Shaker Aamer: Ten Years in U.S. Custody, Now Dying in Guantanamo

by Andy Worthington  

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, has just visited Guantánamo, for the first time in a number of years, as his colleagues have been undertaking visits instead, and has returned with a renewed sense of horror at the continued existence of Guantánamo, that bleak icon of the Bush administration’s disregard for the law, which President Obama has found himself unable to close.

This is a time of grim anniversaries. The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September was followed, in October, by the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and, as the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo approaches, on January 11, 2012, we have now reached the point where we can begin to mark the 10th anniversary of the dates on which the 171 men still held there were first seized, and to reflect on what it says about America’s notions of justice and fairness that they are, for the most part, still held without charge or trial.

On his visit to Guantánamo, Stafford Smith was visiting Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, whose case has long been of concern to British citizens and to opponents of Guantánamo in the US and elsewhere in the world. I have written about his case extensively over the years, and his story also features in the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with the filmmaker Polly Nash.

A British resident with a British wife and four British children, Shaker Aamer has never been charged or tried, and yet, as Clive Stafford Smith reports, in an article, a press release and a letter to the British foreign secretary William Hague, all cross-posted below, he remains held, exactly ten years since he was first seized, even though he was notified that he had been cleared for release in 2007, and even though successive British governments have requested his return to the UK.

Those closest to his case have been obliged to conclude, for many years, that he is still held because, as an eloquent, charismatic man, and the foremost advocate of the prisoners’ rights, he knows too much, and these fears are further confirmed with the knowledge that he stated that, on the night of June 9, 2006, when three other prisoners died in Guantánamo in disputed circumstances (the authorities claimed that it was suicide, while soldiers who were present have suggested that the men may have been killed), he was tortured to within an inch of his life.

In addition, although the Labour government under Gordon Brown and the current Tory-led coalition government have requested the release of Shaker Aamer, his continued detention appears to be inexplicable unless, like their US counterparts, the British authorities do not really want him released either. Shaker Aamer embarrassed the British government in 2009, when he won a court case to secure the release of information regarding his claims that he was tortured by US forces in Afghanistan while UK agents were in the room, and this might explain the government’s reluctance to secure his return, were it not for three additional facts: firstly, that the Metropolitan Police are investigating his torture claims, and that he is surely needed as a witness; secondly, that the British government reached a financial settlement with him a year ago, which cannot be concluded while he is still in Guantánamo; and thirdly, that David Cameron’s much-criticised torture inquiry, into British complicity in torture abroad, cannot realistically begin while Shaker Aamer is still detained.

To shed further light on the current situation at Guantánamo, on Shaker Aamer’s case, on his array of physical and mental ailments, as a result of his ill-treatment over the years, and on the inexcusable inaction by both the British and the American governments, I refer you to Clive Stafford Smith’s commentaries below, and, if you would like to add your voice to those pressing for Shaker Aamer’s return,  you can This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or you can write to him at the following address: The Foreign Secretary, William Hague MP, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AH.

Guantánamo Bay: An Unpalatable Visit
By Clive Stafford Smith, Huffington Post UK, November 23, 2011

This week I visited Shaker Aamer, the last remaining British resident being held in Guantánamo Bay.

He was originally detained on 24 November 2001, so he is marking ten years in prison without any charge. I cannot disclose what he said to me because, as ever, complaints he might have about his mistreatment, or his chronic health problems, are deemed classified until the United States sees fit to allow me to discuss them. However, Guantánamo is more depressed than ever, as perhaps illustrated by my own experiences on the gastronomic front.

I was looking forward to dining in the best restaurant on the Leeward Side of the infamous navy based, the Clipper Club, which qualifies because it is the only place that is normally open by the time our ferry gets back from the Windward side of the bay. The Club normally boasts a microwave pizza, which is putrid, but also a gin and tonic, which I find more nutritious.

So I walked down there on my first evening, past a couple of million dollars’ worth of new, wholly unused, now abandoned and overgrown, military housing units that some civilian Pentagon contractor got paid to put up two years ago. Arriving eagerly at my destination, I was aghast to discover that military economies meant that the Club now opens only on weekends. There was only one remaining dining alternative, the vending machine at the motel.

Therefore, after an appetiser of Planters Peanuts (not quite past their expiration date yet, but tasting rather stale), the main course was a bright green bag of Kars’ All Energy Trail Mix. I could only swallow half of my dessert, as my memory deceived me, and the Reese’s Peanut Butter cups were not up to par.

The nice lady from Jamaica at the front desk (who is, if my earlier visits hold true, being paid substantially under minimum wage by another civilian contractor) confirmed that the satellite dish had been broken for a while, so there was no chance of much after-dinner diversion. I asked when it might be fixed; she laughed rather charmingly, and said she knew of no plan to do anything about it. Tomorrow night’s entertainment will, then, be rather similar to this evening’s: tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Indeed, on my second evening on the island, things had not improved. One of the silly new rules dictated that I must choose between cutting off my visit with Shaker Aamer 50 minutes early, and being refused a visit to the main shop on the Windward side.

I chose the latter, hoping against hope that the little shop on the Leeward side would still be open when my ferry got there. Alas, while the lights were still on, I was fifteen minutes late.

So I repaired to the vending machine again; even the remaining Reese’s cup seemed appetising tonight.

Guantánamo is, increasingly, torture for all those concerned. The soldiers have long since forsaken the notion that by holding prisoners without trial they are preserving the rule of law; the prisoners have lost all hope, ten years into their endless detention; and, as the Gitmo Diet takes hold, even the lawyers are finding their visits unpalatable.

Shaker Aamer, last British resident in Guantánamo Bay, ‘celebrates’ his tenth year imprisoned without charge or trial
Reprieve press release, November 24, 2011

Ten years ago today Shaker Aamer was detained in Afghanistan. He was subsequently sold for a bounty to US forces, tortured in Bagram Air Force Base and Kandahar (with British agents as witnesses), before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay for additional abuse.

He has never been charged with any offence, and published reports indicate that he is one of 88 among the 171 prisoners remaining in Guantánamo Bay who has long been cleared for release from the prison. However, the law in the US as it currently stands requires that the US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta must certify that Britain is a safe place for him to return to, and that he will commit no future crimes there — something that apparently Panetta has been unwilling to do.

Immediately upon visiting Shaker last week, Reprieve’s director wrote to Foreign Secretary William Hague concerning the laundry list of physical ailments that Shaker suffers — a list that had just been cleared through the US censorship process. That disturbing letter has now been made public [and is cross-posted below].

Reprieve’s director Clive Stafford Smith said: “I saw Shaker last Thursday and he tries to put a brave face on ten years of horrible abuse, but it is enough to wear any human being down almost to the point of death. Why does Britain pretend it has a Special Relationship if someone from London can be held for a decade without any due process, leaving his British wife without a husband and his British children without a father?

“Notwithstanding the fact that Britain has the best record of any country with former Guantánamo prisoners (nobody released has committed any offence), and that Shaker Aamer has anyway never committed a crime of any kind, the US Secretary of Defense is apparently not willing to certify that it would be safe for him to return here. It’s time someone in the British government told Leon Panetta what time of day it is.”

Clive Stafford Smith’s letter to William Hague regarding Shaker Aamer, November 18, 2011

Rt. Hon. William Hague
Foreign & Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street London

Re: Shaker Aamer & Guantánamo Bay

Dear Mr Hague:

I am writing to you urgently from Miami International Airport. I have just flown in from Guantánamo Bay where I visited Shaker Aamer yesterday. While there are aspects of that visit that I may not divulge due to US classification rules, I am permitted to relay my impressions, as well as detail the materials that were unclassified yesterday.

These give great cause for concern. Mr Aamer has suffered abuse that is unfathomable in the twenty-first century. One of the many areas of concern is his physical health.

Mr Aamer has now been held in isolation for more than two years. The US authorities may quibble about the term “isolation” (they have been known to do so in the past), but nothing can change the fact that Mr Aamer has been held in a solitary cell for that time, and much more over the past ten years. He has been thus punished because he continues to insist on the most basic elements of justice: that he be given a fair trial.

He has listed for counsel the following physical ailments that currently afflict him:

  • Arthritis in the knees and fingers, stemming from his abuse in custody;
  • Serious asthma problems (exacerbated, almost to the point of asphyxiation, when the US military sprays him with pepper spray during their periodic forcible cell extractions, or FCEs);
  • Heartburn and acid reflux exacerbated by the diet;
  • Prostate pain, with serious problems with urination;
  • Problems with his ears, including the loss of balance and dizziness;
  • Neck, shoulder and back pain resulting from the beatings that he has suffered;
  • Serious infection of his nails;
  • Ring worm and itchiness between his legs;
  • Constant haemorrhoids and rectal pain;
  • Extreme Kidney pain.

He also complains of E-N-T problems, serious insomnia, nerve problems in his right leg, and so forth. I can directly attest to various of these problems. For example, if the US insists that his food is of good quality, I can tell you that I tasted the lunch that he was given yesterday and it was revolting. I observed the infection of his left thumb, his right thumb, and his right index and middle finger nails, and it is like nothing I have seen before, rendering the nail soft and crumbling off the digit.

I do not think it is stretching matters to say that he is gradually dying in Guantánamo Bay.

This makes it all the more urgent that we get an independent medical assessment of him. However, ultimately there is only one solution, which is to get him out of Guantánamo Bay, home to his family in London. I should note that on February 14th he will have been in Guantánamo Bay for ten years; the anniversary coincides with the tenth birthday of his youngest child, who he has never met.

I remain,
Yours sincerely,
Clive A. Stafford Smith, Director

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).

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