Shaker Aamer, Abandoned in Guantánamo


Please sign and share the petition on urging renewed action from President Obama to close Guantánamo, which now has over 200,000 signatures! Also please show your support for Shaker Aamer, if you can, by joining the protest outside Parliament from 12 noon to 3pm every weekday this week, and also next Monday and Tuesday (May 20-21), organised by the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign. Also please note that, to mark the 100th day of the hunger strike, Witness Against Torture and other activists will be handing in the petition (and other petitions) to the White House at noon on May 17, and the London Guantánamo Campaign is staging a street theatre action outside the US Embassy at 2pm on Saturday May 18 (see the Facebook page)Please also sign the international petition to the British and American governments calling for Shaker’s release.

Although the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo is still raging, and President Obama spoke eloquently last week about the need for the prison to be closed, it remains painfully true that, for the 86 prisoners (out of 166 in total), who were cleared for release by an inter-agency task force that President Obama established in 2009, there is still no easy route out.

The case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, ought to be the easiest to resolve. One of the 86, his return has regularly been requested since August 2007 by the British government, and the legislative obstacles raised by Congress to prevent the release of prisoners to countries they regard as dangerous doesn’t apply in Shaker’s case — the UK, after all, where his wife and children live, and are all British citizens, is America’s staunchest ally in the “war on terror,” and more than capable of keeping Shaker under surveillance if that were to be requested.

In the UK, pressure has been mounting for Shaker’s release. Last month, a petition to the British government, calling for renewed action to get him released, secured the 100,000 signatures necessary to trigger a Parliamentary debate (see here and here for the transcript), and it is to be hoped that a full Parliamentary debate will follow later this month or in June.

Last week, Shaker’s family — and the many people campaigning for his release — received what appeared to be good news. The Guardian reported on May 4 that foreign secretary William Hague was “considering making a dramatic public plea”  for Shaker’s return Just days after President Obama’s speech — in which he made the right noises, but failed to provide any concrete solutions — the foreign secretary told MPs that he would “escalate efforts to bring Shaker Aamer home to his family in south London,” as the Guardian described it.

Mr. Hague did not speak publicly, but Jane Ellison, the Conservative MP for Battersea, Shaker’s home constituency, revealed that, “during a meeting with MPs campaigning for Aamer’s release, he had raised the option of upping the ante through a public plea.”

As she described it, “The foreign secretary was following Obama’s comments with great interest and was considering making fresh approaches in light of those, possibly something public along the lines that Britain would like to be helpful in any way we can, the obvious way concerning you know who [Aamer].” As she also said, “All our efforts are now directed towards keeping the momentum going and reminding the president that the UK can help solve a bit of the problem for him.”

This is indeed the most constructive approach to take, I believe, as President Obama needs to begin releasing prisoners if he is to retain a shred of integrity regarding Guantánamo — and to salvage what will otherwise be a dreadful legacy of failure regarding his promises to close the prison — and the more Britain offers to help with Shaker Aamer the more it will help him.

The Guardian also reported that, during the meeting with MPs, Mr. Hague “also urged those present to use any contacts they had with Congress” to “help ensure Guantánamo Bay is closed as soon as possible.” Jane Ellison explained that she had “already made contact with Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein,” who called for the release of the 86 cleared prisoners in a letter to President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon. She added that William Hague and defence secretary Philip Hammond were “still waiting for a formal response from the US to an approach made several months ago requesting the release of Aamer,” as the Guardian described it.

In addition, as the Guardian put it, “Concern is rising about the health of Aamer, who has spent more than 80 days on hunger strike.” One of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, said that, as the Guardian put it, “he was growing increasingly worried about the seriousness of his physical condition.” Two weeks ago, after the last report that I posted here (from April 11), Stafford Smith “twice attempted without success to contact Aamer via US authorities, prompting fears that Aamer, who is significantly beyond the point at which a hunger strike can cause ‘irreversible cognitive impairment,’ may be seriously ill.”

Despite this apparent progress, Sen. Tom Udall (the senior Democrat from New Mexico), responded to a request for information about progress in Shaker’s case from Medea Benjamin of the campaigning group Code Pink by stating that the Pentagon had told him that the US still regarded Shaker as a threat, and neither the UK not Saudi Arabia (Shaker’s country of birth) was interested in him.

In an email, Michael Collins, Sen. Udall’s chief of staff, stated:

We checked in with the Department of Defense Legislative Affairs and they told us there have been ongoing discussions with the UK about Shaker Aamer, but they still have him classified as an enemy combatant because he’s still considered a threat.  We were told that the UK is not exactly in a rush to get him and Saudi Arabia (I guess he’s a national, but previous UK resident) isn’t interested, either. Also according to them, he’s not on the top of the release list, but is one of 56 detainees approved for transfer “subject to appropriate security assurances” and that there is no plan for immediate transfer.

Writing about the email, the Guardian noted on May 12 that the British government “maintains it is committed to getting Aamer out of Guantánamo,” adding that a Foreign Office spokeswoman told them that, over the last two two weeks, “foreign secretary William Hague and defence secretary Philip Hammond have lobbied their US counterparts — secretary of state John Kerry and defense secretary Chuck Hagel — over Aamer.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Philip Hammond “vehemently denied that interpretation of British efforts.” Responding to the claim that the UK was “not exactly in a rush to get him,” Hammond insisted, “That is not the position of the UK government. Every time I meet with my US counterpart I always raise the case of Shaker Aamer and I will do so again when I meet him in Singapore [for the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference] and at the upcoming Nato meeting.”

Nevertheless, Clive Stafford Smith said that “claims of a lack of urgency in seeking his client’s release” were “very worrying”. On Friday, he wrote to William Hague, “urging him to issue a ‘suitably robust response’ to the US over the allegation that the British government was not ‘in a rush’ to see [Shaker] released.”

“We need to be ‘in a rush to get him,'” he wrote, “as Shaker Aamer is being horribly abused even as I write this, after 11 years of prior mistreatment.”

In response to a suggestion by the Guardian that it was possible that there was “no plan for [the] immediate transfer” of Shaker because “the US does not believe the UK will adhere to strict security conditions that would be a condition of release,” Clive Stafford Smith “dismissed any concerns in regards to security assurances, noting that the UK has the best record in respect to the release of Guantánamo Bay prisoners,” and that, moreover, Shaker “has agreed to enter any reasonable security arrangement on his release.”

Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, had previously told the Guardian, “Certain conditions must be met, and those detainees who may be resettled of repatriated must do so into nations where all necessary security assurances (to include concerns regarding recidivism) may be met.” He added, as the Guardian described it, that “host nations would be aware of what the stipulated conditions of release were.”

Philip Hammond “acknowledged that what was being demanded by the US over Aamer was ‘a high test,'” even though, as I see it, Clive Stafford Smith was right to dismiss it as an unnecessary diversion. Reprieve’s director also noted, in his letter to William Hague, “Shaker Aamer never committed a crime in the first place, so there is no reason to believe that he would do that now; all he wants is to be returned to his wife and children.”

The Guardian also noted that it has been “suggested that Aamer’s allegation of British complicity in his torture” — the subject of a court case back in 2009, and a subsequent and ongoing Metropolitan Police investigation — “has led to a the British secret service actively lobbying against his release,” but Philip Hammond refuted the claim. “The only place I have heard that is in your newspaper,” he said, adding, “I’m not aware of any issue being raised by the secret services.”

The Foreign Office, which, as the Guardian put it, “is leading official lobbying efforts by the UK government,” also denied claims of not being “in a rush” to secure Shaker’s return, and “said it would continue to press for Aamer’s release.” A spokeswoman said, “We have been lobbying for a long-time [over Shaker Aamer]. We have been speaking to the US at the highest level and will continue to do so.”

As we await clarity regarding the British and American positions on Shaker Aamer, I’ll cross-post in the near future Shaker’s most recent words, from a Mail on Sunday article by David Rose on May 5, drawing on two letters to his wife and family, sent before what appears to be a deliberate — and deeply troubling — clampdown on communications from within the prison.

Note: The photo above is from my photo set on Flickr documenting the April 24 protest for Shaker Aamer.

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 four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “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.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Lindis Percy wrote:

    I don’t ‘like’ this at all – sent it to the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases Facebook page.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lindis. I know exactly what you mean about “liking” the unlikeable. Thanks also for sharing.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook last night, I also posted a link to the updated prisoner list on the “Close Guantanamo” website, and wrote:

    I just updated the prisoner list on the “Close Guantanamo” website. These are all the prisoners still held, and the links I added identify the cleared prisoners (56 of the 86 in total) who were publicly named last September by the Justice Department. I also added links to articles on the prisoners published in the 16 months since the “Close Guantanamo” campaign and website was established. Hope you find it useful!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Andy Worthington is one of the speakers at the annual “Independence FROM America” demonstration at the American base at NSA Menwith Hill near Harrogate North Yorkshire on Thursday 4 July 5-9 ish so a chance to come and hear him. See CAAB website:

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lindis. Yes, looking forward to it. And the flyer, btw, is here:

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Johnny Barber wrote:

    Andy, we here at WAT just posted a video – Hunger Strike Song.
    Please share widely!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the video, Johnny. Keep up the great work, all my friends in Witness Against Torture!

  8. » Shaker Aamer’s Letters from Guantánamo Mutiny Radio says...

    […] I recently wrote about the latest developments — or the lack of them — in Shaker’s case, which continues to be a transatlantic game of political football, in which responsibility for his continued detention, six years after he was first cleared for release, is bounced from Washington to London and back with no regard for Shaker’s ongoing suffering or the injustice of holding a man who has long been cleared for release. […]

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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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