“The More We Get Close to What We Want, The Farther It Goes”: Shaker Aamer’s Endlessly Thwarted Hope of Being Released from Guantánamo

14.9.15

Jeremy Corbyn MP supporting We Stand With Shaker in October 2014 (Photo: Andy Worthington).On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn, a prominent supporter in Parliament of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, was elected, by a landslide, as the leader of the Labour Party, something that was unimaginable just three months ago. Jeremy is a member of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, and in May he visited Washington D.C. with three of his Parliamentary colleagues, to meet with Senators and representatives of the Obama administration, to try and secure Shaker’s release.

The Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group was established last November by John McDonnell MP, Jeremy’s close friend and colleague on the left of the Party, who, yesterday, was appointed by Jeremy as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Shaker now has two prominent supporters in previously unexpected high-profile positions, and I hope this fact is not lost on the Obama administration, which continues to hold Shaker needlessly. Cleared for release in 2007 (under George W. Bush) and again in 2009 under President Obama, he could be released in a month’s time if the will existed to free him, 30 days being the amount of time that lawmakers in Congress have required the defense secretary to give them before freeing any prisoner.

Other supporters of Shaker in the shadow cabinet are Diane Abbott, the shadow secretary of state for international development, and Ian Murray, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, and while we wait to see how the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn will raise Shaker’s case (which I’m sure will happen soon), I’m cross-posting below an article about Shaker that was published in the Mail on Sunday, written by Ramzi Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, who I have known for many years — and have also spoken with on occasion.

Along with Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve, Ramzi represents Shaker, along with his students in the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic at CUNY School of Law. The Daily Mail, I’m glad to note, has been supporting the release of Shaker since last November, when, shortly after the launch of the We Stand With Shaker campaign that I co-direct with Joanne MacInnes, the Mail featured Shaker’s case in a front-page story, under the headline, “Held in a hell hole for 13 years without trial: Scandal of the London father locked in Guantánamo with no hope of justice,” and then began supporting the We Stand With Shaker campaign.

Ramzi runs though Shaker’s history at Guantánamo, also making reference to the independent medical examination that he and Reprieve sought in 2013, which was allowed by the authorities, and which led to a detailed assessment of Shaker’s extensive mental and physical ailments by Dr. Emily A. Keram, an independent psychiatrist, which I reported here.

I hope you find Ramzi’s article useful, and will share it if you do.

Why Shaker Aamer must be freed
By Professor Ramzi Kassem, Mail on Sunday, September 13, 2015

When they find out that I travel to Guantánamo Bay regularly and that I represent Shaker Aamer, the Britons I meet here in New York City often ask: ‘How’s Shaker doing?’

Shaker Aamer, my client, has been at Guantánamo Bay since 2002. For that phrase to take on its full meaning, one must first understand that Guantánamo itself offers the starkest and oddest of contrasts. It is a pristine corner of the Caribbean island of Cuba, replete with picture perfect vistas of stunning beaches on piercing blue seas.

But that same tropical paradise has been the stage for countless abuses — some past, some ongoing — inflicted on men like Shaker. It is where Camp X-Ray sits, an array of cages exposed to the elements where scores of human beings were imprisoned, including Shaker. It is where more modern, maximum-security penitentiaries now stand, which is where Shaker spends his days and nights. It is where the CIA ran secret prisons. My conversations with Shaker over the years have granted me a glimpse into his life in that ‘prison of darkness and oppression,’ as the captives there have taken to calling it. I have some understanding of his daily life, of his struggles, of the ways he has devised to survive in that place.

But, still, the question of how Shaker’s doing leaves me at a loss for words. Not because it’s unreasonable, of course.

After all, Shaker’s case is a cause célèbre. He is the last remaining UK resident left at the infamous offshore gulag set up by the United States in Cuba. For years, there has quite rightly been a clamour for his return to London. Even Prime Minister David Cameron, during a White House meeting earlier this year, pressed President Barack Obama, to send Shaker back.

So the question itself could not be more natural. Arriving at a fair answer, however, is far less straightforward.

First come the basic facts about Shaker and his story.

In 2001 he was abducted in Afghanistan where he has always insisted he was doing voluntary work for an Islamic charity, and sold to the American military for a $5,000 (£3,200) bounty.

He was taken away from his three children and his wife, who was pregnant with their fourth child at the time. All of them are British nationals, though Shaker himself is only a British resident, having been born in Saudi Arabia in 1968. He travelled widely in Europe and America and even acted as a translator for the US military during the Gulf War before settling in Britain in 1996.

After his abduction, Shaker was tortured and beaten severely at a number of U.S. prisons in Afghanistan before being shackled, blindfolded, and ear-muffed for the long flight to Cuba, where he arrived on Valentine’s Day in 2002, the very day that his son, Faris, whom he has still not met, was born.

Astonishingly, he has never been charged and has never stood trial.

His detention in Afghanistan was only the start of his ordeal. At Guantánamo, in addition to yet more brutal questioning, he endured endless years in solitary confinement, which is supposed to be used only sparingly if at all by prison authorities, because of the rapid deterioration it can bring about in a prisoner’s mental health.

Even everyday procedures at Guantánamo are calculated to inflict maximum pain and humiliation. A procedure known as ‘Forced Cell Extraction’ (FCE), for example, is used to transport protesting prisoners. A typical extraction begins with the forced extraction team slamming Shaker’s face into the ground. Four American soldiers in full riot gear grab his legs and arms and a fifth takes his head. The team leader pins his feet and arms together behind Shaker at a single point while all the other guards press down on him with their cumulative weight. During each forced extraction, Shaker’s back nearly breaks as they handcuff him using tight, cutting plastic restraints, before subjecting him to a humiliating full-body search.

Describing these practices, Shaker said to me: ‘I don’t wish what happened to us here to happen to any human being, not even my enemy.’

Yet, remarkably, Shaker remained unbroken.

‘Of course, Guantánamo does not define me,’ he told me in a letter. ‘I arrived here bound at the hands and feet, blacked-out goggles covering my eyes, and expecting death. But up until that point, I had been an English teacher, a translator, a volunteer with a humanitarian group, a resident of Great Britain, a husband, and a father of four.’

The daily regime that Shaker endures would be laughable were it not so grotesque.

When the soldiers deem him compliant he is allowed to wear a white or beige jumpsuit rather than the now infamous orange one.

He may be allowed to talk to other prisoners if he’s put into a mixed cellblock.

And the heavily restricted list of books he is allowed to see would include Harry Potter.

When Shaker is compliant he is not subject to immediate violence. He typically rises in the small hours for morning prayers. But after that comes the long, painful hours of emptiness and utter uncertainty. Mental torture or living death. Call it what you will, both are true.

The quotidian details of Shaker’s life at Guantánamo can be as baffling as the dramatically brutal ones. The food, for example, is usually served all mixed up together: the tuna in the fruit salad, the eggs in the oatmeal. And then there’s the dense, oddly shaped pseudo-falafel which Shaker has taken to calling the ‘constipation cube.’ Shaker swears that if it were thrown against a wall with force, that falafel wouldn’t crumble apart but would bounce off. Even the stray cats won’t touch the food, the ones that Shaker tries to care for during what recreation time he is given when deemed ‘compliant’ by prison authorities.

Those days are the good days. But there are plenty of bad days too.

Shaker is not always judged ‘compliant’. To preserve his sanity and self respect he protests against his illegal detention and inhuman treatment.

He often stages sit-ins — refusing to leave his cell or return to his cell from the recreation area — or hunger strikes. Such peaceful protests are not illegal, but at Guantánamo they are punished all the same.

When Shaker is wearing an orange jump suit, the mind-bending assault of solitary confinement resumes. So does forced cell extraction. He is deprived of what the prison administration refers to as ‘amenities’ which, to most people, would be the basics of human dignity. So Shaker is denied a blanket in the arctic air-conditioning employed at Guantánamo, leaving him freezing. He is allowed no reading material except the Koran.

Not even my attorney-client meetings with Shaker are free from the madness. Since beginning work on Guantánamo cases in 2005, I have been to America’s offshore gulag thirty-seven times. American soldiers have to frisk and ‘wand’ me then escort me through a labyrinth of clanking iron gates before I am finally allowed to meet with the last Briton in Guantánamo Bay.

I walk into the shack under the Cuban sun in Camp Echo, where the meetings are held, to find him shackled by the ankle to a steel loop jutting out of the flooring. The prison authorities are usually unmoved by my pleas that he be unshackled for the duration of our meeting. Once or twice in scores of meetings over the years, they relented, but not before making me sign a waiver absolving the U.S. military of any and all responsibility should my client assault me during our meeting!

Still, Shaker has not quit. He routinely stages acts of peaceful disobedience to protest his continuing imprisonment without charge or fair process. His outlook is simple: ‘I stood for justice in this place for thirteen years and I am not going to give up now.’

But it is indisputable that it has all taken its toll on Shaker. I had to file a motion in federal court so the U.S. government would permit Shaker a reliable examination by an independent medical expert — his first such examination in over a decade of captivity. In her report, she diagnosed Shaker with chronic psychological and physical ailments that have gravely diminished his mental health and limited his physical mobility. According to the medical expert, Shaker’s conditions include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, Special Housing Unit (SHU) Syndrome, and paranoia, as well as severe edema, debilitating headaches, and untreated asthma. Shaker’s treatment will likely span many years, if not his lifetime, and it necessitates his prompt release to the United Kingdom.

Compounding the stress on Shaker’s psyche is the sheer absurdity of his present predicament. Shaker was first cleared for release by a U.S. military panel in 2007, during the Bush Administration. Then, in 2009, he was again cleared for release under President Obama by a taskforce comprising representatives from every single U.S. agency with a stake in national security matters. Responding to Prime Minister Cameron’s entreaty, President Obama promised to ‘prioritise’ Shaker’s case. Yet, the man continues to languish at Guantánamo today, kept prisoner for reasons the American authorities refuse to disclose.

That is the larger context lending full meaning to the following words that Shaker wrote me: ‘We live in a very strange and dark place. We don’t know who to trust or what to trust. The more we get close to what we want, the farther it goes, and we feel we will never get to the end of this.’

As his words reflect, Shaker remains painfully aware of his overall situation. But he has not given up hope, often reminding me that ‘the wheel of justice takes time to turn but it never stops nor will it miss anyone.’

In a meeting, I asked Shaker what regular folks in the United Kingdom could do for him. He didn’t answer me right away but later wrote me a letter. His words might as well have been addressed directly to his fellow Britons.

‘Your role here is critical,’ Shaker wrote. Every call, letter, or email from an ordinary member of the British public to the Prime Minister reminding him to keep Shaker’s case a priority in talks with the United States brings Shaker one step closer to freedom and to being reunited with his wife and family, including the child he has never seen, in London.

It is of course nothing short of disgraceful that the demands already clearly and directly put forth by the United Kingdom, the United States’ closest ally, have thus far been ignored. But the pressure must be kept up all the same, for Shaker’s sake. I will next see Shaker in that same prison shack in Cuba in ten days, and I will update him on Britain’s continuing commitment to his release. We will also discuss many other things, big and small. Perhaps I will be able to take steps to improve his daily existence in that hellhole, however marginally. But there will certainly be many more things that I will be powerless to change. Paradoxically, a person reading these words an ocean away in the United Kingdom may be in a better position to help Shaker by contacting elected representatives to press them on Shaker’s ongoing plight.

The kindness, solidarity, and support already expressed by countless compatriots have not been lost on Shaker. He wrote me recently that ‘truly no words are enough to thank whoever puts his time in service of justice, even if it’s only through prayer or thoughts.’ Hopefully, a little more time and a little more effort will finally bring Shaker home so he can thank you in person.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-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 the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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).

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19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Please, if you’re in the UK, ask your MP to sign the Early Day Motion for Shaker, which was tabled last week by Andrew Mitchell, with support from MPs including Jeremy Corbyn.
    The EDM is here: http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2015-16/413
    You can write to your MP here: https://www.writetothem.com/
    Here’s my article about the EDM: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2015/09/10/labour-frontrunner-jeremy-corbyn-joins-cross-party-signatories-on-early-day-motion-calling-for-shaker-aamers-release-from-guantanamo/

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    This from the Associated Press: “According to U.S. officials familiar with the process, [defense secretary Ashton] Carter recently notified Congress of two transfers, and has four whose files are ready to go to Capitol Hill, likely later this month. Congress has 30 days to review the transfers before they are made public.” No clues as to the identity of these two men, or the four to follow. Could Shaker be one of them?
    See: http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2015/09/14/us-effort-to-close-guantanamo-prison-still-facing-roadblocks

  3. Anna says...

    Few things are more cruel than raising false hope of freedom. Doing it again and again must add so much torment to both Shaker – and all his brothers over there – and his family.
    May this cat-and-mouse game finally end!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Anna. It’s unbearably cruel, isn’t it, dangling that hope of release and then not following though. And not just for Shaker, of course, but for all the men approved for release.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good news! Another 8 MPs have signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for the US to release Shaker Aamer from ‪‎Guantanamo‬, making 32 MPs to date. Please ask your MP to join them, if they haven’t signed already. We currently have 5 Tories, 12 Labour (including Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott), 10 SNP, 2 Lib Dems, 1 Green and 2 SDLP. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2015-16/413
    https://www.writetothem.com/

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    The 8 new MPs who’ve signed:
    Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (SNP, Ochil and South Perthshire)
    Richard Arkless (SNP, Dumfries and Galloway)
    Roger Godsiff (Labour, Birmingham Hall Green)
    Chris Law (SNP, Dundee West)
    Rachael Maskell (Labour, York Central)
    Alan Meale (Labour, Mansfield)
    Paula Sherriff (Labour, Dewsbury)
    Mark Williams (Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion)
    Thanks to all of them!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And three more MPs signed yesterday, taking the total to 35 – 5 Tories, 14 Labour (including Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott), 11 SNP, 2 Lib Dems, 1 Green and 2 SDLP.
    The three new MPs are:
    Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West)
    Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West)
    Marie Rimmer (Labour, St Helens South and Whiston)

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And four more MPs taking the total to 39: Alan Brown (SNP, Kilmarnock and Loudoun) Maria Caulfield (Conservative, Lewes) Kirsten Oswald (SNP, East Renfrewshire) Philippa Whitford (SNP, Central Ayrshire) Thanks to all of them! Please ask your MP to sign EDM 413: https://www.writetothem.com/
    http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2015-16/413

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Two more MPs added on 17 September, taking the total to 41 – 6 Tories, 16 Labour (including Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott), 14 SNP, 2 Lib Dems, 1 Green and 2 SDLP:
    Mary Glindon (Labour, North Tyneside)
    Gordon Marsden (Labour, Blackpool South)

  10. robyn says...

    It’s cruel to give false hope, it is cruel. When you promise to release somebody, YOU RELEASE THEM, YOU DON’T play the CAT AND MOUSE game, it is torture! I am scared it will happen to Jonathan P. in the US in for spying for Israel-and SERVING TOO LONG! No more false hope!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Robyn. I agree absolutely that prisoners approved for release must be freed – and it is shameful that men who were told that the US no longer wanted to hold them five to six years ago are still held at Guantanamo.
    Thanks also for mentioning Jonathan Pollard, set to be released on November 21 after serving 30 years for spying for Israel: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/28/jonathan-pollard-israel-spy-release-november

  12. Robyn says...

    Thank you, I was worried for a sec that you’d be yet another hypocrite like the “liberals” who want him dead, and the conservatives who want him freed but are willing to subject others to the cruel, and callous torture of false hope! When and if I become the President of the U.S, I want to make psychological torture like this illegal! No more false hope! Jew or Non Jew, White or Non White, Liberal or Conservative, Woman or Men, Gay or Straight! I believe that SOLITARY CONFINEMENT is the 2nd worst torture ONLY because False Hope is the worst to me, the thought of being told that you will be freed, only for it all to be a sham, a lie, just a cruel joke, that makes the bullies laugh, but hurts you, it makes me sick how some people can give false hope like this, and not regret it! The only people who deserve to get false hope are people who give false hope! False hope breaks the soul! All people who aren’t broken when subjected to this torture are strong, and people who aren’t broken when subjected to this torture REPEATEDLY, are more then strong, and still stronger, are the unbroken people who are subjected to this torture repeatedly, and are subjected to other types of torture! As if false hope isn’t cruel! Don’t tell somebody that they’re going to be freed, if they aren’t! I’d LOVE to believe that the people who are doing this don’t know that they are giving him false hope, but I believe that they’re being sadistic! Treating the gift of freedom as the cheese to put in a mouse trap is cruel, wrong, sadistic, callous, stupid, mean, malicious, idiotic, sociopathic, terrible psychopathic, and is the act of bullies of the WORST SORT! I wish the people who give people false hope were put in prison, and maybe be forced to experience the same thing!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I agree, Robyn, about the torture of false hope, which is why I mention, when I can, how cruel it is for the men at Guantanamo who have been approved for release to still be held, years after they were told they would be released. As I always say, it is crueller than the dictators who imprison people without due process, but at least don’t pretend that there is some kind of process that will lead to people’s release – but that doesn’t.

  14. Robyn says...

    Mr. Worthington, it’s Robyn, not Robin, it’s pathetic that I’m 13 years old, and I have more morality then our politicians! I’m worried that Mr. Aamar won’t be released this November! Now I have two releases that are supposed to happen, but might just be cruel jokes! Hoping that Pollard and Aamar’s emotions aren’t being played! Set to be released doesn’t mean that he’s really going to be released! Mr. Aamar is set to be released! I’m from the U.S! They say that Autistics lack empathy, HA, I have empathy, too bad I can’t say the same for most politicians!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Robyn,
    My apologies for misspelling your name. I have corrected it.
    Very good to hear from you again. Let us hope that the authorities follow through on their promises. You are certainly correct to say that most politicians do not have empathy – and we desperately need more empathy, not less!

  16. Robyn says...

    Yes let us hope, but we need to be prepared, if they don’t then maybe I’ll write a letter, but what will you do?!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Just keep campaigning, Robyn. Until Guantanamo is shut I have to keep working towards that day, No one should be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

  18. Robyn says...

    I’m choosing to wait until November, then if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something then! Maybe he will be released!

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, we’re hopeful, Robyn, hearing from sources inside Guantanamo that it should be early next week. But as always, no relaxation until it definitely happens!

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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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