The Full Text of the Parliamentary Debate for Shaker Aamer, the Last British Resident in Guantánamo (2/2)

20.3.15

Members of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group at a meeting in February 2015. From L to R:  MPs Mike Wood, Andrew Mitchell, John McDonnell (chair), Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Slaughter. Between Jeremy and Andy is Imam Suliman Gani, a teacher and broadcaster and a friend of the Aamer family.On March 17, as I have been writing about over the last few days, a long-awaited — and long fought for — Parliamentary debate took place in the main chamber of the House of Commons, with MPs debating 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.”

I was there for the debate, in the public gallery behind bulletproof glass, along with around a hundred other supporters of Shaker Aamer, including representatives of We Stand With Shaker, which I co-founded with the activist Joanne MacInnes last November, and the long-running Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, with whom I have worked for many years.

I wrote a detailed article about the debate here, noting that Tobias Ellwood, a Tory MP and a junior minister in the Foreign Office, who was speaking for the British government, supported the motion, 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.”

Below I’m cross-posting the second part of the transcript of the debate from Hansard. I divided it into two parts, as it’s quite long, and posted the first part yesterday.

As I noted in my article on Wednesday, the transcript 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 (the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs), 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. Most of the MPs mentioned above are part of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, established at the end of last year, and chaired by John McDonnell, the indefatigable Labour MP for Hayes and Harlingdon.

I also believe that the words of these MPs will send a clear message to President Obama and to David Cameron that Shaker’s ongoing imprisonment is no longer acceptable, that he can no longer be the victim of a transatlantic game of political football, as the US and the UK both try to evade responsibility of this release, and that he must be freed as swiftly as possible; in other words, 30 days after Congress, according to current US law, is notified of the Obama administration’s intention to release him.

The Parliamentary debate for Shaker Aamer, March 17, 2015 (Part Two of Two)

Backbench Business

Shaker Aamer

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am pleased to be a signatory to the motion, along with colleagues from all parties. I draw attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) cannot be in the Chamber because he is engaged in other parliamentary business. It is only right to record that he strongly supports the motion, and he is a member of the cross-party group.

The fact that we are having this debate at all is a credit to the system under which the Backbench Business Committee allocates time. More importantly, it is a credit to the campaigners and supporters of Shaker Aamer and other people who have been so wrongly and grossly detained at Guantánamo Bay. We should pay tribute to those who have worked for many years for Shaker Aamer’s release. They have stood outside Parliament, collected signatures on street corners on wet and windy Saturday mornings, and e-mailed, written to and lobbied MPs. They are the lifeblood of democracy, and we should show them some respect today: having this debate — albeit not as well attended as one hoped — is a credit to them.

Much could be said, but in a sense it has all been said. The facts of the matter are quite simple. Shaker Aamer was wrongly taken from his family and imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, and he has been disgracefully treated. He was cleared for release by President Bush, subsequently re-cleared for release by President Obama, but he has still not been released. He has been cleared for release for longer than President Obama has been President. It does not say very much about the power of the US presidency when the President can campaign for election partly on the basis of closing Guantánamo Bay, having specifically ordered the release of those against whom there is no case whatsoever but who have still not been released.

I have been involved in numerous meetings with the Foreign Office and others on this subject over the years, and I am at a loss to understand what is preventing Shaker Aamer’s release. If there is no case against him, why is he still in Guantánamo Bay? Is he being held because he knows too much and has seen too much — the hunger strikes, the torture and the brutality — or is it because there is still pressure to take him to Saudi Arabia, from where he originates? That would be a disgrace, and I am sure that he would refuse to go there. He is a British resident, and he has a family in this country, with a young child he has never seen. Surely he should be released and brought back to this country as quickly as possible. I repeat that there is no case against him whatsoever in this country.

Many people have taken up this cause, not least the Prime Minister and successive Foreign Secretaries and Foreign Office Ministers. When Hillary Clinton wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), she thanked him for his letter of 21 July 2010 concerning Shaker Aamer, and went on: “Our national security interests will continue to benefit from close consultation and mutual assistance with these issues.”

She welcomed the opportunity to meet experts from the State Department to discuss the case, referred to President Obama’s Executive order of 22 January 2009 and looked forward to working closely with the Foreign Office to resolve the issue. It does not say much for a special relationship when the President orders a release and the Foreign Secretary and the US Secretary of State agree to work closely together, but Shaker Aamer still remains in prison with no case whatsoever against him.

We have to look at the background to the human rights abuses in Guantánamo Bay. Much has been written about that in many documents, but a very interesting one put out by Amnesty International states: “There has been little or no accountability for the human rights violations that have occurred at Guantánamo, including the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance. The recently published summary of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI)’s review of the secret detention programme operated by the Central Intelligence Agency … finally confirmed that the naval base had been the location for a CIA ‘black site’ in 2003 and 2004 at which detainees were subject to enforced disappearance.”

That is the nub of it: there has been enforced disappearance to a place that is a legal void and that knows no recognition in any form of international law in any country whatsoever.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) that if this had been the treatment of a US citizen anywhere in the world, we would never have heard the end of it from successive US Presidents. I do not doubt that there would have been the threat of military action and all kinds of other things against any country that held a US citizen in these circumstances. I am not advocating sending the SAS to Guantánamo Bay to free Shaker Aamer or anything like that; what I am saying is that if the close relationship with the USA means anything, Shaker Aamer must be released immediately.

If the House approves the motion tonight, as I am sure it will, it should be communicated in the strongest possible terms to the Senate and the House in the USA that the British Parliament fully supports the release of Shaker Aamer. The breadth of political support for him in the cross-party group is surprising. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) will not mind my mentioning — indeed, he said the same of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) — that he and I agree on very little, except for humanity and justice. In this case, we absolutely agree that the way in which Shaker Aamer has been treated is completely unjust and that he must be released. That, surely, has to be the message that we give tonight.

People have campaigned for justice for many years. We achieved a Parliament because people campaigned for our right to have a democracy. The essential part of a democracy is that the judicial system is independent of the political system and that everyone has the right to an independent hearing in a court of law. There is an exhibition in Westminster Hall that says just that because it is 800 years since Magna Carta. This man has never been in court, has never been charged, has never been convicted, has no case against him and has been approved for release and freedom, yet he is still in prison. Surely the message from this Parliament is, “Bring him home. Close Guantánamo Bay and end the outrage and abuse of human rights that it represents.” Otherwise, what is the message to the rest of the world? It is that we are incapable, that we do not care, or that, by our inaction, we tacitly approve of something as vile as Guantánamo Bay and the torture and ill-treatment that has gone on there.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and his colleagues on securing this incredibly important debate.

As one of the last speakers, I will probably repeat a little of what has been said, but I think that it is important to do so. In particular, I want to pick up on what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) was just saying and on the tone of bewilderment that he expressed so well. It is simply incredible that this person who has never been charged with any offence is still languishing in Guantánamo Bay. The hon. Gentleman summed up very well what we all feel: that this is utterly unjustifiable and utterly incredible, and that action is needed.

I joined other people on a delegation to the Foreign Secretary last year. We sat in a very nice office in the Foreign Office, but even after 45 minutes in that meeting, I came out no wiser than I went in. I do not think that I was alone in that. I simply cannot understand why the telephone cannot be picked up. If the US is this amazing ally, why can we not have that conversation and get this man home?

I want to say a few things about the situation in which Shaker has been held, because it is so deeply shocking that it is happening here and now. Last year, there were reports that Shaker and another detainee had been subjected to violent beatings carried out by a forcible cell extraction team. As well as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Shaker has a number of psychological problems such as severe anxiety and insomnia, unsurprisingly. His physical health has also suffered as a direct result of his mistreatment. An independent medical assessment concluded that he has oedema, severe tinnitus, kidney pain, severe headaches, asthma and loss of vision, yet in June 2014, the previous Foreign Secretary claimed that he was confident that Shaker had access to a “detainee welfare package” and that his health remained stable. I would love the Minister to confirm when he last had an independent update about Shaker’s physical and mental health and what that update said.

During Shaker’s 12 long years of detention, he has been tortured by US agents — for example, by having his head repeatedly banged against a wall — and has witnessed the torture of another UK resident. He has spent more than 1,000 nights in a windowless isolation cell, and when first detained, he was starved, kept awake for nine days straight, and chained in positions that made the slightest movement unbearable. In 2005, he was placed in isolation for 360 days for his role in organising a hunger strike after military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying. Prison rules permit isolation for only 30 days.

Shaker has seen other prisoners treated in gratuitously violent ways, including being hospitalised and/or rendered unconscious as a result of forcible cell extractions. He was often subjected to the same violent process used by guards against non-compliant prisoners, and claims that he suffered FCEs up to eight times a day. We know that such things have been recorded, so can the Minister tell the House why the Prime Minister has accepted the US authorities’ decision that those recordings are classified, given that they constitute evidence that a UK resident has been tortured? Is it standard UK practice to fail to press for such evidence, and does the Minister agree that that could be considered, at very least, as condoning Shaker’s torture and mistreatment, if not potentially being complicit in it?

Shaker’s lawyers have been advised by the former Foreign Secretary that the US position is to limit Shaker’s clearance for release to Saudi Arabia — the country where he was born and where he is likely to face further mistreatment and detention, as well as the prospect of ongoing estrangement from his wife and children. Such a move would hugely limit the opportunities for Shaker to speak out about what has happened and get full access to justice.

Freedom of information documents secured by human rights group Reprieve demonstrate that the US has been in contact with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia about Shaker’s case, although the context for that has been censored. They contain details of a meeting between high-level US officials and the Saudi Minister of Interior. Will the Minister say what assurance the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has sought and received that Shaker will not be transferred to Saudi Arabia?

I am concerned, as others have voiced, that the only possible reason for sending Shaker to Saudi Arabia is to stop him speaking out about his abuse — abuse in which he claims the UK authorities have been complicit. For example, it is alleged that a British operative was present while a US interrogator repeatedly smashed Shaker’s head against a wall, shortly before he was sent to Guantánamo. Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that the UK has not been complicit in any way in the abuses that Shaker has suffered?

This debate is hugely important and I will end, as others have done, by thanking the extraordinary campaigns of so many tireless campaigners who have kept this issue near the top of the agenda where it belongs. I hope that this debate is one further step towards getting justice for Shaker.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and his co-sponsors on securing this debate on Shaker Aamer, and I apologise for missing a significant part of his contribution. He has been one of the leading parliamentary campaigners for Mr Aamer’s release, and I acknowledge the presence of the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is the constituency MP for Mr Aamer and his family — indeed, this debate provides an important opportunity to follow up a Backbench Business Committee debate on the same subject that she initiated in April 2013. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has also been a particularly active campaigner for Mr Aamer’s release, given that, as I understand, some of Mr Aamer’s wider family live in his constituency.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has rightly praised the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and others. Will he include in that praise the great work done by Reprieve and Clive Stafford Smith on this case? They have bravely unearthed so much about the horrors of Guantánamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, which is a blot on all our legal pasts in this country.

Mr Thomas: As on so many things, my hon. Friend is ahead of me. I will happily do that, although I want to return to the role of Reprieve and Clive Stafford Smith a little later in my remarks.

I strongly support hon. Members across the House in saying that the last remaining British detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Mr Aamer, should be released and returned to the UK as soon as humanly possible. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have shared profound concern about Mr Aamer’s case and, indeed, about the continued existence of the Guantánamo Bay facility. National security and the continuing drive to keep our citizens safe is the first responsibility of government, but we have always been clear that a profound respect for human rights must also lie at the heart of policy.

We remain deeply concerned that Guantánamo detainees are held without trial indefinitely. As my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), has previously underlined — as others have done today — that in itself is a serious affront to international human rights standards. She has also previously drawn attention, rightly, to the concern and condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the continuing indefinite imprisonment of many of the Guantánamo Bay detainees was in clear breach of international law, referencing the systematic breaches of individual human rights. The Opposition remain firmly opposed to the continuation of the Guantánamo Bay facility. Through our diplomatic efforts when in government, all British citizens and all but one of those who had been resident in Britain were transferred out of Guantánamo Bay.

As other hon. Members have made clear, Mr Aamer is a Saudi citizen who was resident in the UK. He is married to a British woman and he has four British children who live in London. I understand, as others have made clear, that Mr Aamer has never met his youngest son, who was born on the very day he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay. Mr Aamer was detained in Afghanistan in November 2001, where the US authorities apparently suspected that he had been working for Osama bin Laden. He has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay since February 2002. He is now the last remaining British resident held there. He has, I understand, always maintained his innocence, and Clive Stafford Smith, his lawyer, claims the documents that the accusations against him are based on would not stand up in court. Indeed, his legal team state that his treatment at Bagram airfield in 2001, allegedly including sleep deprivation and physical abuse, led him to make a false confession that has been used to justify his detention without trial ever since.

There is great concern about Mr Aamer’s health. Earlier this year, I understand that a number of leading doctors wrote an open letter to raise a number of concerns about the impact on Mr Aamer’s physical and mental well-being of spending 13 years in Guantánamo Bay. I understand that a medical assessment carried out last year found he was suffering from serious psychiatric problems and a number of serious physical ailments, too. It is alleged that Mr Aamer has been beaten more than 300 times while in detention and has suffered regularly from sleep deprivation. Reports that Mr Aamer has on occasion been deprived of water and has arthritis, asthma, prostate and kidney problems and severe backache are very worrying. It is a deeply damaging allegation, aired again by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), that he is only still being held because he has witnessed significant human rights abuses, which the Guantánamo Bay authorities fear would be revealed if Mr Aamer was released and spoke out about his experience.

As other hon. Members have made clear, Mr Aamer has been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo Bay on two occasions — in 2007 and in 2009 — yet has still not been released. I understand that British diplomatic staff are not able to visit Mr Aamer, although it would be helpful if the Minister provided clarification on that point. I understand that the International Committee of the Red Cross is able to visit Mr Aamer, and it would be helpful to hear from the Minister when the ICRC last did so.

It is clear that Mr Aamer will be released only after further encouragement — let me use those words carefully — to the US authorities, so it would be helpful to hear from the Minister when the last ministerial representations to their US equivalents about Mr Aamer took place. There has been speculation that the key US legislation determining whether Guantánamo Bay detainees can be released or transferred is the 2011 National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows the US Defence Secretary to exercise a waiver and therefore release individual detainees if certain conditions are met. Has any UK Minister raised Mr Aamer’s case with the US Defence Secretary? What prospects can the Minister offer the House that the NDAA might offer a potential route to secure Mr Aamer’s release from Guantánamo Bay soon?

Given that Mr Aamer is a Saudi national and the reports that he has, as I indicated, previously been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo Bay but allegedly only to Saudi Arabia, what discussions have Foreign Office Ministers had with their Saudi counterparts? Do the Saudi Government support Mr Aamer’s release from Guantánamo Bay and, crucially, do they support his release back to the UK?

Reprieve and Amnesty International have campaigned for Mr Aamer’s release. Reprieve, in particular, has used freedom of information requests to establish that significant meetings have taken place between US and British officials to discuss Mr Aamer’s possible transfer, most recently, I understand, on 29 October 2013. It would be helpful if the Minister set out in a little more detail what he understands are the substantive remaining US concerns about Mr Aamer that are preventing his release. The essential question remains: why, despite being cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo Bay six and eight years ago, is Mr Aamer still being detained? There remains the question whether he was cleared for release back to Saudi Arabia only. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister clarified that issue. I understand that Mr Aamer has indefinite leave to remain here in the UK. He has family here in the UK; he is married to a British citizen; his children are British citizens; and he has not been convicted of any crime. By any reasonable consideration, he should be allowed to be transferred back to the UK, never mind to Saudi Arabia.

Guantánamo Bay is a continuing blight on the human rights record of one of our closest allies, and the whole House will empathise with the anguish that Mr Aamer’s family and friends feel at his continued detention. I look forward to the Minister answering my and other hon. Members’ questions, reflecting our concerns and reassuring the House that the Government will redouble their efforts to secure Mr Aamer’s release.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): This has been a helpful and constructive debate, and I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing it through the Backbench Business Committee. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and the many right hon. and hon. Members who have campaigned in this House and outside. I am pleased that hon. Members have highlighted the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) in supporting Shaker Aamer’s family, who live in her constituency.

I will do my best to answer as many points as I can. I spoke to the US embassy today at length on this matter, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who deals with the United States, had a meeting with US Ambassador Barzun yesterday at which he discussed these issues. I might be the only Member to have visited Guantánamo Bay, albeit from the Cuban side — that was as close as I could get — back in 2005. When I looked over at the camp area, I wondered how long it would be before it was closed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) spoke about the reliability of the confessional evidence and how standards dropped after 9/11. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked about the double standards created by the creation of Guantánamo Bay. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) paid tribute, as do I, to the difficult and often unrecognised work of the intelligence services and the importance that justice prevails. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) talked about the size of the campaign, which has lasted a number of years, in support of Shaker Aamer. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about the west’s moral authority being eroded and undermined because of Guantánamo Bay.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others talked about the number of people who had taken up this cause and referred to the Senate intelligence committee report — anyone who has read the accounts of that report will, like me, have found it deeply troubling. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) talked about the concerns about Mr Aamer’s release or transfer to Saudi Arabia. It is clear that Shaker Aamer wants to return to the UK, and that is what we support. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), the shadow spokesman, raised several important questions that I shall try to answer.

One aspect that I will cover now relates to the powers given to the US Defence Secretary under the National Defence Authorisation Act 2012. We have been in discussions with the US President, as I say, so we look to any measure required to ensure that justice prevails and Shaker Aamer is returned to the UK — whichever system, whichever protocol or whichever mechanism is used, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr Thomas: On the point about the NDAA, as I understand it, any waivers that can be secured for the release of Mr Aamer under this legislation are controlled by the US Defence Secretary. Will the Minister tell us whether any representations have been made directly to the US Defence Secretary, perhaps by the Secretary of State for Defence or the Foreign Secretary?

Mr Ellwood: The Foreign Secretary has raised this matter, but as I say, we have called on the President to use all available powers, and this is simply one mechanism that could be used.

I certainly welcome this opportunity to highlight the Government’s commitment on this issue. The UK has long held that indefinite detention without fair trial is unacceptable. Mr Aamer has been detained in Guantánamo Bay for 13 years, yet has not been charged with any crime. As a result of the UK’s long-standing opposition to the operation of the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, the UK Government exceptionally requested Mr Aamer’s release in 2007, and that request also included four other former UK residents who have since returned to the UK. The UK Government are committed to bringing Mr Aamer back to the UK, and we have made our position very clear to the US Government. We want to see him released as a matter of urgency, and we know that they fully understand this request.

As hon. Members will have noted, the Prime Minister personally raised Mr Aamer’s case at his meeting with the US President on 16 January this year. We welcome President Obama’s commitment at that meeting to prioritise the review of Mr Aamer’s release to the UK.

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.

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 [Note: that should be “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.

However, it is important to understand that President Obama’s decision to close the detention facility and release its inmates remains a contentious political issue in Washington, as hon. Members have outlined in today’s debate. Stark differences of opinion exist in Congress across the political spectrum about the wisdom of doing this at a time of heightened terrorist threats. Within that, there remain real concerns about recidivism and the actions that detainees may take after they leave Guantánamo. Let us be clear, however, that Mr Aamer has not been charged with or convicted of any crime.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I have listened carefully to the debate and to the Minister’s contribution so far, so I hope I am not pre-empting what he is about to say. He has not yet told us, however — perhaps I have missed the clarity on the matter — what reasons the US has given to the Foreign Office for not releasing Shaker Aamer. What are the reasons behind not processing his release?

Mr Ellwood: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the beginning of the debate. I should like to make some progress, but I shall come to the point that he has raised.

As I have said, Mr Aamer has not been charged with or convicted of any crime, but the United States Government have made it clear that any action taken to release him would have to remain consistent with United States national security.

Caroline Lucas: The Minister is making much of concerns about what will happen to Shaker or anyone else after their release. The United Kingdom is one of the safest places for such people to return to. We have one of the safest structures to deal with any risk that might exist. This simply does not add up: I do not see what the obstacles are.

Mr Ellwood: Let us take a step back from this particular case. Security questions must be asked, in the case of any inmate, about what will happen once the process has taken place. As I have said, the judicial process that is being conducted is very complex, and involves a number of Departments.

Caroline Lucas: Surely the Minister agrees that it would be safer for Shaker to return to the United Kingdom than to go to Saudi Arabia, for example — safer for all of us, indeed.

Mr Ellwood: The point has been made time and again about the manner in which many of the detainees ended up in Guantánamo Bay, and about the creation of Camp Delta in the first place. I make no comment on this particular case because it would be wrong for me to do so, but we need to ensure that every person who is processed will not be a danger to the United States or to any other country. It is a complex process, and I must make it very clear that I make no judgment on this particular case. I am about to give some numbers and a timetable, and details of the frequency with which detainees are being processed.

Mr Andrew Mitchell: The Minister is setting out his case, and he says that he does not need to make a judgment, but the United States has made it clear that there is no evidence against Shaker Aamer. Is that not the critical factor? May I encourage the Minister to share with the House, in some detail, the questions that he asked during his lengthy conversation with the American embassy this morning, and the answers that he received?

Mr Ellwood: I want to make some progress. As I shall make clear shortly, 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.

In supporting Mr Aamer’s release, we have emphasised to the United States Government that any individual who engages in terrorist-related activity in the United Kingdom can expect to be dealt with through use of the full range of powers that are available to us. I shall not list them here, but they are extensive, and we remain confident in the ability of our police and security services to deal with any such threats. I think that that partly answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.

It would be inappropriate to comment on why Mr Aamer is in the Guantanamo Bay facility, especially as we continue to discuss the details of his case with the United States in order to secure his release. This is a sensitive issue and, as the House will understand, it has been the policy of successive Governments not to discuss intelligence matters. However, as Members well know, the United Kingdom does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose. We remain absolutely committed to ensuring that serious allegations of UK complicity in alleged rendition and mistreatment overseas are examined carefully. If any evidence of that were to come to light, we would take appropriate action. The investigation of, or prosecution of individuals involved in, any alleged torture carried out by the United States is a matter for the United States authorities.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Ellwood: I will, but then I must make some progress.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. In these investigations into torture and extraordinary rendition, is he getting all the co-operation he has asked for from the US authorities?

Mr Ellwood: I can only repeat what I have just said: I cannot comment on intelligence matters relating to this particular case.

Consular access is afforded to states only as regards their own nationals and, as has been repeated in this Chamber, Mr Aamer is a Saudi national. Our consular policy for non-British nationals is clear: we cannot help non-nationals no matter how long they have lived in the UK and regardless of their connections to the UK.

Although the timeline for the closure of the facility remains a matter for the US Government, President Obama was elected in November 2008 having vowed to close Guantánamo Bay. In the early days of his presidency, he said: “There is … no question that Guantánamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world.”

He recognised that, faced with uncertain threats, hasty decisions were made “based on fear rather than foresight.”

President Obama remains determined to see the Guantánamo Bay facilities closed by the end of his Administration, and we remain committed to assisting him in this aim.

Of the original 779 detainees held in Guantánamo Bay, 122 remain, including Mr Aamer. Five detainees have been released so far this year, but in 2014 the US released 28, 19 of whom were released in November and December. That is a considerable increase in releases compared with previous years. From 2011 to 2013, a total of just 19 detainees were released.

We have already made a significant contribution to reducing the number of detainees in Guantánamo Bay by taking back nine UK nationals and, exceptionally, five former legal residents. Aside from Mr Aamer, the UK is not considering accepting any further detainees from the Guantánamo Bay facility. More widely, we have facilitated engagement with countries that have agreed to accept former detainees, and shared experience and advice on managing the return process.

In conclusion, as hon. Members have highlighted, 14 February was the 13th anniversary of Mr Aamer’s arrival at the Guantánamo Bay facility. Along with his family and his many supporters, the UK Government would like this to be the last anniversary that Mr Aamer passes in detention. Since the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Obama on 16 January, my officials and Government colleagues have continued to work to make that a reality, and we will carry on raising his case at the highest levels and at every reasonable opportunity to impress further on our US counterparts that we are looking for an urgent resolution.

Mr Slaughter: I am sorry to press the Minister, but he has still to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). In the Minister’s long conversations with the American embassy and others in the US Government, what is the precise and exact reason he has been given as to why the release of Shaker Aamer is not possible at the moment?

Mr Ellwood: I know that this will not satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but I can only repeat that these are intelligence matters on which I cannot comment in this House. I cannot do that. Following this debate, I will be writing to the US ambassador, Ambassador Barzun, to let him know the outcome, the passion expressed and this Government’s determination to see Shaker Aamer released.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I understand the difficulty the Minister is in, but, as he announced, we all know that others have been released, although he cannot give any reasons. It appears that there is to be an investigation, but it seems there is a clear difference between those who have been released and Shaker Aamer. Is that the picture that emerged from the Minister’s conversations?

Mr Ellwood: Again, the hon. Gentleman will not be satisfied with my answer, but I cannot be drawn on the individual case or into dealing with intelligence matters. I am afraid that that is as far as I can comment on this — [Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) like me to give way?

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Everybody has been waiting for the Minister to reply. I was saying that it is a total anticlimax. The Minister has said that, far from being released, Mr Aamer is only under review. Almost all of what he has had to say is a sop to Congress, to the Americans generally and to the President, rather than an explanation to the House that he and his superiors will try their level best to get Mr Aamer out. He is like an apologist for the American regime.

Mr Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman has made his point and he has clearly not listened to what I have said.

Mr Skinner: I’ve listened to every word you’ve said.

Mr Ellwood: If I may continue, we have made it very clear that we have listened to this debate and we stand with this Parliament in calling for Shaker Aamer to be released. If the hon. Gentleman would care to have the courtesy to listen to what I am saying, he would understand that he has not heard this Government’s passion and commitment to speak at the highest levels to ensure that we can leverage and use our relationship.

I stress that we have a strong, close and frank relationship that brings concrete benefits to both sides and that advances joint objectives. In the January meeting with President Obama, we were able to secure for the first time a guarantee that this will now become a priority. That is the first time that has been said. We will continue to press the issue, and this debate will have its place and be useful in that regard.

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.

John McDonnell: I am grateful to the Minister for his last statement. I will deal briefly with three issues raised by the debate.

First, we now know that Shaker Aamer is in the process of a review. We welcome that, but the problem is that we are still not clear about the evidence presented against him, because intelligence is not being shared. As far as I am concerned, the concept of intelligence is yet again being used as an excuse to cover up injustice. We are not sure about the review’s timetable or the criteria on which it will make its decision, so although I welcome the Minister’s saying that a review is taking place, unfortunately the process does not give us confidence.

Secondly, I welcome wholeheartedly the Minister’s saying that the UK Government’s representations will continue, but he must take note of the sense of this House and those representations must be determined and courageous. We need to say frankly to our allies in America, “This man must be released.”

Thirdly, a number of Members have raised the issue of access. We need to ensure that Shaker Aamer’s health is assessed and properly dealt with and that he secures the full legal representation he requires. The Minister has said that we are restricted in the consular support we can provide because he is not a British national. Actually, he received the right to indefinite leave in this country, and if it were up to me I would offer him full British citizenship in order to overcome the issue of overall access.

Finally, someone 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.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, “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.”

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.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    After I posted this on Facebook, Sarah Kay shared it, and wrote:

    Via the relentless Andy, who succeeded where I and many others failed – forcing the UK Government to openly and publicly discuss the unlawful detention and torture of Shaker Aamer in Guantanamo – the transcript of the debate, with an awfully disingenuous and dishonest quote by minister for counter terrorism, Ellwood. At least this is now on record, and we can only hope Westminster will indeed secure Shaker’s transfer – not to Saudi Arabia, but back home, in England, with his family.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I was one of many, of course, Sarah, but thanks for the kind words. It was rather good to be specifically name-checked by Andy Slaughter MP (along with Joanne MacInnes) in the first part of the transcript. The MP for Hammersmith said we “work daily and tirelessly in every possible way — from complex legal argument to giant inflatables — to raise the matter.” That’s on the permanent record in Hansard, then!

  3. A benign and prescient ‘smart Tory’s’ Corbyn overview? | Watershed 2015 says...

    […] Aamer, a British resident – and detainee at Guantánamo Bay since 2002. Above: members of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group at a meeting in February […]

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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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