British residents in Guantánamo: the backlash begins


Clive Stafford SmithIn the most recent of his regular monthly columns for the New Statesman, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, follows up on a disturbing trend that became apparent almost as soon as the British government requested the return of five British residents in Guantánamo two weeks ago (as I reported here): the tendency, in some parts of the US administration, to react to the request not by defending it as a laudable effort to help the US President achieve what Stafford Smith describes as his “half-hearted insistence that Guantánamo should close,” but by launching a smear campaign aimed at portraying the five men as “exceptionally dangerous terrorists.”

In his article, Stafford Smith focuses on statements made by Sandra Hodgkinson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, just days after the British request was announced. Despite welcoming the British offer and even asking Britain to take more prisoners off American hands, Hodgkinson warned that they were “still considered to be a significant threat,” and claimed that one of the men, Shaker Aamer, “has been involved in a lot of significant terrorist plots.” Expanding on this story, Hodgkinson alleged that Aamer shared an apartment in London in the late 1990s with Zacarias Moussaoui, one of several alleged “20th hijackers” in the 9/11 plot, met with the shoe-bomber Richard Reid, and also “trained in the use of explosives and surface-to-air missiles and lived on stipends in Afghanistan paid by [Osama] bin Laden.”

Stafford Smith was quick to deride the claims, calling them “total nonsense,” and pointing out that the US authorities “don’t like Shaker,” who stopped a hunger strike in August 2005 as part of a short-lived Prisoners’ Council, but has since been held in solitary confinement, “because they think he has got a lot of influence over the prisoners.” Released British detainee Moazzam Begg, who is a close friend of Aamer, and shared a house with him in Kabul when they were both establishing a girls’ school prior to 9/11, also stepped in to defend his friend, saying, “It’s interesting that after five and a half years those allegations are coming out at this moment.” Speaking to the Associated Press, Begg “denied that Aamer had lived with Moussaoui in London and said he does not know whether he met Reid.” He also “laughed at the allegation” that Aamer received money from bin Laden in Afghanistan, explaining, “I find that really funny because we used to live together in the same house… I know he didn’t have any stipends from anybody.”

In the New Statesman, Stafford Smith also took exception to Hodgkinson’s claims about two of the other British residents, Jamil El-Banna and Omar Deghayes, and correctly lambasted parts of the British media for uncritically reproducing her comments:

Hodgkinson said, and the media printed, that [El-Banna] had “a long-term association” with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist infamous for decapitating prisoners in Iraq, who was “behind the murder of Ken Bigley, the British engineer.” Jamil knew Zarqawi as a youth from the same area in Jordan. But his only attempt to contact him in recent decades was a letter he wrote from Guantánamo, through his lawyers, telling Zarqawi his barbaric actions were contrary to Islam, and that Bigley should be freed. Minimal investigation might also have prompted the press to point out that Jamil has been cleared by Hodgkinson’s military colleagues, who found him to be no threat to anyone.

As for Omar Deghayes, who fled Libya with his family in the 1980s after his father, a trade union activist, was killed by Colonel Gaddafi, Stafford Smith lambasted Hodgkinson for claiming that Omar was a ”jihadi veteran” of the Bosnian war, pointing out that “the US military previously claimed he was a Chechen jihadist shown on videotape brandishing an AK-47,” whereas the man on the tape “actually turned out to be Abu Walid, a Chechen rebel who died in 2004.”

In response to Hodgkinson’s outrageous claims –- and their parroting in parts of the British press –- Stafford Smith reached the following chastening conclusion:

Not satisfied with convicting the prisoners in absentia, the media chastised the British government for the U-turn in its policy towards the UK residents. Yet surely someone who is driving in the wrong direction would do well to turn around. The media, on the other hand, made a U-turn away from fairness. If there are allegations against them, the Guantánamo prisoners will be glad to answer them in a proper court. Trial by media is little better, really, than the tribunals that have received such justified criticism.

Andy Worthington is 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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

3 Responses

  1. University Update - Verizon - British residents in Guantánamo: the backlash begins says...

    […] British residents in Guantánamo: the backlash begins » This Summary is from an article posted at Andy Worthington on Friday, August 24, 2007 British […]

  2. Torture in Afghanistan: UK Court Orders Release of Evidence « says...

    […] what has happened in the years since is unclear. The US authorities have, on occasion, put out propaganda attempting to justify his ongoing detention, despite having cleared him for release, and although […]

  3. UK Court Orders Release Of Torture Evidence In The Case Of Shaker Aamer, The Last British Resident In Guantánamo by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] what has happened in the years since is unclear. The US authorities have, on occasion, put out propaganda attempting to justify his ongoing detention, despite having cleared him for release, and although […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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