Shaker Aamer Speaks from Guantánamo, and His Family Talk About His 13-Year Ordeal


We Stand With Shaker: the logo for the campaign to secure the release  from Guantanamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, launched on November 24, 2014.Today, the Daily Mail, which has thrown its weight behind We Stand With Shaker — the campaign to secure the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, which I launched three weeks ago with my colleague Joanne MacInnes — published an article dealing with Shaker’s recent phone call to his family from the prison — shockingly, the first call he has been allowed to make in two and a half years. The article also included comments made by his father-in-law, Saeed Siddique, and by Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, who visited Shaker at Guantánamo last week.

The Mail began its coverage by describing the call — on an iPad provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who also facilitated the call — noting that the screen was “filled by a familiar round face with a white-flecked beard and deeply-etched lines,” but adding, “Though the man forced one of his big, trademark smiles, fear and misery were seared in his eyes.”

The family, the article explained, “bolstered his spirits with uplifting stories about their lives — how his children were faring well at school and growing up to make him proud,” although it added that they too — his wife, Zin, and their four children (the youngest of whom is 13, and has never met his father) “struggled to mask their sorrow.”

The very fact that he was allowed to call his family, however, must give hope that his release may be imminent. Although he was banned from talking to his family in 2012 — presumably, though this is not stated, as a punishment for his refusal to be cooperative and to cease his persistent resistance to the injustice of being held indefinitely without charge or trial — he “has been permitted to make two Skype calls to them in the past month.”

The Mail noted that the most recent call “lasted an hour” and took place last Thursday, on the day the Mail “began campaigning for his release on the grounds that to imprison anyone … indefinitely without testing their guilt or innocence before a court of law violates the most fundamental principle of western justice.”

The call to the family was described to the Mail by Shaker’s father-in-law, Saeed Siddique, 72, who said that he “remained in the room for the first 15 minutes, before withdrawing so that his daughter and grandchildren could speak to him privately.”

Describing Mr. Siddique as “a softly-spoken retired imam,” the Mail noted that he said, “We have no idea why they are allowing Shaker to call us now, after such a long and very painful silence.” He added, echoing my suggestion above, “It might be a sign that something is about to happen,” but he also pointed out, “we have been disappointed so many times that we daren’t raise our hopes.”

This is certainly true. In February 2009, when Binyam Mohamed, the only other British resident still held at that time, was flown back to the UK — because his case had become a dark transatlantic farce in which two governments were trying, and failing to hide evidence of torture and complicity in torture — it was expected that Shaker would also be on that plane.

As the Mail described it, “The family decked the house with balloons and ‘Welcome Home’ bunting. But it had to be taken down when Aamer was not released.” Mr. Siddique said that he suspected that the reason Shaker wasn’t freed, despite having been cleared for release in 2007 by the US, was “because it was feared he would reveal bombshell secrets about his years in detention,” which would be damaging not just to the US, but to the British government as well — and to the British security services. Mr. Siddique said, “I think they wanted to leave him there because MI6 had warned them what would happen if he came back.”

The Mail also noted that Shaker’s solicitor in London, Irene Nembhard, suggested that “the reason the Americans haven’t released him — despite freeing 18 other detainees in recent weeks — might be because they are relying on flawed ‘intelligence’, provided many years ago by the British security services, warning them that it wouldn’t be safe to send him back to Britain.”

Despite the absurdity of the US not releasing someone a high-level task force said should be released (as happened with Shaker when President Obama’s high-level Guantánamo Review Task Force approved him for release for the second time in 2009), his family were at pains to point out that, if required, Shaker would “stand trial in a British court, or indeed any court, to prove his innocence.” They defend, absolutely, his account of visiting Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid work — and not the absurd claims that surfaced in Guantánamo: that he traveled to join Al-Qaeda and served as Osama bin Laden’s personal interpreter — claims that, if regarded as true by the US authorities, would not have led to President Obama’s task force approving him for release.

As the Mail described it, Shaker said that “he went to live in Afghanistan to experience life in an Islamic country and to do charity work, having been presented with obstacles when he applied to move his family to his native Saudi Arabia, to be near his parents.” The Mail also noted that, after 9/11 and the US-led invasion, according to his account, “he attempted to return to Britain but was captured by the keepers of a guesthouse where he was lodging and sold to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who, in turn, sold him to the Americans for a $5,000 bounty.”

His father-in-law asked — “incredulously,” in the Mail‘s words — “Why would he have applied to live in Saudi [Arabia], if he had wanted to fight with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda?” He also said that Shaker had “approached the Saudi embassy in London and had two or three meetings with them.”

He added, “He would welcome the chance to tell all this to a British court. If there’s anything against him, let them put him before a judge and jury.” He also said that, “as the family patriarch,” he “would personally vouch for his son-in-law’s good behavior, were he to be returned to Britain.”

The day before Shaker’s most recent call to his family, he was visited at Guantánamo by Clive Stafford Smith, who is not allowed to reveal details of their conversations until his notes — as with all notes of meetings between Guantánamo prisoners and their lawyers — have passed through the Pentagon’s declassification process.

However, he did say that Shaker “boomed with laughter” when he was told about the release of the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, and what the Mail described as “the CIA’s self-justifying response to it.”

The Mail added, “The reason for his ironic mirth was clear. Though his name doesn’t appear in the shameful report, when Mr. Stafford Smith asked him, some time ago, to catalogue his torture, he replied that it would be quite impossible — because he had endured it, albeit in a sometimes subtle form, on every one of the 4,600-odd days he has been in custody.”

Stafford Smith said, “If he were to write it all down, it would be ten times as long as the abridged report released by the Senate.”

The Mail described this, aptly, as “a sobering thought,” adding that it was also sobering “to learn that, while incarcerated, Shaker Aamer’s father, a brother and a sister have died,” and that his mother is “critically ill,” according to Mr. Siddique, who also said that “she might not live long.”

The article concluded, “She is blind and will never see her son again — but it would come as some comfort to know that her son might, one day soon, be freed and not have to depend on Skype to be in contact with his wife and children.”

This is very much to be hoped for — and as we keep campaigning to secure Shaker’s release, we must also hold onto the hope that, one day soon, Shaker may be reunited with those nearest and dearest to him.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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, the full military commissions 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.

4 Responses

  1. John Goss says...

    Good article Andy. I’m pleased the Daily Mail has taken up Shaker’s case, and that Ken Loach, Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Diane Abbott and a number of other celebrities have thrown their popularity behind the campaign. What disturbed me about the Daily Mail article was the adverse comments readers had left and how the most despicable had got the highest rating. I seem to have spent much of my adult life fighting against prejudice, and now, with the emergence of Nigel Farage (racism with a human face) and UKIP, the mass media’s favourite prime-time political party, it seems all my efforts have been fruitless.

    Professor Carlo Cipolla once said: “Man is still a savage, but the weapons at his disposal today are more sophisticated.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, John. Good to hear from you. As for those who comment on major newspapers’ websites, I try to avoid them. As my experience years ago at the Guardian taught me, these people are bullies who hide behind pseudonyms, and who have created an unpleasant world that never existed before – where the vilest of comments can be made without the threat of any real criticism or condemnation. Cowards and bullies – one of the great problems of the internet.

  3. John Goss says...

    Couldn’t agree more Andy. Thanks.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, John.

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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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