UK Torture: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner’s Memories Provide A Reminder That We Need Accountability

Protestors with Witness Against Torture calling for the closure of Guantanamo and accountability for torture outside the White House on January 11, 2015 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

How short memories are in this goldfish world of ours. Less than a month ago, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) issued two reports, one on ‘Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: 2001–2010’ and the other on ‘Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: Current Issues.’

On Facebook, I commended Dominic Grieve MP for his stewardship of the ISC, and for having spent years trying to uncover the truth about Britain’s involvement in post-9/11 rendition and torture, inspired, I have no doubt, by the US’s demonstration of checks and balances in its own political system, with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,200-page report, of which the 528-page executive summary was issued in December 2014, providing a permanent reminder that, in contrast, the UK tends to prefer an all-encompassing blanket of “official secrecy” regarding its own wrong-doing.

I wrote of the ISC’s reports, “This is compelling stuff, and a testament to Grieve’s determination to go beyond previous whitewashes, but what is clearly needed now is an official judge-led inquiry which will leave no stone unturned — and no senior ex-officials (up to and including Tony Blair and Jack Straw) unquestioned. Grieve noted that the committee was ‘denied access to key intelligence individuals by the prime minister’ (Theresa May) and so ‘reluctantly decided to bring the inquiry to a premature end.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture: Will the Torture and the Impunity Ever Stop?

No free pass for torture: an image prepared by the ACLU.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

June 26 is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, and today marks its 20th anniversary. When it first took place in 1998, the date was chosen because it is a particularly significant day in the field of human rights. Eleven years previously, on June 26, 1987, the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the UN Convention Against Torture), an enormous breakthrough in the global moral struggle against the use of torture, came into effect, and June 26 also marks the date in 1945 when the UN Charter, the founding document of the United Nations, was signed by 50 of the 51 original member countries (Poland signed it two months later).

The establishment of the UN and of key pledges regarding human rights has been a high point for the aspiration for a better world, which, of course, came about as a response to the horrors of the Second World War. After the UN was founded, the next major milestone in this quest was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, and in 1950, in a similar vein, the newly formed Council of Europe established the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (originally known as the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms), which entered into force on September 3, 1953.

Unfortunately, although aspirations for a better world are profoundly worthwhile, they constantly jostle with the political realities of a world in which the thirst for power, paranoia, nationalism and capitalism seek to undermine them. Nevertheless, they constantly provide a benchmark for higher human ideals, and it is always reassuring when human rights are prominently observed. Read the rest of this entry »

Shaker Aamer Speaks: First Newspaper Interview Since Release from Guantánamo, in the Mail on Sunday

A photo that Shaker Aamer made available to the We Stand With Shaker campaign to thanks all his supporters who worked so hard to secure his release from Guantanamo.The Mail on Sunday today featured the first interview conducted by Shaker Aamer since his release from Guantánamo six weeks ago, and below are excerpts dealing with his life from 1989 to February 2002, when he arrived at Guantánamo, providing information not previously discussed — in particular, about the circumstances of his visit to Afghanistan and his capture. As someone who campaigned for many years for his release — including in the last year with the We Stand With Shaker campaign I co-founded last November — it is wonderful to hear from him.

Speaking to David Rose, Shaker spoke about his experiences in the US after he left Saudi Arabia, where he was born in 1966, in Medina. From 1989 to 1995, he explained, as Rose noted, that he “lived mostly in Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia, working as a chef in restaurants. In those days he lived a Westernised life: a lover of rock music, he often attended concerts by his favourite bands — including AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. In this period, in 1990, he responded to a US army recruitment drive for Arabic/English translators during the first Gulf War — which is how he came to find himself working for the US infantry in Saudi.”

“First I was in the south, then at a base in Tabuk, near the Jordanian border,” Shaker said, explaining that he needed security clearance for the job. “Of course I had to be checked. I was right inside the US base. I got to know those guys very well, especially the colonel — his name was Johansen. Later, I used to tell my interrogators: call Colonel Johansen, he will tell you I’m not a terrorist, that I’m a good guy, and that I’m telling you the truth. I’m sure they never did.” Read the rest of this entry »

UK Human Rights Groups Dismiss Rendition and Torture Inquiry as a Whitewash

An image of torture.Nine human rights groups in the UK are boycotting the official British inquiry into the treatment of “detainees” in the “war on terror” and the UK’s involvement in rendition, “grievously undermining the controversial inquiry,” as the Guardian described it.

The nine groups, who have written a critical letter to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, stating that they “do not propose to play a substantive role in the conduct of [the] inquiry,” are Amnesty International, the AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe), Cage (formerly Cageprisoners), Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture), JUSTICE, Liberty, Redress, Reprieve and Rights Watch (UK).

Britain’s treatment of prisoners and its involvement in rendition was a matter of concern to Conservative MP William Hague when he was the shadow foreign secretary, prior to the Tories forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in May 2010. Hague seemed genuinely appalled by what had taken place since 9/11 — a litany of broken laws and human rights abuses, including, most noticeably, the torture of Binyam Mohamed, whose case had reached the High Court in 2008, causing embarrassment to both the UK and US governments. Read the rest of this entry »

UK Appeals Court Rules Abdel Hakim Belhaj, Rendered to Torture in Gaddafi’s Libya, Can Sue British Government

What a long road to justice this is turning out to be. Back in December 2011, Abdel Hakim Belhaj (aka Belhadj), a former opponent of the Gaddafi regime, who, in 2004, in an operation that involved the British security services, was kidnapped in China with his pregnant wife and delivered to Colonel Gaddafi, first attempted to sue the British government — and, specifically, the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, MI6’s former director of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Allen, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and MI5.

Since then, the government has fought to prevent him having his day in court, but on Thursday the court of appeal ruled, as the Guardian described it, that the case “should go ahead despite government attempts to resist it on grounds of the ‘act of state doctrine’, arguing that the courts could not inquire into what happened because it involved a foreign state.” The Guardian added that the ruling “establishes a significant precedent for other claims,” although it is possible, of course, that the Foreign Office will appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Guardian also noted that the British government had “maintained that the UK’s relations with the US would be seriously damaged if Belhaj was allowed to sue and make his case in a British court.” However, the judgment said that “while the trial relating to the couple’s rendition was likely to require a British court to assess the wrongfulness of acts by the CIA and Libyan agents, that was no reason to bar the claim.” Read the rest of this entry »

Please Read “Britain’s Latest Counter-Terrorism Disasters,” My New Article for Al-Jazeera About Diego Garcia, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan

Dear friends and supporters,

I’ve been away since last Wednesday, but I hope that you have time to read my latest article for Al-Jazeera, “Britain’s Latest Counter-Terrorism Disasters,” if you didn’t see it when it was published on the day of my departure (to the WOMAD festival in Wiltshire) and to like it, share it and tweet it if you find it of interest. It concerns two recent problems with the UK’s conduct in the “war on terror” — specifically, the latest embarrassment about British knowledge of what the US was doing with terror suspects on the UK’s Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia (a story that has been bubbling away for nearly 12 years), and the colossal waste of time and effort involved in the long UK detention without charge or trial of two British citizens, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan (held for eight and six years), their extradition to the US in October 2012, their plea deals last December and their sentencing last week, which has led to an order for Talha Ahsan’s immediate release, and a sentence for Babar Ahmad that will probably see him freed in the UK in just over a year.

The US, of course, is severely to blame for both of these policy disasters — through its policy of extraordinary rendition and CIA “black sites” under the Bush administration, which the UK readily supported, and through the UK-US Extradition Act of 2003, which was used to extradite Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad, even though it is clearly not a well-functioning system, as the UK government conceded that the two men could not have been put on trial in the UK.

Back in 2008 and 2009, in particular, I wrote extensively about Britain’s revolting counter-terrorism policies in the wake of 9/11: about the high-level attempts to hide British complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held in Guantánamo, who had been tortured in Morocco; about the foreign nationals held without charge or trial in the UK, on the basis of secret evidence presented in closed sessions in a special national security court, and the others — including British nationals — held on control orders, a form of house arrest that also involved secret evidence and no trials; and, on occasion, about Diego Garcia (see here, and see my Guardian article here). 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 »

Torture, Torture Everywhere

For those of us who have been arguing for years that senior officials and lawyers in the Bush administration must be held accountable for the torture program they introduced and used in their “war on terror,” last week was a very interesting week indeed, as developments took place in Strasbourg, in London and in Washington D.C., which all pointed towards the impossibility that the torturers can escape accountability forever.

That may be wishful thinking, given the concerted efforts by officials in the US and elsewhere to avoid having to answer for their crimes, and the ways in which, through legal arguments and backroom deals, they have suppressed all attempts to hold them accountable. However, despite this, it seems that maintaining absolute silence is impossible, and last week one breakthrough took place when, unanimously, a 17-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Khaled El-Masri, a German used car salesman of Lebanese origin, who is one of the most notorious cases of mistaken identity in the whole of the “war on terror.” See the summary here.

Describing the ruling, the Guardian described how the court stated that “CIA agents tortured a German citizen, sodomising, shackling, and beating him, as Macedonian state police looked on,” and “also found Macedonia guilty of torturing, abusing, and secretly imprisoning [him],” also noting, “It is the first time the court has described CIA treatment meted out to terror suspects as torture.” Read the rest of this entry »

A Photo of Shaker Aamer After Eleven Years in Guantánamo

Please sign the e-petition to the British government, calling for Shaker Aamer’s release, and the international petition on the Care 2 Petition Site, addressed to both the British and the American governments.

The family of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, have just released this photo of him, smiling and waving, and looking, for all the world, like a free man, even though he has just started his twelfth year in US custody. My headline is slightly misleading, as February 14, 2013 will mark the 11th anniversary of Shaker’s arrival at Guantánamo, if he is not released beforehand, but he was first sold into US custody on November 23, 2001, so it was a convenient shorthand for his eleven years in US custody. Please click on the photo to enlarge it.

This photo is the first to be made available since April 2011, when a photo of him was included in his classified military file, which was released by WikiLeaks. Hundreds of photos of the Guantánamo prisoners were included in the WikiLeaks files, and many of them featured prisoners who had never been seen before, or had only been seen in photos taken before their capture, which were often taken many years before their capture. Read the rest of this entry »

Close Guantánamo: A Reminder of Why We Demand the Prison’s Closure, and a Call for Support for Shaker Aamer

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 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.

Ten years and seven months after the Bush administration’s “war on terror” prison opened at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, it is less clear than it was under George W. Bush that the prison is a moral, legal and ethical abomination, a place where men bought for bounty payments are held, and men picked up on the basis of deeply flawed intelligence, and others labeled as terrorists when they were nothing more than soldiers fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in an inter-Muslim civil war that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or any other acts of international terrorism.

It is worth remembering that, of the 168 men still held, only around three dozen were allegedly involved in terrorism — and even those claims require scrutiny, as they include Omar Khadr, the Canadian former child prisoner obliged to admit that he committed war crimes by engaging in military conflict with US forces, which, to right-minded people, is a permanent mark of shame against Barack Obama. They also include the kind of low-level prisoners already freed after trials — the Australian David Hicks; Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden; and Ibrahim al-Qosi, a cook in an al-Qaeda compound, and also an occasional driver for bin Laden. Only a handful of the men still held are actually regarded as dangerous international terrorists.

Under President Bush, when international criticism began to sting — primarily during his second term in office — 532 prisoners were released. It was clear that the process was political, and the subtext, though never admitted publicly, was also clear — that Guantánamo was a huge, embarrassing mistake. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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