The last UK resident held at Guantánamo Bay, Shaker Aamer has been returned to the UK after almost 14 years of imprisonment. He was never charged with any crime and never tried. He was subjected to years of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, and has spoken to his doctors and lawyers of the damaging psychological effects of his experience.
This is an important victory for those who have tirelessly campaigned for Aamer’s release, and it probably does owe something to the British state, which in the months before Aamer’s release renewed its appeals to the Obama administration to end his detention. David Cameron has welcomed the release, and says he hopes it speeds the closure of Guantánamo.
But whatever the government’s contribution to getting Aamer out of detention, the British authorities’ complicity in his detention and torture must not be forgotten.
Shaker Aamer was sold by bounty hunters in Afghanistan to US forces in December 2001. He was held for two months before being transferred to Guantánamo. During his time at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, Aamer was visited and interrogated by MI5 and MI6 agents.
In evidence to his lawyers, he testified that an MI5 agent was in the room when he was beaten, his head repeatedly bounced against the wall while his captors threatened to kill him. He eventually cracked under torture, telling his captors whatever they wanted to hear.
On the basis of his tortured confession, he was transferred to Guantánamo on February 14 2002, the same day that his fourth child, Faris, was born.
UK intelligence agents continued to visit him, but no evidence was ever secured to justify his detention. In 2007, six US government agencies independently determined that he posed no threat, and following pressure from the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, the Bush administration cleared him for release.
His release, however, was repeatedly blocked by the US Department of Defence. The Obama administration again cleared him for release in 2009, but again, his freedom was denied.
Lawyers for Aamer have claimed that his release was repeatedly blocked both because of his efforts to secure better conditions for fellow prisoners, and because he knows far too much about the extensive use of torture by the US military, revelations of which would be a real embarrassment for US and UK authorities.
Aamer has been a powerful advocate for Guantánamo detainees. Having previously served as a translator for the US army during the 1991 Gulf War, and having worked as an interpreter for various law firms in London, he is an articulate, intelligent man with a commitment to fighting injustice. He led other prisoners in various forms of protest at prison conditions, including leading prolonged hunger strikes.
As such, prison management considered him a serious threat to authority. There is evidence to suggest that he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment, including in the ways that his force-feeding was undertaken.
More disturbingly still, Aamer has testified that he was a witness to extensive torture. This may have been a particular concern of those who attempted to block his release. While he was held at Bagram, Aamer was a witness to the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, which resulted in “evidence”, later discredited, which was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It is also possible that Aamer may have been exposed to some of the same techniques implicated in the suspicious deaths of three fellow hunger strikers in Guantánamo. While these were reported as suicides, one former Guantánamo guard, Joseph Hickman, has challenged the official account, arguing that these were wrongful deaths resulting from prolonged beatings and torture – and that Aamer was subjected to a two-and-a-half-hour beating on the same night.
As the last remaining British resident in Guantánamo, Aamer’s long-awaited release marks the end of an era. But with this chapter coming to a close, there is a risk that UK authorities will attempt to sweep Britain’s role under the carpet. Aamer may be offered compensation from UK authorities as has happened with other former Guantánamo detainees, ostensibly to avoid costly legal cases – but such an offer would of course in no way represent an acknowledgement of British wrongdoing.
Aamer must be given the freedom and space to decide whether he wants to pursue legal proceedings against UK authorities for any part they played in his torture. Such efforts can take an enormous toll on litigants and their families, and he and his family may well have already been through too much.
Whatever he decides, the rest of us must hold the UK authorities, past and present, fully accountable. While a long-delayed inquiry into these violations has so far come to nothing, we must not rest until the state is held responsible for participating in the arbitrary detention and torture of Aamer and dozens of others.