Homecoming an illusion for 'freed' detainee

By Mark Townsend

Shaker Aamer is the forgotten prisoner of the war on terror. Why is he still being held despite having been cleared for release six years ago? Mark Townsend reports

Shaker Aamer has been held for 12 years. Six years ago the US Government acknowledged it had no concrete evidence against him. Photo / Supplied
Shaker Aamer has been held for 12 years. Six years ago the US Government acknowledged it had no concrete evidence against him. Photo / Supplied

Shaker Aamer remembers the frantic knocking on the door, the voices screaming for him to get out. Outside, in the dark streets of Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers stripped him of his belongings at gunpoint and marched away their latest prisoner.

It was November 2001 and Afghanistan was the focus of the furious US response to 9/11. The country that Aamer and his family had arrived in from London five months earlier had descended into chaos. The first US bombing waves had flattened the Kabul school where Aamer had taught English to the children of Arabic-speaking expatriates. Terrified, the Aamers fled east towards Pakistan.

Aamer had more reason than many to escape. Even when he was travelling with his pregnant wife and three children, Afghan rebels belonging to the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance, suspicious of all Arabs in the country, were likely to consider him a natural enemy.

He recounts how, after he had finally been caught and his family were allowed to go, he was driven into the countryside at night, expecting to be executed. Instead, he recalls the throb of a helicopter and friendly accents. He remembers exhaling with relief. "Americans," he thought: "I am saved!"

More than 12 years later, Shaker Aamer has yet to meet his youngest son, Faris, who was born three months after his capture. On the day Faris was born, February 14, 2002, Aamer was airlifted to Guantanamo Bay, the soon to be notorious US detention camp. The subsequent years have been spent inside what has been condemned as the "gulag of our times". They have included more than 1000 nights in a windowless isolation cell.

His daughter, Johina, 15, who lives in Battersea, south London, said: "Try imagining being treated like a circus animal in a cage and being taken away from your home and everything you love. It's painful isn't it? Well, my Dad is going through this."

The US forces who picked Johina's father up in Afghanistan appear to have had no intention of allowing him to go free, transferring him to the notorious Bagram jail at the end of December 2001.

There, Aamer says, he was starved, kept awake for nine days straight and chained in positions that made the slightest movement unbearable. His weight fell to 27kg. Delirious and desperate to cease his torture, Aamer says he confessed to whatever the Americans wanted.

Those confessions form part of leaked detainee assessment briefs compiled by the joint task force that runs Guantanamo Bay.

Marked secret, the documents claim that while in London Aamer had been "assessed to be a key member of the UK-based al-Qaeda network with multiple associations to senior al Qaeda members". These allegedly include Osama bin Laden, whom Aamer is alleged to have met within the Afghan cave complex of Tora Bora. It is also alleged that his family in London received a "monthly stipend" from al-Qaeda. For good measure, Aamer is described as having admitted frequenting the once notorious Finsbury Park mosque and the Four Feathers mosque, in north London, described as "the home of radical imam Abu Qatada".

These allegations, which Aamer vehemently denies and which no one has ever been able to prove, help to explain why Aamer has spent thousands of days in detention, a stretch of incarceration that has led him, in despair, to embark on a life-threatening hunger strike. So far detainee US9SA-000239DP has endured more than 70 days without food, far beyond what is accepted as safe.

Clive Stafford Smith, his British lawyer, concedes that for the first time Aamer, widely regarded as a robust and resourceful character, has started to raise the possibility that he might die inside Guantanamo Bay. He recently told Stafford Smith, who is director of the legal charity Reprieve, to brief his wife that he might not make it out alive.

Shaker Aamer was born on December 12, 1966 in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. His parents divorced when he was a child, and Aamer never got on with his stepmother. Aged 17, he headed to America to live with family friends. The next few years were spent travelling throughout Europe, the Middle East and finally London. There he met and fell in love with Londoner Zin Siddique, whom he married in 1997. Also that year, their first child Johina was born, followed by Michael in 1999 and Saif the following year. Family photographs from this period show a proud father framed by smiling children. Zin recalls them being very happy, describing their time together as a "dream". Aamer is described as a hands-on father, helping out with domestic chores and changing nappies.

It is the child who has never met his father who is understood to have struggled most. Faris, 11, is reported to play obsessively with the presents bought years ago by his father in the search for a connection. "He loves playing with the toys that Shaker bought for my other children. They are very special for him," said Zin, who returned to Battersea, south London, after her husband was taken.

In London, Aamer had forged a career as an Arabic translator for new arrivals. His work with refugees would, in June 2001, prompt Aamer's ill-fated decision to take his family to Afghanistan to do voluntary work for an Islamic charity. "Shaker was there to help the poor in Afghanistan, but himself became the victim of injustice," said Zin.

Aamer's continuing incarceration is all the more mysterious, given that the Americans ruled almost six years ago that he could be freed from Guantanamo. In June 2007 he was officially cleared for release. A security assessment by the US Government acknowledged it had no concrete evidence against him. Two years later, the Obama administration reiterated the lack of a case against him, underlining the fact that he could be released.

So why is Aamer the only one among the 16 detainees who possessed British citizenship and residency who is still being held in Guantanamo? Officially, the British Government insists it is dedicated to extracting the father-of-four, a position it has publicly adopted for the past six years. Last week, the Foreign Office's human rights report of 2012 reiterated that it was committed to secure Aamer's release and return. His case, it said, had been raised on multiple occasions, including direct pleas from the British foreign secretary (minister for foreign affairs), William Hague.

However, Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, believes the efforts are less concerted than they ought to be. "My fear is that he's been forgotten. My worry is that the force of representations in recent years haven't been as aggressive as they should be. There's just no reason why he should still be there."

Aamer's lawyers increasingly fear his chances of being allowed home to London are diminishing. Reprieve say Aamer is alone among the 779 who have been detained in Guantanamo Bay in having purportedly been cleared for release, but to only one country - Saudi Arabia. Repatriation to Saudi Arabia would, they warn, see Aamer detained indefinitely, his access to media and his lawyers hugely curtailed.

According to Stafford Smith: "The sole reason for the US to send Shaker to Saudi Arabia is to have him silenced, most likely by sentencing him to a long imprisonment after a sham trial."

Stafford Smith points out that Aamer is allegedly able to describe in detail how a UK intelligence agent was present while he was beaten. A British operative, he claims, was present as a US interrogator repeatedly smashed his head against a wall shortly before he was sent to Guantanamo.

Described as articulate and highly intelligent, Aamer's allegations of British complicity in his torture and detention would reopen the fraught debate over British complicity in the darker side of America's "war on terror". Aamer has already announced he is suing MI5 (the UK's internal counter-intelligence agency) and MI6 (the UK's secret-intelligence agency) for defamation.

Stafford Smith, who has access to classified material from MI6 that he cannot share, even with Aamer, alleges the British security services are actively misleading their US counterparts to ensure he is never allowed to return to Britain to tell his story.

"They've gone around bad-mouthing Shaker, saying things that are simply false," he says.

"Not only were they part of his abuse but they falsified evidence against him," he said.

Accounts portray the detainee as a stubborn presence who regularly defies Guantanamo Bay authorities by standing up for the rights of fellow detainees. Regarded as a leader among the camp's inmates, Aamer is an unwelcome thorn in the side of the prison authorities.

It was Aamer who initiated the first hunger strike at Guantanamo in 2005 after military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying. It was Aamer with whom the authorities negotiated to end the strike which involved hundreds of prisoners. As punishment, he was placed in isolation for 360 days despite prison rules permitting isolation only for a period of 30 days.

During a recent visit to Guantanamo Stafford Smith met a man who despite his deteriorating health was determined to stand up to the authorities. "The other day they told him to close the hole in the cell door that they push food through. But Shaker, despite being on hunger strike, refuses to shut the hole. So they push his food through and it stays there all day where he can smell it."

Fears are mounting that even Aamer's formidable resolve may have limits. Experts say this hunger strike is different from previous ones. The hopelessness of indefinite detention, defined by permanent separation from loved ones and the futility of wanting a return to normal life, has a deleterious and profound effect on prisoners' wellbeing.

Stafford Smith said Aamer sounds increasingly weak. That is hardly surprising: Aamer's hunger strike is past day 70, significantly beyond the point that experts say leads to "irreversible cognitive impairment and psychological damage".

After day 40, they say, "the possibility of death becomes an imminent risk". Among the ailments Aamer is suffering from are serious arthritis, asthma, prostate, kidney, and neck problems and severe backache. He is understood to have lost more than 17kg in recent weeks.

"I hope I do not die in this awful place," he told The Observer. I want to hug my children and watch them as they grow. But if it is God's will that I should die here, I want to die with dignity."

The hunger strike inside Guantanamo Bay is escalating. Worst is the mounting frequency of Forcible Cell Extractions (FCEs) - violent removal of individuals from cells by armed prison guards.

"Now whatever Shaker requests they FCE him. If he asks for a bottle of water they FCE him, it's barbaric. Now he is refusing his water just so he doesn't get beaten up. It's gratuitous torture," said Stafford Smith.

The situation is such that Aamer is starting to suspect the regime at Guantanamo Bay is trying to kill him through medical neglect. Simultaneously, the strain on his family is starting to mount. Johina, a secondary school pupil who last saw her dad when she was 4, asks the public to imagine what it must be like: "Imagine being locked up for more than 10 years of your life and possibly more years to come while everyone sits there and does nothing about it."

The Guantanamo years

2001 Camp X-Ray - a detention facility built in 1994 for refugees - is repurposed for "enemy combatants" after 9/11.

2002 629 detainees arrive after President Bush makes it the central prison for suspects in the war on terror.

2003 Population peaks at 680. Red Cross issues statement noting "deterioration in psychological health of a large number of detainees".

2006 US Supreme Court rules that trial system devised by Bush administration violates US law.

2009 Obama promises to close prison within a year of taking office.

2011 Obama abandons attempts to close prison after Congress blocks him from bringing accused terrorists before US courts.

2013 Senior US figures call for closure of detention centre by end of 2014.

- Observer

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