to sign a statement. When I say no, the whole thing starts again. In the end, I offered to my interrogator to sign that I am al Qaeda, everything the interrogator wanted me to sign, if the interrogator would agree not to interrogate and torture me anymore. And the interrogator said, ‘I can’t tell you that we won’t interrogate you anymore.’
“No matter what you said, they still wanted more. So they kept torturing me no matter what. The degree of the torture would change. Maybe they would let me sit for a brief period of time and then it would get worse again.
“For the first 25 days at Bagram it was constant severe torture. For the last week they left me alone with the other detainees in a room with a heater. We all had frostbite. The interrogators only asked what we knew about certain people, but they weren’t pushing me for specific information. I didn’t see the sun except twice while I was at Bagram. And then there was ‘The Big Goodbye Party’ when you leave for Kandahar. I was beaten, shackled, and hooded. The guards laughed and cursed me. I was roped together with other detainees. Then the plane didn’t come. The next day they gave us another ‘Goodbye Party.’ We weren’t allowed to use the toilet. The plane came. I was fearful, thinking, ‘If this is happening right now, what is coming next? Maybe they’re getting ready to shoot me? Maybe it will be something worse than this.’”
Detention and torture by the US at Kandahar
Mr. Aamer experienced severe maltreatment at Kandahar Airfield with identical effects on his physical and mental state.
“I was shipped to Kandahar. The airplane was freezing cold. Someone took my socks from me. And then the ‘Welcome Party.’ They told the soldiers they could do anything they wanted with the detainees. We landed. They put us face first on cold concrete. We were shivering. They hit me with gun butts, kicked me with boots, and stomped on my back. There was a 17-year-old detainee. They put a gun up his rectum. He was screaming, ‘I’m no woman! I’m no woman!’ I yelled at the guards to stop in English. Then, because I spoke English the soldiers said, ‘He’s a traitor. He speaks perfect English.’ They beat me even harder. A black female soldier stopped them, saying, ‘You’ve had your fun.’
“At about 0600, after 20 minutes of not being beaten, they put me in a cage with a blanket. They put me on my face and unshackled me. Then they ran out. They gave me bread. At about 0730 or 0800 they yelled at me to get up. They put my head on the ground, hooded and shackled me and took me to the interrogators tent. I was kept awake for 10 days.
“The torture in Kandahar was more physical than in Bagram. They shook me, threw me on the floor, made me hold my arms out, hit my hands. There was no blanket, just lying on the ground. There was a nice thick blanket lying on the floor, but if I reached for it they would start beating me.
“Two interrogators named John and Tony and a guy named Sallie or Sal took turns for three to six hours at a time or two to three hours at a time. There was also an Egyptian. They were with me almost all the time. At least I had my own place in Bagram; I was in a cage and the guards were on the outside. That was a comfort to me. But at Kandahar there was nothing between me and the guards. They were in the tent. If I closed my eyes, the guard would say to open them.
“The interrogations at Kandahar had the same process as at Bagram in terms of the interrogators being both cruel and kind. The worst was Sal. He was so kind. He sat me outside the tent with the guards and heated up my food. The guards were staring at me. I felt humiliated. Sal talked to me as if I were a human being. Then Sal would say he was going to screw my five-year-old daughter; he was going to do this and that to my daughter sexually; how my daughter would scream and scream. I thought about attacking Sal and getting killed. But I wouldn’t do anything aggressive. Force is the weapon of the coward.
“This went on for 10 days. It was constant interrogation and torture. I told them the exact same truth that I had told the interrogators in Bagram, plus they had more true information about me. I also told the interrogators things that weren’t true in order to decrease the intensity of the torture I was suffering.
“In those ten days, I only went to the toilet once. I had sleep deprivation. The ICRC came to see me in Bagram one time. Then they came to Kandahar to see me. They took me to a cage with other detainees. The judge from the ICRC saw me there, a Swiss judge. He gave me a card with my number on it.
“After 10 days they sent the Egyptian guy who told me I was going to Guantánamo. They put me in a cage for four days and pretty much left me alone. A British agent came to see me, a young officer with a red beret. I wouldn’t talk with him because he said he couldn’t do anything to help me. The Americans only asked me questions those last four days at Kandahar like the last days at Bagram. They didn’t press me to lie about anything.
“After four days they gave me the ‘Goodbye Party’ at Kandahar and a far worse ‘Welcome Party’ at Guantánamo.”
Detention and torture by the US at Guantánamo
The maltreatment and its physical and mental effects continued at Guantánamo.
“The interrogations at Guantánamo have twists. There’s a ‘frequent flyer program’ where they move you every two hours. The guards shout at you in the same block. They switch the water off. They spray Pine Sol in my clothes.
“It’s the same process psychologically; I can’t tell cruelty and kindness apart. I told the interrogators everything to decrease the torture severity. Another thing that was at Guantánamo that was not at Bagram was the circles within circles. The guards were connected with medical, were connected with the people who gave supplies like linens, were connected with the administration like the NCO’s, were connected with the Navy or the Army, were connected with the CIA, were connected with the FBI, were connected with the Republicans and the Democrats. All of these people want to squeeze my neck at the center of all of the circles. You tell them what they want to hear to decrease the severity of the torture.
“For example, an internist came to see me. I asked for a blanket because I have arthritis and the cold air conditioning makes it worse. The doctor said the arthritis is in my record and agreed that it was cold. The doctor said, ‘I will ask permission from the Joint Detention Group (JDG) for a blanket for you.’ And the doctor says he’s independent.
“The worst thing about torture is that you don’t know how to think, what to do, how to feel. You know you have your mind, but you don’t now how to react, which is horrible because you feel vulnerable. It’s terrible. We believed that the people here; the CIA, the interrogators, use ‘djinn.’ [spirits] The evil djinn. Some of the things that happened, you can’t explain. Some people with think that it was drugs or something, but 95% of us believe we got possessed by djinn.”
During the time Mr. Aamer was interrogated at Guantánamo he and other detainees would run to use the toilet or experience diarrhea when they were told it was their turn to be interrogated, “We might be tied up and not be allowed to go to the toilet for up to 36 hours at a time.” He believed they experienced diarrhea reflexively because they would not be allowed to go to the toilet during interrogations.
2. Other conditions of confinement
Mr. Aamer has experienced especially difficult conditions of confinement throughout the time he has been at GTMO. He was initially housed in an open-air cage in Camp X-Ray. He was exposed to sun, weather, insects, and other pests throughout the time he was confined there. He first undertook a hunger strike while at Camp X-Ray.
Mr. Aamer has been episodically confined in isolation, including a continuous four month period. During this time he had no contact with other detainees and minimal contact with guards. The only natural light in his cell entered via a small panel covered with a translucent barrier. Mr. Aamer experienced severe anxiety and dysphoria during this period of confinement, as well as auditory hallucinations. He developed tinnitus (ringing in the ears) during this period, which has become chronic.
Mr. Aamer frequently participates in the hunger strike. In addition to the toll this has taken on his physical and mental health, use of the feeding chair and enteral feedings have caused him to feel humiliated and degraded.
Use of the toilet remains problematic for Mr. Aamer. He reported that if the guards cannot see him they call out to him. He does not respond because as a Muslim he is proscribed from speaking while using the toilet. When he doesn’t answer, the guards call a “Code Snowball” [detainee engaging in self-harm] and rush into his cell. He finds this humiliating and degrading as well.
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.
Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. After my three wonderful weeks in Mexico – and the last three days recovering from the jet lag – I’ve hopefully got my work head back on. It hasn’t been easy! I definitely left part of my heart in Mexico!
I think it’s great you are posting this, and with your own expert and authoritative commentary. This isn’t stepping on any toes, but helping get attention about the torture of Shaker Aamer, and many others who like him were innocently rounded up to be used as either props in the theater that is the US war on terror, or as experimental subjects, or both. For those who truly had information or had done any crimes, torture is still not allowed by international and national laws, or by the ethics that any thinking, feeling human being has.
Sounds like you had a great vacation. I’m glad. Welcome back.
Thanks, Jeff. Great to hear from you – and yes, the vacation was wonderful. I had no idea that the Mexican people had such an enthusiasm for life. I can’t recommend the country highly enough.
On the work front, I like your reference to prisoners like Shaker and many others as “props in the theater that is the US war on terror,” in addition to their use as experimental subjects, which you have done so much to publicize. The fact that so much of what passes for evidence at Guantanamo is the result of torture or other forms of coercion continues to be a major theme of my work, as it is still not widely understood or accepted that the kind of systemic abuse practised at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the “war on terror” produces profoundly unreliable information. One day, I hope, both our efforts will be better recognized.
David Knopfler wrote:
Thanks for signing, David. Good to hear from you. Hope all is well.
Judy Ajifu wrote:
I just signed the petition, Andy. I hope he is freed soon so he can reunite with his family.
Thanks, Judy. Much appreciated. Good to hear from you.
Sharmeen Syeeda wrote:
This is crazy ….I don’t know what the world is doing in order to close this prison.
Good to hear from you, Sharmeen. Yes, I agree. Last year there was a lot of activity in response to the prison-wide hunger strike – from the mainstream media, and through the million people who signed petitions calling for the prison’s closure – but now it’s all gone quiet again, and hostile or indifferent politicians – up to and including the president – are again calling all the shots and nothing is happening.
Using torture will only *work* in getting what the torturer wants to hear.
Thanks, Thomas. Good to hear from you. It’s not rocket science, is it? It must have been a pretty constant job for senior official sin the Bush administration, to keep making sure that no one stuck around who insisted on telling them the same things.
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.”
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