Gravely Ill, Shaker Aamer Asks US Judge to Order His Release from Guantánamo

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email. Please also sign and share the international petition calling for Shaker Aamer’s release.

Last Monday, lawyers for Shaker Aamer, 45, the last British resident in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, asked a federal judge to order his release because he is chronically ill. A detailed analysis of Mr. Aamer’s mental and physical ailments was prepared by an independent psychiatrist, Dr. Emily A. Keram, following a request in October, by Mr. Aamer’s lawyers, for him to receive an independent medical evaluation.

The very fact that the authorities allowed an independent expert to visit Guantánamo to assess Mr. Aamer confirms that he is severely ill, as prisoners are not generally allowed to be seen by external health experts unless they are facing trials. Mr. Aamer, in contrast, is one of 75 of the remaining 154 prisoners who were cleared for release from Guantánamo over four years ago by a high-level, inter-agency task force established by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009.

As a result, the authorities’ decision to allow an independent expert to assess Mr. Aamer can be seen clearly for what it is — an acute sensitivity on their part to the prospect of prisoners dying, even though, for many of the men, being held for year after year without justice is a fate more cruel than death, as last year’s prison-wide hunger strike showed.

In her submission, based on 25 hours meeting with Mr. Aamer from December 16-20, Dr. Keram, an independent psychiatrist who has previously examined other prisoners facing military commission trials, reported and analyzed what Mr. Aamer had told her about his initial detention by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in late 2001, his initial imprisonment by the US — at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan — and his 12 years at Guantánamo, and her conclusions are that he has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and “additional psychiatric symptoms related to his current confinement that are not included in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD but which also gravely diminish his mental health.”

The detailed list of his mental ailments is alarming, but Dr. Keram also provided an additional psychiatric prognosis, noting that, “In addition to the psychiatric symptoms discussed above, Mr. Aamer has suffered a profound disruption of his life, dignity, and personhood.”

She added: “The length, uncertainly, and stress of Mr. Aamer’s confinement has caused significant disruptions in his underlying sense of self and ability to function. He is profoundly aware of what he has lost. He discussed the struggle he faces if his detention were to continue indefinitely. Additionally, we discussed the struggle he will face, were he to be released, in regaining the ability to function in his family and society. He is aware that it has taken some of the former detainees years to begin to recover to the extent that they have some degree of meaning and productivity in their lives.”

That reference to “the length, uncertainty, and stress” of Mr. Aamer’s imprisonment reminded me of what Christophe Girod, an official with the International Red Cross, said back in October 2003, when the prison had been open less than two years. Girod said, “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem,” and it is disturbing to realize how those factors can only have been hideously exacerbated with the passage of 12 years — not just for Shaker Aamer, but for many, if not most or all of the 154 other remaining prisoners.

In her analysis, Dr. Keram continued: “The chronic and severe psychiatric symptoms described above have gravely diminished Mr. Aamer’s mental health. In order to maximize his prognosis, Mr. Aamer requires psychiatric treatment, as well as reintegration into his family and society and minimization [of] his re-exposure to trauma and reminders of trauma.”

Dr. Keram recommended that Mr. Aamer “should receive psychiatric treatment in England in order to obtain meaningful therapeutic benefit,” and also stressed that returning him to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth — where the US has expressed an interest in returning him, even though he has a British wife and four British children, and was given indefinite leave to remain in the UK prior to his capture — would be disastrous.

As she explained: “The severity of Mr. Aamer’s psychiatric symptoms would worsen were he to be involuntarily repatriated to Saudi Arabia. He reported that should this occur he would not be reunited with his family for many years, if ever. His ongoing separation from his family significantly exacerbates his psychiatric symptoms. Additionally, the impact of a move to Saudi Arabia on his family would likely re-traumatize Mr. Aamer, as his wife and children are unaccustomed to Saudi culture. Finally, Mr. Aamer’s probable further confinement in the Saudi rehabilitation program would likely be re-traumatizing, as its goal would be to re-acclimate him to the norms of Saudi society. Mr. Aamer identifies as a British Muslim and is most comfortable in that culture.”

Dr. Keram also analysed Mr. Aamer’s extensive physical ailments, which include severe edema (swelling caused by fluid retention in the body’s tissues, and also known as dropsy), severe migraines, asthma, chronic urinary retention, otitis media (middle ear infection), tinnitus, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or acid reflux disease) and constipation.

In reporting the motion filed on behalf of Mr. Aamer, the New York Times helpfully explained that it represented “a new tactic by lawyers seeking the release of Guantánamo detainees by building on a court’s decision last year that a Sudanese detainee should be allowed to leave because of health problems.” The Times continued, “Both the Sudanese case and now Mr. Aamer’s focus on laws and regulations governing the repatriation of prisoners of war that could become increasingly important as the detainee population at Guantánamo ages.”

The New York Times added: “The law of war permits detaining enemy fighters without trial to prevent their return to the battlefield. But it requires repatriating those who are seriously wounded or sick even before an armed conflict is over. A Geneva Conventions article says detainees shall be repatriated if their ‘mental or physical fitness seems to have been gravely diminished’ and they seem unlikely to recover within a year.

The Times continued: “A United States Army regulation says wartime detainees who are ‘eligible’ for repatriation include sick or wounded prisoners ‘whose conditions have become chronic to the extent that prognosis appears to preclude recovery in spite of treatment within one year from inception of disease or date of injury.”

In the motion submitted last Monday, Mr. Aamer’s lawyers argued that he “should be released immediately because his illness has become so chronic that recovery, even with optimal circumstances and care, is precluded within one year, and is likely to take many years or the full course of his remaining natural life.”

The New York Times noted that Mr. Aamer’s condition “appears less severe” than that of the Sudanese prisoner, Ibrahim Idris, who was freed in December after the Justice Department refused, for the first time, to challenge a prisoner’s habeas corpus petition (Mr. Idris’s, in October). Mr. Idris’s lawyers had described him as morbidly obese and schizophrenic, and had argued that his “long-term severe mental illness and physical illnesses make it virtually impossible for him to engage in hostilities were he to be released.”

However, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, whose legal clinic represents Mr. Aamer, refuted the Times‘s claim about the gravity of Mr. Aamer’s illness compared to that of Ibrahim Idris. “The law does not require a prisoner’s total and permanent incapacitation,” he said in an interview, adding, “The grave illnesses with which Shaker has now been diagnosed, taken together or separately, meet the legal standard for release under international and domestic law.”

I thoroughly endorse Ramzi Kassem’s analysis, and fervently hope that the judge in his case in the District Court in Washington D.C. — Judge Rosemary Collyer — agrees.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

Photos of the Shaker Aamer Protest in London on February 14, and His Latest Words from Guantánamo

A protest organized by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign outside MI6 headquarters on February 14, 2014, the 12th anniversary of the arrival at Guantanmao of Shaker Aamer, the ast British resident in the prison (Photo: Andy Worthington).On February 14, 2014, the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign held a protest outside MI6 headquarters on Albert Embankment in London. The photo to the left here is part of a set of photos I took on the day. See the full set on Flickr here.

The protest was called to mark the 12th anniversary of Shaker Aamer‘s arrival at Guantánamo, and the 12th birthday of his youngest child, who, of course, he has never seen. Shaker is the last British resident in Guantánamo, who has a British wife and four British children, and had been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK prior to travelling to Afghanistan with his family, to undertake humanitarian aid, in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion that led to his capture by bounty hunters, who then sold him to the US military.

Crucially, he was cleared for release by a military review board under the Bush administration in 2007, and again in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. His continued imprisonment is, therefore, completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, and it reflects very badly on both the US and UK governments — the former for not having released him to be reunited with his family, which should be a straightforward matter, and the latter for not having made his release and return to the UK an absolute priority. Read the rest of this entry »

US Appeals Court Rules that Guantánamo Prisoners Can Challenge Force-Feeding, and Their Conditions of Detention

In the latest news from Guantánamo, the court of appeals in Washington D.C. ruled yesterday that hunger-striking prisoners can challenge their force-feeding in a federal court — and, more generally, ruled that judges have “the power to oversee complaints” by prisoners “about the conditions of their confinement,” as the New York Times described it, further explaining that the judges ruled that “courts may oversee conditions at the prison as part of a habeas corpus lawsuit,” and adding that the ruling “was a defeat for the Obama administration and may open the door to new lawsuits by the remaining 155 Guantánamo inmates.”

In summer, four prisoners, all cleared for release since at least January 2010 — Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian and Nabil Hadjarab, another Algerian, who was later releasedasked federal court judges to stop the government from force-feeding them, but the judges ruled (see here and here) that an existing precedent relating to Guantánamo prevented them from intervening. The prisoners then appealed, and reports at the time of the hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court indicated that the judges appeared to be inclined to look favorably on the prisoners’ complaints.

As was explained in a press release by Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent the men involved in the appeal, along with Jon B. Eisenberg in California, the D.C. Circuit Court “held that the detainees should be allowed a ‘meaningful opportunity’ back in District Court to show that the Guantánamo force-feeding was illegal.” They also “invited the detainees to challenge other aspects of the protocol.” Read the rest of this entry »

Shaker Aamer Protest in London, Feb. 14, and Andy Worthington Talks About Guantánamo at Amnesty Conference in Leicester, Feb. 15, 2014

Please sign and share the international petition calling for the release of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo.

If you’re anywhere near Leicester on Saturday, February 15, 2014, and can spare a fiver to hear me speak, I’m the keynote speaker at Amnesty International’s East Midlands Regional Conference, where I will be discussing the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which I have been researching and writing about for the last eight years.

Following my recent experiences discussing Guantánamo during my two-week “Close Guantánamo Now” US tour, I will be talking about the monstrous history of the prison, 12 years since it opened, and explaining what has happened over the last few years — primarily involving obstacles to the release of prisoners that were raised by Congress, President Obama’s refusal to bypass Congress, even though he had the power to do so, and the promises to resume releasing prisoners that President Obama finally made last year, after the prisoners had embarked on a huge hunger strike that led to severe criticism of his inaction.

The Amnesty International conference takes place at the Friends Meeting House, 16 Queens Road, Leicester, LE2 1WP. It begins at 9.30am and runs until 5pm, and I’ll be speaking at 2pm. Entry is £5 (or £4 for the unwaged). For further information, please contact Ben Ashby by email or on 07794 441189. Read the rest of this entry »

Clive Stafford Smith on Guantánamo: “You Are Cleared to Leave, But You Cannot Go”

On Friday, a powerful op-ed appeared on CNN’s website, entitled, “Mr. President, what should I tell cleared prisoners in Guantánamo?” It was written by someone who has been meeting prisoners at Guantánamo, as a civilian lawyer, for nearly ten years, and has been meeting prisoners who have been told that the US no longer wants to hold them — that they have been cleared for release — for up to seven years.

The author of the op-ed is Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 14 of the 155 men still held at Guantánamo, including one man, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who was told in 2007 that the US no longer wanted to hold him. Soon after he was told this, another British resident was freed, with three more following in December 2007. The last to be freed was Binyam Mohamed, in February 2009, but for Shaker his long and pointless imprisonment seems to be unending.

This is in spite of the fact that President Obama established a high-level, inter-agency task force to review the cases of all the men held shortly after he took office in January 2009, and, a year later, the task force issued a report containing their recommendations: who to release, who to prosecute, and — most dubiously — who to continue holding without charge or trial on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Shaker Aamer Reports 33 Guantánamo Prisoners on Hunger Strike, Issues Statement on Prison’s 12th Anniversary

A month ago, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was cleared for release under President Bush and President Obama, reported that prisoners — himself included — had resumed the hunger strike that raged from February to August last year, and, at its peak, involved up to 130 of the remaining prisoners. As the Observer described it, in a phone call with Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 men still at Guantánamo, Shaker “revealed there [were] 29 Guantánamo hunger strikers, including him, of whom 19 [were] being force-fed.”

That number has now increased. In its latest press release, Reprieve used testimony by the prisoners to “reveal that 33 men detained in Guantánamo are on hunger strike, with 16 being force fed.” When the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo announced at the start of last month that they were no longer going to state how many prisoners were on hunger strike, because they did not want to “further their protests,” just 15 of the prisoners were refusing food, all of whom were being force-fed.

Reprieve also revealed that the authorities at Guantánamo are punishing hunger strikers by sending them to Camp V Echo, described as “the strictest of the camps.” One prisoner represented by Reprieve’s lawyers said, “My cell in the dreadful Camp V Echo is constructed in a strange manner. It is designed to torture the person who is held there. All the surfaces made of steel. The bed is steel. The walls are steel. The floor is steel. The ceiling is steel. There is no toilet, but the hole in the ground is made of steel.” Read the rest of this entry »

For Christmas, the Reverend Nicholas Mercer Calls for the Release of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo, Denounces UK Involvement in Torture

As I spend Christmas with family, I recall that, on this Christian holiday, which commemorates the birth of Jesus — drawing on an older tradition of celebrating the winter solstice, and the beginning of the sun’s rebirth after the shortest day of the year — there are other people who are unable to be with their families, including the men in Guantánamo who have been the focus of my work for the last eight years.

In the lull between opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner, I’m pleased to have the opportunity to make available a recent article from the Huffington Post by Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represent 15 prisoners still held at Guantánamo, including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison.

I have been writing about Shaker’s case for the last eight years, and will continue to do so until he is freed, as his ongoing imprisonment is a disgrace that ought to disturb the Christmas dinners of the most senior representatives of two governments — the US and the UK — because there is, simply put, no good reason why he is still held, and is not back in London with his family.

The only reason he is still held is because, as an eloquent, forthright and intelligent man, and the foremost defender of the prisoners’ rights since they were first seized, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan 12 years ago, he has come to know more than most of the prisoners about the crimes committed by US officials, operatives and military personnel, and the complicity in these crimes of other countries’ representatives, including, of course, the UK. Read the rest of this entry »

Hunger Strike Resumes at Guantánamo, as Shaker Aamer Loses 30 Pounds in Weight

In alarming news from Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, has stated that the prisoners have renewed the hunger strike that, earlier this year, involved at least two-thirds of the remaining prisoners, and reawakened the world’s media to the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo.

The hunger strike provided evidence of the men’s despair, after eleven years’ imprisonment without charge or trial, in an experimental prison where they are still in a legal limbo, held neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war. Their despair was heightened by the fact that 82 of them were cleared for release in January 2010 — nearly four years ago — by a high-level Presidential task force, and yet they are still held, and 80 others are, for the most part, detained without charge or trial, and with no sign of when, if ever, they might either be tried or released. As I explained in a recent article for Al-Jazeera, long-promised reviews for most of these 80 men have recently begun, but the process is both slow and uncertain.

In a recent phone call with Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 men still at Guantánamo, Shaker “revealed there are now 29 Guantánamo hunger strikers, including him, of whom 19 are being force-fed,” as the Observer described it on Sunday.

“The hunger strike is back on,” Shaker said, adding, “The number is increasing almost every day.” He also explained that he has been on the new hunger strike for almost a month and has lost 30 pounds in weight. On November 8 he weighed 188 pounds, and he now weighs 158 pounds. Read the rest of this entry »

Shaker Aamer’s Latest Words from Guantánamo, and a Parliamentary Meeting on Human Rights Day

STOP PRESS December 8: I just heard from Joy Hurcombe, the chair of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, that Clive Stafford Smith will also be speaking at the Parliamentary meeting on Tuesday.

If you’re in London, or anywhere near, and you care about the ongoing injustices of Guantánamo, then please come to a Parliamentary meeting for Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo Bay, on Tuesday December 10, which is Human Rights Day. Established by the UN in 1950, Human Rights Day marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved on December 10, 1948.

Please also sign the international petition calling for his release, on the Care 2 Petition site.

Shaker, whose voice was recently recorded at Guantánamo by a CBS news crew, is one of 82 prisoners in Guantánamo who have long been cleared for release but are still held, and his continued imprisonment remains thoroughly unacceptable, because, although Congress has raised obstacles to the release of prisoners to countries they regard as dangerous, there is no conceivable way that the UK — America’s staunchest ally in the “war on terror” — could be regarded as an unsafe destination. Furthermore, the release yesterday of two Algerian prisoners who did not want to be repatriated, because they fear for their safety in their home country, which has a dubious human rights record, is not only a deeply troubling outcome for them, but also adds insult to injury where Shaker is concerned.

On the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Parliamentary meeting, organised by John McDonnell MP, one of the few genuinely principled MPs in Parliament, is entitled, “Why is Shaker Aamer still in Guantanamo? What about his human rights?” and is taking place from 7-9pm in Committee Room 10 in the House of Commons, London WC1A 0AA. Read the rest of this entry »

Save the NHS and Free Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo: Protest Photos, October and November 2013

Free Shaker Aamer from Guantanamo: the weekly vigil"Close Guantanamo" cupcakes (for Shaker Aamer)NHS protest outside the Department of Health, November 26, 2013Supporters of the Save Lewisham Hospital CampaignCharlie Chaplin and the Silent MajorityThe 4:1 Campaign for more nurses in the NHS
NHS: Not for Sale!

Save the NHS and Free Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo, a set on Flickr.

I just wanted to make available a few photos — and a bit of explanatory text — from two of the campaigns that are closest to my heart: the campaign to close Guantánamo (and, specifically, to secure the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison), and the campaign to save the NHS from savage cuts and privatisation at the hands of both the Tory-led coalition government and senior NHS managers who have forgotten what the NHS is for.

The first photo in this set is from the regular weekly vigil outside Parliament for Shaker Aamer, held by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign on most Wednesdays, from noon until 2pm, and the second — of some Close Guantánamo cupcakes, featuring Shaker’s prison number, 239 — is from the recent march and rally for Shaker in Battersea, which I spoke at on Saturday.

Shaker Aamer is one of 84 men who are still held despite being cleared for release by a high-level, inter-agency task force established by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009. These men are still held, however, because of obstruction by Congress, and an unwillingness on the part of President Obama to spend political capital overcoming those obstacles. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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