There was great excitement among journalists gathered inside the British parliament a few days ago as the new opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn prepared to face Prime Minister David Cameron in their first official exchange across the floor of the House of Commons. It turned out to be an unremarkable encounter with both sides claiming victory and Westminster sketch writers left feeling empty and forlorn; it was hardly gladiatorial and certainly left no blood on the carpet. The better story was actually happening outside, although the sight of orange-suited, hooded and chained campaigners highlighting the continued plight of the “Last Londoner” in Guantanamo is no longer seen as newsworthy; the weekly protest is rather taken for granted these days.
Nevertheless, there is an amazing story to be told of spies, lies and political intrigue involving some of the most powerful figures in the world. We do know that the British prisoner and father-of-four has been cleared for release by two successive US presidents and three British prime ministers so the big question is this: Why is Shaker Aamer still being held captive by America in Guantanamo Bay?
Earlier this week the White House assured me that his case is a priority with President Barack Obama, and this might be true, but no one from Washington to Whitehall can explain why he remains in custody. Nearly 14 years on, this man is still being held without trial and without charge. In terms of miscarriages of justice, the case of Shaker Aamer must rank up there among the gravest.
The US president (who is also Commander in Chief of the US military), is arguably the most powerful man in the world; Obama wants Aamer to be released and so did his predecessor George W Bush.
However, as I discovered this week, trying to elucidate a straight answer from the US on the continued plight of Shaker Aamer is proving to be uncharacteristically difficult; a bit like trying to nail jelly to a wall, if you will. This and previous US administrations have been unbelievably forthcoming and shockingly transparent about torture, the methods used by its military and intelligence people in interrogations and the part that America has played in the kidnap, rendition and abuse of those swept up in the War on Terror.
While the British government still refuses to acknowledge its part in bypassing international law and violating human rights (even though it has shelled out millions in hush money and compensation already to victims on condition that they drop litigation), the US government has held up its hands and even released previously classified documents detailing its own atrocious behaviour. Nevertheless, when it comes to Saudi-born Shaker Aamer’s case there appears to be a general reluctance to admit anything. Someone or some department in Washington is doing their utmost to block his release but trying to find the culprit is like trying to box shadows. It has certainly focussed the minds of leading politicians in the British parliament from across all parties, none more so than the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has campaigned relentlessly for more than a decade for Aamer’s release.
In March there was a unanimous resolution passed in the House of Commons that Shaker Aamer should be released and Corbyn was one of the lead speakers. “He has been cleared for release for longer than President Obama has been President,” said Corbyn. “It does not say very much about the power of the US presidency when the president can campaign for election partly on the basis of closing Guantanamo Bay, having specifically ordered the release of those against whom there is no case whatsoever but who have still not been released.”
Corbyn went on to say that he and other MPs had held numerous meetings with the Foreign Office over the years and was “at a loss to understand what is preventing Shaker Aamer’s release.” He then asked a question many of us would like an answer to but as yet it remains hanging in the air, unresolved: “Is he being held because he knows too much and has seen too much — the hunger strikes, the torture and the brutality?”
I asked the same when speaking to the Pentagon press office last week, even suggesting that since the US president is also Commander in Chief his orders should be obeyed and not to release Shaker Aamer could be regarded as insubordination by a lower rank. Sadly, the response lacked the sort of clarity I was seeking: “To the greatest extent possible and consistent with our national security interests, detainees will be repatriated, resettled or prosecuted in federal courts or military commission proceedings. DoD [the US Department of Defence] acts quickly on all potential detainee transfers, once the interagency finds suitable host countries and have negotiated the appropriate security assurances”.
I asked if anyone was directly disobeying the Commander in Chief. “Transfers are authorised only after the Secretary of Defence, in coordination with the interagency, determines that the transfer is in the national security interest of the United States and that the threat posed by the detainees to the United States or US persons or interests would be substantially mitigated.”
When I asked if British intelligence had asked the US not to release Shaker Aamer I was told that there would be no comment on intelligence matters. So after several days of email exchanges and telephone calls that was the rather offhand official response from Gary Ross, Commander, US Navy Defence Press Operations Office of the Secretary of Defence.
Undeterred, I contacted the White House again and after several days of waiting a “Senior Administration Official” assured me that, “The administration has prioritised the Shaker Aamer case.” Efforts to establish why there had been delays, prevarication and obfuscation from that side of the Atlantic, though, continued to draw a blank.
“The president’s entire national security team is engaged in the effort to close Guantanamo and we continue to finalise the plan for its ultimate presentation to Congress,” I was assured. “The fact is that while we are committed to transferring detainees who are eligible for transfer, we are committed to doing so only under conditions that will mitigate any security risk to the United States and ensure the humane treatment of the detainee. Our efforts to establish such conditions, which can vary substantially based on the particular detainee and recipient country, are careful and deliberate, and finalising such arrangements takes time.”
Earlier this year Jeremy Corbyn travelled with a Parliamentary Group delegation along with MPs Andrew Mitchell, Andy Slaughter and David Davis to Washington. They came back to Britain without any explanation for why Shaker Aamer remains in custody.
The Guantanamo detainee is now said to be suffering from a range of devastating mental and physical illnesses as a result of his illegal 13-year detention. Not surprisingly, these include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and paranoia, according to Professor Ramzi Kassem, who says that being shackled, tortured and abused has also left the Londoner with debilitating headaches and untreated asthma. The law professor, who represents Aamer in his fight with the American authorities, says that his frail and deteriorating condition means that it is now more urgent than ever for Aamer to be released and reunited with his wife and children in London.
Meanwhile, back in Westminster, more than 40 Members of Parliament have signed an Early Day Motion, “That this House calls on the US administration to release Shaker Aamer from his imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay; notes that he has now been incarcerated for 13 years without charge; further notes that he has twice been cleared for release and transfer, under President Bush in 2007 and President Obama in 2009; supports the call made by the Prime Minister for his release and return to the UK; notes the unanimous resolution of the House of 17 March 2015 that Shaker Aamer be released; and asserts that the defeat of terrorism will only be achieved by upholding the principle of the rule of law — to the protection of which Mr Shaker Aamer is entitled.”
There are those who fear that Shaker Aamer will become a “forever prisoner” because he knows too much and has witnessed human rights abuses over the years. While that’s an extraordinary thing to say, it is a view shared by a diverse, eclectic group of supporters for his release, including Conservative MP David Davis and ex-Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg. During the March debate in the House of Commons, Davis said: “Shaker has been a representative [of prisoners] in the disputes in Guantanamo, which may make him more of a target. In addition to his own torture, he is said to have witnessed the torture of others, which may be why his release is being withheld… because he would embarrass them; that represents a doubling-up of the guilt on their part. Frankly, this will come out into the open at some point.”
Begg said that the detainee is certainly a charismatic figure, describing him as “a powerful speaker who can really influence people and perhaps the US is more afraid of what he would say upon his release than the continuing injustice of his case.”
Ex-Guantanamo commander Colonel Mike Bumgarner sought Aamer’s assistance to negotiate an end to the 2005 hunger strikes. He described to the media his charismatic influence: “He was treated like a rock star, some of the places we would go in. I have never seen grown men — with beards, hardened men — crying at the sight of another man. It was like I was with Bon Jovi or something.” That same year in 2005 three hunger-striking prisoners died of asphyxiation and while US officials called the deaths “suicides” and a form of “asymmetrical warfare” others, including former US soldiers who were present, say that something far more sinister happened and that Aamer, nicknamed “The Professor” by some guards, was a witness. Documents related to that incident are classified and as yet the US authorities are unwilling to release them.
Like the character Dr Ben McKenna in the 1956 Hitchcock thriller, it does seem increasingly likely that Shaker Aamer is “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. Certainly, his story could come from the pen of a Hollywood scriptwriter but the happy ending that campaigners are pushing for has yet to be written.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.