Nine British nationals held at Guantánamo Bay were all repatriated by 2005 due to efforts by the British government. In 2007, when the previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office, one of the first things his government did was write to the Bush administration seeking the release of five men held at Guantánamo who had previously resided in the UK; four returned by early 2009. Why the fifth man, Shaker Aamer, 48, a Saudi national with a British wife and children, remains there is a mystery to this day.
Aamer said he was working for a charity there when, following the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, he was sold to the US military for a bounty; most of the United States’ prisoners were purchased from Afghan and Pakistani warlords and villagers for anything up to $5,000. Allegations made of links to terrorist organizations are purely speculative and have never been substantiated or led to charges or trial. There is not even an alleged legal basis for his ongoing detention. He has been cleared twice for release; once in 2007, by the Bush administration, and in 2009, by President Obama.
Tortured at Bagram, he was one of the first prisoners to be taken to Guantánamo when it opened in early 2002. There, he has led prisoner protests and taken part in the mass hunger strikes in 2005 and 2013. He was one of the prisoners who brought a 2013 lawsuit against the forced nasal tube feeding of hunger-striking prisoners. In 2010, an article in Harpers claimed he was an eyewitness to the brutal attack on, and murder of, three prisoners – alleged suicides – in 2006.
His lawyers at the NGO Reprieve also claim that he is often subjected to Forcible Cell Extraction (FCE), “a violent process used by guards against noncompliant prisoners” and are asking that the British government demand access to video evidence of this, which the US government claims is confidential.
Although Aamer has only been cleared for release to Saudi Arabia, he has made it clear that he wishes to return to his family in the UK. There is no reason why that should pose an obstacle; of the 33 prisoners released since the beginning of 2014, most have not returned home, but have been sent to third countries such as Kazakhstan and Uruguay following complicated resettlement processes.
It is unlikely that the British government would insist on his return for years, when Aamer is not even British, if it thought he posed any security risk. It insists it is doing all it can to secure Shaker Aamer’s release to the UK. Ministers, senior officials and the deputy prime minister have raised the case with the US authorities.
On January 16, 2015, in talks between David Cameron and Barack Obama in Washington, Aamer’s case was raised, and Obama said he would “prioritize” it. All is not as it seems in this one-sided special relationship; less than a month later, just before he left office, former US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whose office provides the final authorization for prisoner releases, said the case was not even on his desk for consideration. At a debate in the UK parliament on March 17, a junior Foreign Office minister said that Obama meant “Mr Aamer’s case has been prioritized for review through an interagency process.” He has already been cleared twice through this same process; the motivation for the third time was not explained.
This is not the only time the United States has misled the British government over Aamer’s case. Heavily redacted documents disclosed through Freedom of Information requests in the US to his lawyers at Reprieve show that, in spite of holding talks with British officials, the US was simultaneously holding secret talks with Saudi Arabia in 2010 and 2013 about the possibility of returning him there. The reason Shaker Aamer has not returned to his family may lie somewhere among the redactions.
In the meantime, time is running out for Aamer. A 2013 evaluation by an independent medical expert shows that years of indefinite detention without charge or trial at Guantánamo are taking a heavy toll on his physical and mental health. A bill introduced in January 2015 by Senator Kelly Ayotte to halt prisoner releases almost altogether until after the US presidential elections in 2016 could pose further obstacles, even if Barack Obama uses his power of veto to block it, as he has said he would.
In the UK, the campaign for Shaker Aamer’s return is continually gaining momentum. During the 2013 hunger strike, many high-profile figures underwent weeklong hunger strikes in solidarity. For the past two years, weekly demonstrations opposite the Houses of Parliament have attracted a sizable and colorful crowd. Thousands have signed petitions and joined demonstrations. A parliamentary group to work on his case, launched in November 2014, has attracted over 40 members from different political parties and is currently planning a delegation to visit the US after the May parliamentary election.
This activity culminated in a debate in parliament on March 17, attended by Aamer’s family, in which a motion was passed supporting Shaker Aamer’s release from Guantánamo and return to his family in the UK. Strong statements were made by British politicians during the debate. Nonetheless, the junior minister representing the Foreign Office brushed off the fundamental question, posed twice, of why Aamer remains in Guantánamo by stating, “These are intelligence matters on which I cannot comment.”
The interests of the US government held back any serious debate in a sovereign foreign parliament. One politician responded: “Almost all of what he has had to say is a sop to Congress, to the Americans generally and to the President. . . . He is like an apologist for the American regime.”
Another stated, “The concept of intelligence is yet again being used as an excuse to cover up injustice.” It would certainly not be the first time that the UK is covering for the US administration and indeed has enough of its own misdeeds it would like to keep under wraps.
What has become patently obvious is that Shaker Aamer is not being held at Guantánamo Bay as a result of anything he has done. It is inconceivable that two states that claim to be as powerful as the United States and Britain could not secure the release of one man, who has never been charged or tried, from one state to the other in over 13 years. He is a pawn in the power games of others and a hostage to the special relationship.