How the US Fell for Chinese Lies Regarding the Uighurs at Guantánamo, and Why the Uighurs Need Our Support

7.4.19

A cross-post, with my own detailed introduction, of an article by Richard Bernstein for the Atlantic about how the Bush administration overrode its own considered assessments to support the Chinese government's false description of the Uighurs, an oppressed minority from north west China, as terrorists, in relation to 22 Uighurs who had ended up at
An undated photo of supporters of China’s oppressed Uighur people protesting outside the White House about the imprisonment of Uighurs at Guantánamo. The last of the prison’s Uighurs were freed in 2013, but nowadays the Uighurs are suffering from particularly harsh repression from the Chinese government, with at least a million Uighurs arbitrarily imprisoned in internment camps (Photo: futureatlas.com/flickr).

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Thanks to the Atlantic, and Richard Bernstein, former foreign correspondent for Time and the New York Times, for revisiting the story of Guantánamo’s Uighurs, the ethnic group in the prison who were most transparently unconnected to the anti-American activities of Al-Qaeda.

The timing of Bernstein’s article, ‘When China Convinced the U.S. That Uighurs Were Waging Jihad,’ is evidently intended — and with good reason — to highlight the terrible situation faced by the UIghurs, a Turkic group from Xinjiang province in north western China, who are currently facing the harshest clampdown by the Chinese government in a long history of oppression, with at least a million Uighurs “arbitrarily detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, where they are forced to undergo political indoctrination,” as the Guardian explained in November 2018, after the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (the first to study China since 2013) had condemned China for its deteriorating human rights record. As Vox explained, Western governments “had the harshest words for China,” with the US chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanding that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, and calling on the government to  “release the ‘possibly millions’ of individuals detained there.”

Bernstein’s article focuses on how the Bush administration — shamefully — reversed its opinion about the Chinese government’s oppression of the Uighurs in 2002, to justify its imprisonment of 22 Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo, some of whom spent a total of 12 years in US custody, despite it having been obvious to anyone actually paying attention to their cases that, as many of the Uighurs themselves explained, they had only one enemy — the Chinese government — and had no animosity whatsoever towards the US.

As Bernstein describes it, while both the US and China knew before 9/11 that Uighur discontent was a local problem, afterwards the Chinese government took advantage of the US’s “global terror” rhetoric to, instead, portray Uighur resistance as being “of a piece with al-Qaeda-style terrorism,” and to portray the separatist group ETIM (the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as an affiliate of al-Qaeda, even though that claim is disputed.

Even after 9/11, as Bernstein explains, State Department officials connected to counter-terrorism efforts refused to accept efforts by the Chinese government to describe ETIM as terrorists, and at Guantánamo, after the 22 Uighurs arrived at the prison, “reports filed by interrogators found most of them not to be ‘enemy combatants,’ and they were deemed eligible for release.” Bernstein also notes how Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the prison’s commander in 2002, who famously asked commanders in Afghanistan to stop sending him “Mickey Mouse” detainees, was ashamed of the US treatment of the Uighurs.

However, as Bernstein also explains, “For reasons that have never been made clear,” the Uighurs “were not released — very likely, this was initially because there was no place to release them to, then because, except for a small number of them, the Bush Administration simply refused to let them go.” It was certainly true that it was difficult finding new homes for the Uighurs, because, whenever it was possible, the Chinese government threatened and exerted pressure on countries that offered to help, but in fact the Bush administration only released five Uighurs to Albania in May 2006 to avert what officials thought would be a court ruling against them, and they seem, in general, to have had no interest whatsoever in releasing any of the Uighurs. Instead, Bush administration officials actively left the problem of their release to Barack Obama, despite the Uighurs finally winning a resounding court victory via a habeas corpus petition in October 2008.

What was also significant, of course, which is at the heart of Bernstein’s article, was the cynical decision by Bush administration officials to cosy up to the Chinese government, and to seek to justify the ongoing imprisonment of the Uighurs, by slavishly adopting the Chinese government’s descriptions of ETIM, so that, for example, the assessment of one of the Uighurs, Abu Bakker Qassim, was revised so that he was described as “a probable member” of ETIM, which was, in turn, described as “a Uighur separatist organization dedicated to the creation of a Uighur Islamic homeland in China, through armed insurrection and terrorism.” Adding to this unprincipled change of policy, towards the end of 2002 the State Department dutifully bowed to pressure and designated ETIM as a terrorist organization.

Bernstein’s article concludes with the Obama administration’s successful efforts to release the Uighurs, in a variety of countries between 2009 and 2013 (Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, El Salvador and Slovakia), and he also mentions what, on Guantánamo, was one of Obama’s weakest moments, when, in response to criticism from Republicans Frank Wolf and Newt Gingrich — themselves parroting Chinese government propaganda — he dropped at the last minute a plan that would have seen some of the Uighurs brought to live in Virginia. This was a move that would have done more than anything to puncture the still-prevalent lies of the Bush administration — that those held at Guantánamo were the “worst of the worst,” the most vile and violent terrorists imaginable — and on this point we continue to pay for Obama’s cowardice.

Bernstein also takes the time to mention that, “even now,” many of the released Uighurs “try to keep their whereabouts a secret,” something that I know from having kept an eye on their stories since the last of them were released at the end of 2013. 

For anyone interested, check out, in particular, this Globe and Mail article by Nathan Vanderklippe from July 2015 about the six men who accepted a new life on the remote Pacific island of Palau in October 2009, and whose government, it was revealed by Vanderklippe, received $93,333 for each man. Some managed to bring their wives and children, one of whom, a toddler, died after falling off a balcony. Eventually the men moved on, and as Vanderklippe explained, “The last man, a gregarious dreamer named Davut Abdurahim, left earlier this year.” However, as he added, “Where the six men and their families went is a secret kept even from some of the country’s most senior leaders.”

Below is a cross-post of Richard Bernstein’s article, and I hope you have time to read it.

When China Convinced the U.S. That Uighurs Were Waging Jihad
By Richard Bernstein, The Atlantic, March 19, 2019

In the chaos surrounding America’s War on Terror, Washington fell for Beijing’s ruse that the embattled Muslim minority posed a threat to the West.

They arrived at the American detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — where, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, the “worst of the worst” would be held — a few months after 9/11, directly from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. There were 22 of them, all men, all of them Muslim, bearded, ranging in age from their early 20s to their mid-40s. Five had been captured by American forces following a battle in northern Afghanistan, and the other 17 were seized by police in Pakistan.

But there was something different about these detainees: All were members of China’s Uighur minority, a Turkic group chafing under Beijing’s tight control of their ancestral home in Xinjiang, northwest China. Uighurs had not been known to have harbored anti-American sentiments, much less to have participated in terrorist attacks against Western targets. None of these men, for example, appeared to have fought in any of the past jihadist battlegrounds — not in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet invasion, nor in Bosnia or Chechnya. And yet, despite the lack of evidence against them, the Bush administration for years resisted legal efforts to free these Uighur prisoners, some of them remaining among “the worst of the worst” for 12 years, until, finally, they were released.

The Uighur community is now in the news again, albeit in a very different way — as victims of what is widely regarded as China’s worst human-rights violation since the days of Mao Zedong. Reports filtering out of the country over the past few months indicate that a million or more Uighurs have been locked up in “transformation through education centers,” which are basically concentration camps constructed in various parts of Xinjiang. Detaining the Uighurs is part of China’s long-term effort, stretching back decades, to impose its will on the region and combat what it calls “Uighur terrorism.”

The United States today is not buying that justification, with senior Trump-administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, publicly criticizing Beijing for its oppression of the Uighurs. Most recently, Pompeo has accused China of “being in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.” The two countries are engaged in a series of disputes, ranging from President Donald Trump’s frustrations over trade to American accusations that Beijing allows the theft of American intellectual property. But those 22 Uighurs who were held at Guantánamo Bay serve as a reminder of a period when the United States viewed China less as a rising foe and more of a cooperative partner in trade and diplomacy, what analysts called a “responsible stakeholder” — and a moment in time when the U.S. government was complicit in the Uighur repression.

By the time the 22 Uighurs were first taken into American custody in late 2001, there had been a number of Uighur attacks against ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang, including bus and market bombings. (There have been more such attacks since, some of them very bloody.) Western scholars of Xinjiang, however, attributed these attacks to mounting Uighur frustration over the mass migration of Han Chinese into their traditional homeland, as well as severe Chinese repression of Uighur discontent, including peacefully expressed frustration. China itself for a long time treated its Uighur problem as a local matter, not a product of international jihadism fomented abroad. But after 9/11, the Chinese government began to portray Uighur violence — indeed, Uighur dissent in general — as of a piece with al-Qaeda-style terrorism, an effort widely seen by human rights advocates and others as a way of justifying its repression. China blamed a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for troubles in Xinjiang, portraying it as an affiliate of al-Qaeda, a claim which has been debated.

For a while, the U.S. declined to accept China’s view of the group. Two months after 9/11, Francis X. Taylor, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, went to Beijing to further what he called at the time “a robust, multifaceted, and evolving partnership.” Asked by journalists about ETIM, though, Taylor replied that the problems in Xinjiang stemmed from local grievances and could not be dealt with by using “counterterrorism methods.” In March 2002, an assistant secretary of state, Lorne Craner, said while introducing the State Department’s annual human-rights report that China had “chosen to label all of those who advocate greater freedom in [Xinjiang], near as I can tell, as terrorists. And we don’t think that’s correct.” That rhetoric would not last.

In their first meetings with American interrogators in Afghanistan, before their shipment to Guantánamo, the Uighur prisoners made no effort to hide what was later deemed an incriminating fact about them: Later court documents, as well as interviews conducted after their release, show that some of the 17 who had been arrested in Pakistan said that they had spent time in a village in Afghanistan near the Tora Bora mountains, a region that later became well known as Osama bin Laden’s initial place of refuge. They said that they had gotten training on small arms and Kalashnikov rifles while they were there, and acknowledged meeting a man named Hasan Mahsum, who founded ETIM.

Some of the prisoners readily acknowledged in that initial questioning a hatred for China because of its oppressive policies in Xinjiang, but said that they felt no animus toward the United States. Others said that they were merely members of the Uighur diaspora, who can be found in many of the countries of central Asia — there are estimated to be about 300,000 of them in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. One of the men making that claim, Abu Bekir Qasim [aka Abu Bakker Qassim], a 45-year-old from the northern Xinjiang town of Ghulja, told me in a Skype interview that he left the province in 2000, going first to Kyrgyzstan before heading to Pakistan, from which, like many Uighur exiles, he hoped to make his way to Turkey. Upon arriving in Pakistan, Qasim learned that he would have to wait in the country for at least two months to get a visa to travel through Iran, and Pakistan was expensive. “Many Uighur refugees told me about a village in Afghanistan where you don’t have to pay for lodging or food and can stay for a couple of months,” he said. “It seemed like a good idea.” He and another man walked across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at the Khyber Pass and took a bus to Jalalabad before setting off on a three-hour drive to what Qasim and other Uighurs knew as “the Uighur village.” In court filings, American government attorneys referred to this village as a terrorist training camp “affiliated” with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

I asked Qasim about the village, the paramilitary training, and Mahsum’s presence. He told me that there were many Uighurs there, and their mere presence alone did not make them members of ETIM, much less enemies of the United States. Qasim said that Mahsum, who was reported killed by the Pakistani army in 2003, may sometimes have been there, but he insisted that this did not mean every Uighur present was a follower of his or a member of his organization. As for small-arms training, he said, weapons were ubiquitous in Afghanistan and everybody was expected, as a condition of their stay in the village, to know how to use them.

Initially, American interrogators believed Qasim and his compatriots. During the Uighur detainees’ first year at Guantánamo, reports filed by interrogators found most of them not to be “enemy combatants,” and they were deemed eligible for release. For reasons that have never been made clear, though, they were not released — very likely, this was initially because there was no place to release them to, then because, except for a small number of them, the Bush Administration simply refused to let them go. Rushan Abbas, who had been a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Washington and who subsequently spent months in Guantánamo as the interpreter for the Uighurs, told me that Major General Michael E. Dunlavey, the commander of the task force responsible for interrogating the prisoners in Guantánamo’s early days, had said to her that he’d felt the Uighurs were being detained in error. Years later, he emailed her: “Every time when I read about how our government screwed up the release of the Uighurs, I feel very angry.” Multiple attempts to contact Dunlavey were unsuccessful, but those remarks are consistent with a statement he has reportedly made about Guantánamo detainees.

In Qasim’s case, a review by what was called the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, dated February 21, 2004, which was among a full set of such memos published by WikiLeaks, acknowledges Qasim’s “prior assessment” as “not affiliated with al-Qaeda or a Taliban leader.” But, it continues, “new information” indicated that Qasim “is a probable member” of ETIM, which “is a Uighur separatist organization dedicated to the creation of a Uighur Islamic homeland in China, through armed insurrection and terrorism.”

In describing ETIM in those words, officials echoed the portrayals of Uighur “terrorists” that Chinese propaganda had been disseminating. The United States had also been incorporating this sort of language into its official statements. In late 2002, reversing its earlier resistance, the State Department designated ETIM as a terrorist organization. A fact sheet on this decision described ETIM as a “violent group believed responsible for committing numerous acts of terrorism in China, including bombings of buses, movie theaters, department stores,” and other targets. Between 1990 and 2001, it continued, “members of ETIM reportedly committed over 200 acts of terrorism in China, resulting in at least 162 deaths and over 440 injuries. Its objective is the creation of a fundamentalist Muslim state called ‘East Turkistan.’”

This statement repeats figures included in a document issued by China’s State Council, the country’s main governing body, in which China publicly laid out its case against ETIM and other Uighur radicals it blamed for violence in Xinjiang. Missing from the State Department fact sheet, and from other statements of the United States’ position, was any echo of Washington’s previous views — that Uighur grievances were local and could not be dealt with by counterterrorism methods, or that China made no distinction between those perpetrating violence and those advocating for greater freedom. In the post-9/11 frenzy, and in its eagerness to enlist Beijing’s support in the wider War on Terror, the United States had adopted China’s position without qualification.

Moreover, whether China’s description of ETIM was accurate or not, it would say nothing about whether the Guantánamo Uighurs were members of the group. When the Bush administration was called upon to make the case that the prisoners were members of ETIM, it also presented evidence that appears to have been generated by China. In 2008, a group of the Guantánamo Uighurs, arguing that “there was not one iota of actual evidence” connecting them to any terrorist organization or act, was able to bring a habeas-corpus suit to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. The government’s lawyers put a cache of classified documents into the record, ostensibly to show that the men were indeed enemy combatants. This material has never been made public. The court, after reviewing the documents, not only overturned the government’s enemy-combatant finding, but also dismissed in derisive terms the evidence presented by the U.S. government, describing it as Chinese propaganda. Judge Merrick Garland, who wrote the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel, noted that the government’s case rested on four “intelligence documents,” which were themselves full of words and phrases like “reportedly,” or references to “things that ‘may’ be true or are ‘suspected of’ having taken place,” with no indication of who “‘reported’ or ‘said’ or ‘suspected’ those things.”

The classified documents were so similar that they seemed to have a “common source,” which he said was “the Chinese government, which may be less than objective with respect to the Uighurs.” In a separate case several months later,  a U.S. district court ordered that the Uighurs detained at Guantánamo be released into the United States. But the Bush administration succeeded in getting that order reversed, and so, except for five of the Uighurs captured in Pakistan, including Qasim, who had been released to Albania in 2006, the others remained at Guantánamo.

The Obama administration accepted that the Uighurs still being held at Guantánamo posed no danger to the United States, and proposed to resettle them in Northern Virginia, where there was a Uighur American community ready to take care of them. But this effort died in the face of vociferous opposition from the Republican representative Frank Wolf and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both of whom, consciously or not, based their objections on the same Chinese assertions that the government had depended on earlier. Wolf called the Uighurs “these terrorists” who were “members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a designated terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda,” while Gingrich warned that the Guantánamo Uighurs had been “instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.”

By the end of 2013, the remaining Uighurs had been released from Guantánamo and sent to a variety of different countries. According to Abbas, the former translator for the Uighurs who has remained in contact with many of them, even now they try to keep their whereabouts a secret, worried that Beijing will pressure their host countries to send them back to China.

Their imprisonment had been part of an effort by the United States to gain cooperation in the War on Terror. Instead, China won American cooperation in its war against the Uighurs.

* * * * *

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    In my latest article, I cross-post, with my own detailed introduction, an article for the Atlantic by Richard Bernstein about the Uighurs, an oppressed Turkic minority in north western China, in the Xinjiang province. 22 Uighurs were held at Guantanamo, and the Bush administration disgracefully sided with the Chinese government’s assessment of them as terrorists.

    Despite winning an important habeas corpus case in October 2008, the majority of the Uighurs had to wait until the Obama administration to be released. They ended up being sent to a variety of countries around the world from 2009 to 2013, and while the US’s oppression of these 22 Uighurs is over, the Chinese government persists in its persecution of the Uighur people, and is currently holding at least a million Uighurs in arbitrary imprisonment in internment camps.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    For further information, check out Campaign for Uyghurs, managed by Rushan Abbas, who also worked with the Uighurs at Guantanamo: http://campaignforuyghurs.org

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Terrible, imagine escaping political persecution to fall into the hands of money hungry hypocrites! These traitors may have had their own desperation to solve, but switching up on their own “brothers.” Yikes!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Tashi.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    No amount of money is worth it. You don’t solve your own suffering by creating worse suffering for others!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Tashi. If only everyone knew it. Really knew it.

  7. Tom says...

    Connected in a way. Something important like the #metoo movement happens, and the Oscars say it’s important. But if Richard Gere brings up helping Tibetans suffering under Chinese rule (annexation), he’s censored for life. Why? Chinese corporate profit.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, good point, Tom. People are strongly discouraged from complaining about the behaviour of the Chinese government. I found this deference particularly sickening at the time of the 2008 Olympics.
    And, as a side note, the Olympics has a tendency to reinforce central control rather than to loosen it, as this Straits Times article notes: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/a-decade-on-olympics-changed-china-but-not-how-many-hoped
    It’s something that has also afflicted London in the wake of the 2012 Olympics.

  9. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    I hope the men who were sent to Palau were able to make it to that tannery in Turkey that some of them were hoping to make it to.

    They said they were taking a village that had been abandoned by its inhabitants, after the Soviets levelled it with aerial bombardment, and rebuilding enough of it so that more Uyghurs could live there. It sounds like hard work, and, without heavy equipment, they were making slow progress.

    I think the US bombardment, in October 2001, shows what aerial and satellite surveillance can and can’t show. I think their surveillance showed intelligence analysts that there were no women, children and farm animals there – which would be consistent with a military camp. Of course also consistent with a construction site.

    If Rumsfeld hadn’t tried to conduct the invasion on the cheap, with aerial bombardment and a handful of CIA paramilitaries and Special Forces they could have had enough boots on the ground to confirm whether this encampment was a military encampment.

    US spokesmen regularly tried to describe this work camp as a military camp. Because some of the Uyghurs said they had been shown how to use an AK-47. But, from my reading, it sounds like the entire camp had just one AK-47.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s what I recall too, arcticredriver – that it was a broken place that they were trying to reconstruct by hand, as a kind of refuge for other Uighurs fleeing China, and that they had one AK-47 between them (and also, of course, that it’s almost impossible to imagine being in Afghanistan without having a gun).
    You make a very good point about Donald Rumsfeld running a military campaign “on the cheap” – part of a process of making US imperialism more palatable to US citizens, because, as much as possible, boots are kept off the ground, to keep US casualties to a minimum. It’s also worth noting that the US had almost no intel from inside Afghanistan about what had been happening since they walked away after the Soviet withdrawal, which, of course, was a key element in ensuring that the wrong people were so often sent to Guantanamo.

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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 (The State of London).
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