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.

Please Read “Guantánamo Forever,” My Latest Article for Al-Jazeera English

Dear friends and supporters,

I hope you have time to read my latest article for Al-Jazeera, “Guantánamo Forever,” and to like, share and tweet it if you find it useful. It covers the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs) at Guantánamo, convened to assess whether 46 prisoners designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial by the inter-agency task force that President Obama established after taking office in 2009, or 25 others designated for prosecution by the task force, should continue to be held without charge or trial, or whether they should be recommended for release  — even if, ironically, that only means that they get to join the list of 76 other cleared prisoners who are still held. The review boards began in November, and have, to date, reviewed just three of the 71 cases they were set up to review. The fourth, reviewing the case of Ghaleb al-Bihani, a Yemeni, takes place on April 8.

The number of prisoners cleared for release (76) includes the first prisoner to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board, which recommended his release in January, although my Al-Jazeera article is my response to the most recent activity by the review boards — the decision taken on March 5 to continue holding, without charge or trial, a Yemeni prisoner, Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, who has been at Guantánamo for over 12 years, and the review of Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, the third prisoner to have his ongoing detention reviewed, which took place at the end of March.

In the article I explain that the decision to continue holding Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, taken by representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a disgrace. Read the rest of this entry »

The Chaotic History of Guantánamo’s Military Commissions

See the full list here of everyone charged in the military commissions at Guantánamo.

Recently, a friend asked me for information about all the Guantánamo prisoners who have been put forward for military commission trials at Guantánamo, and after undertaking a search online, I realized that I couldn’t find a single place listing all the prisoners who have been charged in the three versions of the commissions that have existed since 2001, or the total number of men charged.

As a result, I decided that it would be useful to do some research and to provide a list of all the men charged — a total of 30, it transpires — as well as providing some updates about the commissions, which I have been covering since 2006, but have not reported on since October. The full list of everyone charged in the military commissions is here, which I’ll be updating on a regular basis, and please read on for a brief history of the commissions and for my analysis of what has taken place in the last few months.

The commissions were dragged out of the history books by Dick Cheney on November 13, 2001, when a Military Order authorizing the creation of the commissions was stealthily issued with almost no oversight, as I explained in an article in June 2007, while the Washington Post was publishing a major series on Cheney by Barton Gellman (the author of Angler, a subsequent book about Cheney) and Jo Becker. Alarmingly, as I explained in that article, the order “stripped foreign terror suspects of access to any courts, authorized their indefinite imprisonment without charge, and also authorized the creation of ‘Military Commissions,’ before which they could be tried using secret evidence,” including evidence derived through the use of torture. Read the rest of this entry »

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith’s Unexpected Testimony in New York Terrorism Trial

On Wednesday, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (also identified as Sulaiman Abu Ghayth), the Kuwaiti cleric who is on trial in New York accused of terrorism, surprised the court by taking to the witness stand to defend himself.

Abu Ghaith, 48, who was held for over ten years under a form of house arrest in Iran before being freed in Turkey, and, via Jordan, ending up in US custody last year, appeared in broadcasts from Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Qaeda.

He is charged with conspiracy to kill United States nationals, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, and providing material support and resources to terrorists — charges that include the claim that he had knowledge of Al-Qaeda’s operations, including plots involving shoe bombs (for which a British man, Richard Reid, was arrested, tried and convicted in 2002). As the New York Times described it, the government “said in court papers that as part of his role in the conspiracy and the support he provided to Al Qaeda, Mr. Abu Ghaith spoke on behalf of the terrorist group, ‘embraced its war against America,’ and sought to recruit others to join in that conspiracy.” Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo, Where Unsubstantiated Suspicion of Terrorism Ensures Indefinite Detention, Even After 12 Years

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Last week, in a decision that I believe can only be regarded objectively as a travesty of justice, a Periodic Review Board (PRB) at Guantánamo — consisting of representatives of six government departments and intelligence agencies — recommended that a Yemeni prisoner, Abdel Malik al-Rahabi (aka Abd al-Malik al-Rahabi), should continue to be held. The board concluded that his ongoing imprisonment “remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

In contrast, this is how al-Rahabi began his statement to the PRB on January 28:

My family and I deeply thank the board for taking a new look at my case. I feel hope and trust in the system. It’s hard to keep up hope for the future after twelve years. But what you are doing gives me new hope. I also thank my personal representatives and my private counsel, and I thank President Obama. I will summarize my written statement since it has already been submitted to the board. Read the rest of this entry »

Gitmo Clock Marks 300 Days Since Obama’s Promise to Resume Releasing Guantánamo Prisoners; Just 12 Men Freed

Please visit, like, share and tweet the Gitmo Clock, which I established last year (via the “Close Guantanamo” campaign) to mark how many days it is since President Obama’s promise to resume releasing cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, and how many have been freed.

Today (March 19, 2014), it is 300 days since President Obama promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, in a major speech on national security issues last May, and I’m asking you to promote the Gitmo Clock, which I established last year with the designer Justin Norman, to show how many days it is since the promise, and how many prisoners have been released (just 12). At this rate, it will take over five years for all the cleared prisoners at Guantánamo to be released.

When President Obama made his promise, he was responding to widespread criticism triggered by the prisoners themselves, who, in February, had embarked on a major hunger strike — involving nearly two-thirds of the remaining prisoners — and his promise came after a period of two years and eight months in which just five men had been released from Guantánamo.

What was particularly appalling about the release of prisoners being reduced to a trickle was that over half of the men — 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners at the time — had been approved for release from the prison in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009 — and some of these men had previously been cleared for release by military review boards under President Bush, primarily in 2006 and 2007. Read the rest of this entry »

From Guantánamo, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s Declaration in the New York Trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith

So here’s a fascinating document from the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in New York — a 14-page statement by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, written in response to questions Abu Ghaith’s lawyers submitted to him at Guantánamo, where he has been held since September 2006, following three and half years in “black sites” run by the CIA, and where, notoriously, he was subjected on 183 occasions to waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that is a form of controlled drowning. I am posting a transcript of the statement below, as I believe it is significant, and it is, of course, rare to hear directly from any of the “high-value detainees” held at Guantánamo, because every word they speak or write is presumptively classified, and the authorities generally refuse to unclassify a single word.

Abu Ghaith (also identified as Sulaiman Abu Ghayth) is charged with conspiracy to kill United States nationals, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, and providing material support and resources to terrorists, primarily for his alleged role as a spokesperson for Al-Qaeda immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, he fled to Iran, where he was held under a form of house arrest — and where he met and married one of Osama bin Laden’s daughters, who was also held under house arrest — until January 2013, when he was released to Turkey.

It was at this point that the US authorities became aware of his release from Iranian custody. At the request of the US, he was briefly detained, but soon released because he had not committed any crime on Turkish soil. The Turkish government then apparently decided to deport him to Kuwait, but on a stop-over in Amman, Jordan, he was arrested by Jordanian officials and turned over to US officials, who subsequently extradited him to the United States. Read the rest of this entry »

Andy Worthington Joins Dennis Edney, Omar Khadr’s Lawyer, for Amnesty International Event in London, March 18, 2014

Dennis Edney, Omar Khadr’s long-term Canadian civilian lawyer, has been in the UK since last week, on a tour organised by the London Guantánamo Campaign, so I’m posting details of his speaking events for anyone who has not yet heard him talk, and also to notify readers, supporters of Omar Khadr and opponents of  Guantánamo that I’ll be joining Dennis at an event in Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch tomorrow evening. To support Dennis’s ongoing and extensive legal costs, please visit this page, and to support the costs of the UK tour, please see here.

Regular readers will know that I have been covering Omar’s story since I first began working on Guantánamo eight years ago. I wrote about him in my book The Guantánamo Files, and when I began writing articles on a full-time basis, in June 2007, Omar’s was one of the first cases that I addressed, when he was charged in the second version of the Bush administration’s troubled military commissions, after the first version was thrown out by the US Supreme Court for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions — and, specifically, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and humiliating and degrading treatment, and requires any trials to be in “a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

Omar, of course, never received such protections, even when the commissions were revived with Congressional approval, or when, under President Obama, they were brought back for a second time. In the end, to be assured of ever leaving Guantánamo, he accepted a plea deal in October 2010, admitting to war crimes that had been invented by Congress, and, moreover, providing a permanent stain on the reputation of President obama, who not only allowed a plea deal based on invented war crimes to take place, but did so to a former child prisoner (just 15 when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002), even though, according to the the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which both the US and Canada are signatories, juvenile prisoners (those under 18 when their alleged crimes take place) must be rehabilitated rather than punished. Read the rest of this entry »

Nine Years of Hunger Strikes and Force-Feeding at Guantánamo: A Declaration in Support of Emad Hassan by Clive Stafford Smith

Emad Hassan, in a photograph included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.Last week, I wrote an article, “Guantánamo Prisoner Force-Fed Since 2007 Launches Historic Legal Challenge,” about Emad Hassan, a Yemeni prisoner who is challenging the US authorities’ self-declared right to force-feed him, following a ruling in February by the appeals court in Washington D.C., allowing legal challenges to go ahead and reversing rulings made by lower court judges last summer, who believed that their hands were tied by Bush-era legislation preventing any legal challenges to the running of Guantánamo.

Emad Hassan is one of the most persistent hunger strikers at Guantánamo, and has been on a permanent hunger strike — which has also involved him being force-fed — since 2007. The irony is that, throughout most of this whole period he could have been a free man, as he — along with 74 other men, out of the 154 still held — was cleared for release from Guantánamo by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office in January 2009.

That he is held at all is a disgrace, but Yemenis make up 55 of the 75 cleared prisoners, and are held because of concerns about the security situation in their homeland. This is bad enough, given that this is a form of “guilt by nationality” that makes a mockery of establishing a task force review process that is supposed to lead to the release of prisoners, but when it also transpires that some of these men — like Emad — are being force-fed instead of being freed, we are in a place of such dark and surreal injustice that it appears to have no parallel. Read the rest of this entry »

Long-Cleared Algerian Prisoner Ahmed Belbacha Released from Guantánamo

I’m delighted to report that Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian prisoner, has been released from Guantánamo. It’s always good news when a prisoner is released, and in Ahmed Belbacha’s case it is particularly reassuring, as I — and many other people around the world — have been following his case closely for many years. I first wrote about him in 2006, for my book The Guantánamo Files, and my first article mentioning him was back in June 2007. I have written about his case, and called for his release, on many occasions since.

Ahmed was cleared for release from Guantánamo twice — by a military review board under the Bush administration in February 2007, and by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, appointed by the president shortly after taking office in 2009.

Nevertheless, he was terrified of returning home, and, from 2007 onwards, tried to prevent his forced repatriation in the US courts. This seems to have annoyed the authorities in Algeria, as, in 2009, he was tried and sentenced in absentia, receiving a 20-year sentence for membership of a foreign terrorist group abroad. As his lawyers at Reprieve noted, despite repeated requests, no evidence was produced to support the conviction. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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