Shaker Aamer Interview on 15th Anniversary of Guantánamo Opening: US Government “Lied to Their Own People to Let Their Soldiers Accept Torturing Us”


Andy Worthington with Shaker Aamer, after his release from Guantanamo, at a meeting in the House of Commons in November 2015.Please support my work! I’m currently in the US to campaign for the closure of Guantánamo on the 15th anniversary of its opening, and trying to raise $1000 (£800) to support my visit.


Regular readers will know that I have had a long involvement in the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was finally freed in October 2015 after a long campaign to secure his release, which involved MPs, the mainstream British media, and protest groups including We Stand With Shaker, the organization I co-founded in November 2014 with the activist Joanne MacInnes, which used a giant inflatable figure of Shaker to highlight his cause, with some quite spectacular success in the media, and with celebrities and MPs.

Since his release, I have maintained contact with Shaker, and, in October, was delighted when he agreed to make a short video for the Close Guantánamo campaign — another organization I co-founded — which is posted below.

Apart from a flurry of activity immediately after his release, Shaker has had little involvement with the media this year, although his words always have resonance, so I was delighted to see, a few days ago, that he had spoken to Al-Jazeera.

I’m cross-posting his interview below, for those of you who missed it the first time round. Shaker speaks eloquently about the many injustices of Guantánamo, including, as I note in the title of this article, how the US government “lied to their own people just to let their soldiers accept torturing us,” and how the prisoners resorted to hunger strikes — which Shaker describes as “our peaceful means of telling the world: ‘Listen, if I’m guilty, put me on trial. If I’m innocent, send me home’. We were hunger striking to gain some human rights. I swear to God, they treated us as less than cockroaches.”

He also speaks about how some of the guards broke down as a result of the way the prisoners were treated — and on realizing that they had been lied to about who they were. As he says, “It’s beautiful when you see this soldier become your friend; when they sacrifice their own job, their income, for you. Some of them refused to participate [in force-feeding], they were sent back from Guantánamo.“

Shaker also criticizes President Obama for his failure to close Guantánamo, claiming that “[t]he damage he did is worse than George [W.] Bush,” and stating that although he thinks Obama “wants to close it … he’s too much of a coward.”

Shaker Aamer: Guantánamo is a stain on Obama’s legacy
By Patrick Strickland, Al-Jazeera, January 7, 2017

Shaker Aamer says he endured torture by US authorities during his 14 years jailed in Guantánamo Bay detention centre.

Barack Obama’s failure to shutter Guantánamo Bay was a stain on his legacy as US president, according to Shaker Aamer, a Saudi-born UK resident held at the infamous US detention centre for nearly 14 years without trial.

Aamer was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001 but was never charged with a crime. He was released from the Cuba-based prison in October 2015 and has since lived with his wife and four children in Britain.

Despite Obama’s January 2009 executive order to close Guantánamo, he failed to do so throughout his eight years of presidency.

Of the 240 prisoners who were there when Obama took office in 2009, 55 are still in Guantánamo, according to Human Rights First.

As many as 19 have been cleared for release, while a mere three individuals from the remaining detainees have been convicted by a military commission.

Overall, more than 780 people have been held in Guantánamo [note: 779 by the US military, plus others held by the CIA in 203-04 in a secret facility], and the prisoner population peaked at 684 people in June 2003.

President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office on January 20, has already vowed to keep the prison open and lock up “more bad dudes”.

Al Jazeera spoke to Aamer about Obama’s legacy, the impact of hunger strikes and his life after his release.

Al Jazeera: Will the US shut down Guantánamo Bay?

Shaker Aamer: Can they shut down Guantánamo? Yes. But first of all, people have to understand why they want to keep Guantánamo open. There’s more to it than just politics or safety. If they close Guantánamo, what will [they] tell the world about who’s to blame for these 15 years when they put [away] all these people who didn’t belong there?

It’s just about explaining to the people. We are talking about one of the most sophisticated intelligence services in the world. Guantánamo proved to the entire world that the CIA operates outside [the rules] of the [US] government. It’s a government inside a government, and they operate outside the law. Who’s willing to answer all these questions? Are they willing to answer them? No, they’re not.

People have to ask why it cannot be closed. It’s about responsibilities and opening the books, answering questions to the whole world.

First of all, they have to [answer these questions] to the Americans. The impact of what happened on Americans was great, on the way they live and their freedoms. And everything we suffered was because of “national security”. I couldn’t receive letters from my own kids because of “national security”. I couldn’t speak freely with my lawyer because of “national security”.

After all this, do you think they’re going to close Guantánamo and then tell the world they’ve got only a handful of people that “we’re trying to put on trial for the past 10 years and until now we cannot succeed”? Can the world accept that? No. That’s why this scarecrow that is Guantánamo has to stay.

Al Jazeera: Will you continue to fight for the closure of Guantánamo?

Shaker Aamer: It’s about our futures. We are still suffering. They [governments] refuse to talk about it now. For [governments], it’s normal because they didn’t lose anything. But for me, I lost 14 years and I won’t sacrifice them without benefiting today and tomorrow — and I’m not talking about personal compensation. They compensated us [financially], but without saying sorry.

It’s a lot bigger than me. It’s not just because of the detainees. We are talking about a whole government, a whole system. They [the US government] lied to their own people just to let their soldiers accept torturing us. Can you imagine that they had to go to classes and show them movies about us? They had to make [guards and soldiers] believe they were defending freedom. For [a soldier] to accept all this, they had to brainwash them. Now we have to reverse everything to let them know that we are human beings and we haven’t done anything.

Al Jazeera: You have a reputation as having been a key protest leader while you were in Guantánamo Bay. How important were the hunger strikes and other protests within the prison walls?

Shaker Aamer: When someone launches a hunger strike, it means he is willing to lose his life for the cause. It is a peaceful tactic. They told the world we were trying to kill ourselves to serve al-Qaeda. It’s amazing how they twisted logic.

They were so brutal when they dealt with us [on hunger strike]. But a hunger strike was our peaceful means of telling the world: “Listen, if I’m guilty, put me on trial. If I’m innocent, send me home”. We were hunger striking to gain some human rights. I swear to God, they treated us as less than cockroaches.

Some of the guards would break down. Not once, not twice — 10, 20, 30 times. It’s beautiful when you see this soldier become your friend; when they sacrifice their own job, their income, for you. Some of them refused to participate [in force-feeding], they were sent back from Guantánamo.

Even though the US denies it, the hunger strike was effective. We gained some control. We changed the whole equation because of hunger strikes.

Al Jazeera: What has life been like since your release?

Shaker Aamer: I have no restrictions for me in any way — not written. But my phone is tapped; my house is being watched; there are cameras in front of my house all the time.

My lawyer advised me to stay away from overseas phone calls. I refuse to talk to anybody because I’m worried about my family and my kids. I don’t want to do anything, even go back for questioning. My wife is still not ready to take any more pressure or shock. It’s so sad.

At the same time, my wife worries every time there is a knock on the door. People in the UK are going to jail because they one time knew someone who is in Syria now. Imagine if I receive a phone call from someone who was in Guantánamo right now? Definitely they are going to come knock on my door.

That’s why I’m free, but I’m not free. I’m being watched.

When I came out, I found a different family, a different life, different kids. My kids are grown up. To build a strong relationship with them is not easy. It is hard. They are my kids, but they are not my kids. They are very good kids, very educated, very smart. They still see me as a little bit of a stranger.

Al Jazeera: It appears that Obama’s final presidential term will expire without the closure of Guantánamo Bay. What do you think that says about his legacy?

Shaker Aamer: I remember when Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize [in 2009]. It was sad. I told [my lawyer], if people like Obama get this prize, it means nothing. Where is the peace he’s implementing? At that time, we were roughly 300-something people [in Guantánamo]. [Note: actually, there were less than 240 prisoners at the time.]

What peace did he bring to the world? The damage he did is worse than [former US President] George Bush. If Obama can get this prize, it’s just an insult. That prize is nothing. It’s just a decoration.

For Obama, he wants to close it. I have no doubt, but I think he’s too much of a coward. You cannot be a hero without being willing to sacrifice. He proved he’s the biggest liar; he proved he’s not a leader. The most basic thing he could have done is close Guantánamo. He could have brought so much [respect] back to America.

Note: For another perspective on Shaker Aamer’s story, please listen to my band The Four Father’s ‘Song for Shaker Aamer,’ which was used in the campaign video for We Stand With Shaker. The version above is the ‘Freedom Version’ released last year, with the lyrics amended to reflect his release. Also see here for me playing it in Washington, D.C. last January, on the eve of the 14th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, from Washington, D.C., on the 15th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo – a cross-post, with my own commentary, of former prisoner Shaker Aamer’s thoughts on the anniversary, as delivered in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera. It’s always humbling, on an occasion like this, to hear from a former prisoner – and especially one as eloquent as Shaker. It’s been a good day – with the protest outside the Supreme Court, and a panel discussion at New America. Photos and report to follow soon.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. I found a few minutes to publish it and promote it just after the New America event, and before the evening’s whirlwind began – dinner with Tom Wilner, and then an event at George Washington University, at the gallery where the wonderful Tea Project is taking place:
    I was there last night, for the end of another great event, Words from the Grassroots:
    and I was back tonight for a Center for Constitutional Rights event. If you’re in DC, please do check out the exhibition. It is both beautiful and politically powerful, and I’ll be writing more about it soon.

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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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