UK Government Backs Parliamentary Motion to Secure Release of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo

18.3.15

Shaker Aamer's sons outside the Houses of Parliament on March 17, 2015, before a parliamentary debate about his father's case (Photo: Andy Worthington).Yesterday, March 17, 2015, will, I hope, be remembered as a significant day in the long campaign to secure the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who is still held despite being told by the US government in 2007 and 2009 that they no longer wanted to hold him.

The main focus of the day was a Parliamentary debate for Shaker, in the main chamber of the House of Commons, at which Tobias Ellwood, a Tory MP and a junior minister in the Foreign Office, speaking for the British government, supported the motion, “That this House calls on the US Government to release Shaker Aamer from his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay and to allow him to return to his family in the UK,” and stated, “I hope I have made it clear that the UK Government are absolutely committed to securing the release of Mr Aamer. Today I would like to underline that commitment and join the House in calling for the US Government to approve the release of Shaker Aamer to the UK.”

The debate was something that campaigners and supportive MPs have been seeking for the last three years, since an e-petition was launched, eventually signed by over 117,000 people in the space of a year, which was supposed to guarantee the debate that finally took place yesterday. Back in 2013, after the e-petition closed, all that took place was a backbench debate in Westminster Hall, which, although worthwhile, was not what the campaign had set out to achieve. See here and here for the transcript of that debate.

Two years later, the relentless campaigning for Shaker, the support of an increasing number of MPs, who have formed a cross-party Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, and the support of the mainstream media, including the Daily Mail, Sky News and ITV News, has made his case far more high-profile than it was in 2012-13, and yesterday’s events have, I hoped, nudged both the British government and the Obama administration closer to finally ending this long-running legal, moral and ethical quagmire by releasing Shaker from Guantánamo and bringing him home to his family in the UK.

Yesterday began with members of his family — his three sons (aged between 13 and 17, including the youngest, Faris, who was born on the day his dad arrived at Guantánamo, on February 14, 2002), his father-in-law Saeed Siddique and his brother-in-law Souban Ahmed — delivering an Amnesty International petition to 10 Downing Street calling for Shaker’s release which was signed by over 32,000 people in a six-week period. His sons also spoke to ITV news for a feature that was broadcast on the 10 O’Clock News.

The sons also came to Parliament, with Saeed Siddique and Souban Ahmed, for a rally in a committee room, followed by the lobbying of MPs by their constituents, and the debate itself. In Committee Room 11, I (as the co-director of We Stand With Shaker) joined speakers including the MPs John McDonnell (the chair of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group), Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas, Katie Taylor of Reprieve, Dr. David Nicholl, neurologist and campaigner, the journalist Yvonne Ridley, Imam Suliman Gani, a friend of the family, and Sara Birch, the Chair of the Lewes Amnesty International Group, in a meeting chaired by Joy Hurcombe of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign. Other MPs also turned up to show their support.

In my talk, as is my wont these days, I reserved the particular focus of my indignation for David Cameron, who needs, decisively, to demand Shaker’s return and not to indulge in any more excuses, not the least of which is the British government’s persistent claim that Shaker’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the Americans. I believe, as many others do, that this is not strictly true, and that the PM should tell President Obama that he must indeed “prioritise” Shaker’s case (as he promised in January after a visit from the PM, but seems not to have followed up on) by getting the new defense secretary Ash Carter to give Congress 30 days’ notice of the intention to release Shaker to the UK (as required in US law for all intended prisoner releases), and to certify that it is safe to release him to the UK (as it is), and, 30 days later, by putting him on a plane to the UK — or getting the UK to send a plane to get him.

In two subsequent articles (see here and here), I’m going to post the full transcript of yesterday’s Parliamentary debate, which I watched from the public gallery with around a hundred other campaigners, and which I hope you have time to read in its entirety. It contains some stirring speeches about the importance of the law and the perpetually shocking injustice of Shaker’s continued imprisonment from a variety of speakers, including John McDonnell, David Davis, Andrew Mitchell, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Andy Slaughter, Tim Farron, Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas and Gareth Thomas, with other comments by Kate Hoey, Jim Cunningham, Neil Carmichael, Stephen Timms, Alistair Burt, Ian Murray, David Ward and Dennis Skinner. Others were present, but did not make comments, including Jane Ellison, Shaker’s constituency MP, who is a minister and therefore unable to comment.

One new topic yesterday concerned a number of documents recently secured by Reprieve via FOIA (freedom of information) legislation in the US. In a press release, Reprieve described how they reveal that in August 2010, less than two months after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told then-Foreign Secretary William Hague, “I welcome the opportunity for your experts to meet with those from State Department and from US agencies to discuss Mr. Aamer’s case,” the US sent a cable to its Saudi embassy with the heading, “Engaging Saudi Arabia on Shaker Aamer.” The contents were reacted, although another introductory passage explained that the Tory-led coalition government had “renewed the August 2007 UK request for the return of current Guantánamo detainee Shaker Aamer,” and added, “The US Government has engaged in discussions with officials from the UK Government pursuant to that request, but has not made any decision regarding Shaker Aamer’s transfer.”

On August 31, 2013, a meeting took place between senior US officials and the Saudi interior minister, at which Shaker was described as a “Saudi citizen with significant ties to the UK.” That is a disturbing understatement of Shaker’s status as a legal British resident, and it is, of course, troubling that Shaker’s fate was discussed with the Saudis by his US captors, when the UK has been calling for his release, although it may have been because all the Saudi citizens in Guantánamo were being discussed, and in particular the three men who, at the time, were approved for transfer (including Shaker), only two of whom were subsequently transferred back to Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, it is also disturbing because another meeting, between “a delegation of United Kingdom (UK) senior officials from a range of counter-terrorism agencies” and “a USG interagency team, consisting of officials from the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Office of Director of National Intelligence” took place in Washington D.C. just two months later, on October 29, 2013, but all the details of that meeting (four pages in total) were redacted, although the participants were named.

As Reprieve asked in its briefing to MPs, “What was discussed during the 29 October 2013 between US and UK officials which has resulted in Shaker’s continuing detention at Guantánamo Bay? And will ministers publish details of that discussion?”

Although these questions were raised yesterday, Tobias Ellwood refused to provide a satisfactory explanation about the ongoing obstacles to Shaker’s release, despite his support for the motion, persistently referring to his inability to discuss matters relating to the security services. His evasiveness appalled campaigners, but MPs regarded it overall as a step in the right direction, towards Shaker’s release, and I think we must all take comfort from that.

Nevertheless, it was difficult to retain respect for the minister when he claimed that, for Shaker to be released, he had to undergo a new review process. Speaking of President Obama’s promise to “prioritise” Shaker’s case, following a meeting with David Cameron in January, Ellwood said, “President Obama’s statement means that Mr. Aamer’s case has been prioritised for review through an inter-agency process. This comprehensive process undertaken by six UK [this should read “US”] Government Departments involves a complex case-by-case review. We do not have a timetable for a decision, but we are confident that this review is under way. We hope, of course, that Mr. Aamer will soon be released.”

He later added, “I am not privy to the very complicated process, involving six United States Government Departments, that every single detainee will have to undergo before being cleared for release. That is the process that Shaker Aamer must undergo, like everyone else who has been released so far or will be released in the future.”

I simply couldn’t understand these comments, as Shaker has already been through two review processes, which approved him for release; or for transfer, to use the careful language of the US, although the end result is the same — in 2007, under President Bush, and in 2009, under the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which decided whether to charge, release or continue to hold prisoners  and which decisively placed Shaker in the category of prisoners to be released.

Just as worryingly, Tobias Ellwood tried to make a distinction between being approved for release and being approved for transfer, as though it was significant, which I maintain it isn’t. Whatever wording is chosen, it means that the US no longer wants to continue holding the individual in question. Ellwood stated, “Supporters of Mr. Aamer often cite the fact that he was cleared for release, and this has been repeated here today. He was cleared for release some years ago, and given the President’s commitment, people cannot understand why he is still in detention. I need to clarify, however, that Mr. Aamer has been cleared only for transfer to Saudi Arabia, not cleared for release either in Saudi Arabia or indeed the UK. This is an important distinction under the applicable US legislation.”

Again, that appears to be nonsense. According to the US’s careful language, all the remaining prisoners whose release has been approved are approved for transfer, so an attempt to make a distinction is simply disingenuous. Reading between the lines, Ellwood’s comments indicated, more openly than has ever been conceded before, that Shaker may indeed only have been approved for release/transfer to Saudi Arabia, but in that case it only strengthens the requirement for David Cameron to pick up the phone to President Obama and demand that our closest ally ceases to undermine the UK’s obligations towards a permanent legal British resident, and returns him to the UK as soon as possible.

My thanks to everyone involved in yesterday’s events. As John McDonnell said in his closing comments, “[S]omeone said that this has not been a particularly well attended debate, but the attendance has been good for this type of debate. It has been well attended by senior Members, ex-Ministers and others with a human rights background, so I am really grateful for that and I know that the campaigners and the family will be, too. Let us all say together, in support of the motion, to the family, friends and campaigners, that we will not go away and we will secure the freedom of Shaker Aamer.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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, the full military commissions 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.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my report on yesterday’s hugely important debate on Shaker Aamer in Parliament, when the government backed a motion calling on the US to release him from ‪Guantanamo‬ and to allow him to return to his family in the UK. This will send a message to Barack Obama that further delays are unacceptable, and will also serve notice on David Cameron that he must do more to secure Shaker’s release and his return to the UK.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, that is one amazing result. I hope it translates into action. Sharing.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. Good to hear from you. As the MPs explained it, it sends a powerful message to President Obama, and, as I was also told, despite the evasiveness of many of the UK government representative’s comments, the overall tone of the government response indicated that they too are “on the back foot.” It was reassuring hearing Tory MPs deliver such powerful condemnation of Shaker’s treatment.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    Thank you Andy , I have been watching you for many years day after day standing for justice and fair trial , you stood out to fight when many gave up , you kept on going because you are honest man and humble and polite for a just cause , thanks to you and many good people out there finally yesterday at radio 4 news as usual I listen every night just before I go to sleep , I was proud to hear words of the wisdom in the British parliament when many members of parliament stood out and asked for Shaker to came home to join his children . I would like shaker to hear it for himself , he would of have big shining smile like the big poster :-)

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Wonderful comments, Jamal. Thank you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I’ve been out since mid-afternoon – first cycling around south east London, taking photos and aiming, in a roundabout manner, for my son’s school for his parents’ evening, then for dinner at a pub near the school, and then cycling back. So I just got in. Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this in my absence, and sorry not to have been able to engage with any of you while I was out. It was a good day for Shaker yesterday!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Zahra Ali wrote:

    May Allah make his release smooth inshallah

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Fathima Aaliyah Khatun wrote:

    But they won’t release him… Why because the USA know they can do whatever they like

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zahra – and Fathima, I understand your analysis of the situation, but I really do hope that Shaker won’t be held forever.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Marion Heads wrote:

    I will always continue to speak out against the injustice suffered by Shaker and the other brave fathers, sons and brothers being held in Guantanamo. You and all those who continue to fight for Shaker’s release and return are inspirational

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the supportive words, Marion. Good to hear from you.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Sara Hussain wrote:

    Lol Andy glad you can see it now, as the MPs said, a powerful message. Sitting next to you watching you flip out was funny good thing they have the safety glass there

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Sara. Great to see you yesterday.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Sajida Habib wrote:

    Thank you, Andy Worthington

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    I never knew Andy you could do that go and get the kids then back and fourt runing and focus , normaly woman are far better champion on doing many things in the same time , they are coocking looking after children and preparing some home work study as well as on the phone and god knows what else just amezing bravo to all mothers and sisters , we man only can do one thing at the time if not most the time we are doing nothing romet control and fliking chanels or may be good day go fishing, hahaa joking
    Poor shaker and many other people who been humiliated in cages , no human should be treated in such manner , in this time and age the our leaders suposed to be most intellegent and honorable instead they behave worst then the Terrorist , no matter what others do humanity moral should rise above other ways how can we shape our future , When we say we stand with shaker in reality we are saying to the world we are standing with our children future ,

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Sajida. Good to hear from you. And thanks also, Jamal. I know many women who would concur with your analysis of men and women! I also like your final words about Shaker – we are not just standing for him, but for our children’s future.

  17. Anthony Winder says...

    Jamal is right: ‘No human should be treated in such manner, in this time and age our leaders supposed to be most intelligent and honorable instead they behave worst then the Terrorist.’ But unhappily it is hard to avoid Fathima’s analysis that ‘they won’t release him… Why because the USA know they can do whatever they like’.

    Unless, that is, Obama turns out to be the honourable person we once believed him to be … but time is running out for that. You are right to pour scorn on Cameron and Ellwood. Such unwillingness to face up to the US in support of one of our own people is despicable. Please keep up the great work.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Anthony. Very good to hear from you.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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