10 Sep 2011

Last Briton in Guantanamo on hunger strike

Cleared for release in 2007, British resident Shaker Aamer is on hunger strike as lawyers say he was routinely beaten on days his legal team was due to meet him.

Shaker Aamer

Shaker Aamer, a 44-year-old Saudi-born British resident who lived in London prior to his capture in Afghanistan in the weeks following 9/11, has now been in the Cuba-based prison complex for almost ten years without being charged or tried.

According to leaked documents, US authorities had believed in November 2007 that Mr Aamer had led a unit of fighters in Afghanistan and was on Osama bin Laden‘s payroll. Mr Aamer has always maintained his innocence and claims he was in the country working for a charity. According to his lawyers he has been cleared for release since 2007.

He has gone on hunger strike just weeks before he marks a decade years inside Guantanamo, with a legal source telling Channel 4 News that he his is refusing to eat, because he is being treated “inhumanely”.

Washington-based lawyer Brent Mickum, who until recently represented Mr Aamer, said that he had grave concerns for his client’s mental and physical health – and his treatment in Guantanamo.

There are times when he has turned up to see me and has clearly been beaten up badly beforeLawyer Brent Mickum

He told Channel 4 News that Mr Aamer has been complaining about serious prostate pain and says that, in his opinion, Mr Aamer “is no longer mentally all there.”

“One of the last occasions I saw him in 2010, he would not talk about his case, he would not help himself. He only wanted to talk about religion: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. It felt like he has given up: that’s what 10 years, mostly in solitary confinement will do to a person,” he said.

Mr Mickum added that he believes his client was being systematically beaten up by prison guards on the days he would visit Cuba, and would often turn up with visible marks on his face.

“When I travelled to Guantanamo in April I was told he was refusing to see me,” he said. “But in previous visits Shaker’s told me the guards hadn’t told him that I’d arrived, and hadn’t received a letter I’d given them to give to him, so I know they’re messing with me. There are times when he has turned up to see me and has clearly been beaten up badly before.”

A lawyer close to another detainee still detained in Guantanamo showed Channel 4 News a transcript of his client’s account of the day that Mr Mickum was supposed to meet with Mr Aamer. For legal reasons, neither the lawyer nor the prisoner can be named.

“Shaker Aamer was supposed to see his lawyer. That day, he was subject to an unauthorized ‘code yellow’ procedure: he was forcibly stripped and left to lie naked in his cell, shivering under an intense draught coming in from the air conditioning unit.

“That morning, Mr Aamer was asleep when the Officer in Charge of Mr Aamer’s prison, Camp 3, woke him up and yelled at him to ‘move his shirt’. Apparently, Mr Aamer had hung his shirt along his bed to avoid hitting his head up directly against the metallic cell wall.

“The Emergency Reaction Force team arrived and beat Mr Aamer. This is what the joint Detention Group refers to as a ‘code yellow’ – a procedure where a prisoner’s clothes are literally torn off of him, using a pair of heavy duty shears. They stripped Mr Aamer of all his clothes and underwear, leaving him under a very cold ventilator shaft.

“The same incident happened [the next time Mr Mickum visited].”

A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said: “We continue to monitor Mr Aamer’s welfare through engagement with the US authorities, and have not received any recent reports of Shaker Aamer currently being on hunger strike.

“We take any allegations of Mr Aamer’s mistreatment seriously and will follow up any concerns that are raised with us with the relevant US authorities and ask them to investigate and report back to us. Where allegations were raised in the past, the US authorities cooperated fully in carrying out an investigation and reported back to us.”

Guantanamo Bay - Getty

Government negotiations ‘weak’

British government attempts to negotiate his repatriation have been criticised by Mr Aamer’s UK lawyers.

Despite being cleared for release since 2007, according to his lawyers, efforts by the previous and current government to have him returned to his wife and four children in Wandsworth, London, have so far been fruitless.

Expectations were high when President Barack Obama visited London in May.

Mr Aamer’s representatives had hoped for a major breakthrough in negotiations at the highest level between Prime Minister David Cameron, Foreign Secretary William Hague, Mr Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to have him repatriated.

But Irene Nembhard, from legal firm Birnberg Peirce, told Channel 4 News that the meetings yielded no progress whatsoever.

“The Americans would not engage whatsoever, it was another sign of how weakly the government has negotiated power for Shaker’s return. But where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said.

If Obama loses the next election and someone like Rick Perry gets in, he’ll gas them allBrent Mickum

Lawyers with a close knowledge of the case said Mr Aamer knew too much.

His former attorney Mr Mickum said that he believes it is unlikely Mr Aamer will ever be released from Guantanamo because of the “unprecedented” level of torture to which he has been subjected – and witnessed – before and during his detention at the prison.

According to Mr Mickum, Mr Aamer’s claims that he suffered the “most extreme torture he had ever received” on 9 June, 2006 – the same night that three other detainees were said to have committed suicide – make his release undesirable for the US.

There have been suggestions in the American press that the US government is covering up the murder of the three men – Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani – and that Mr Aamer’s testimony would represent a serious embarrasment.

“We need to get Shaker out of there and it looks like that will not happen with him going back to London because of the level of torture he has experienced and the crimes he has witnessed perpetrated by American troops at Guantanamo,” Mr Mickum, who also represents detainee Abu Zubaydah, said.

Political and legal obstacles

In addition, a recent change in US legislation is proving a further obstacle to securing his release. In January, Republican lawmakers in Congress included a stipulation in its military funding bill that no state funds can be used to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the US or to the custody of foreign countries, unless specific conditions are met about how the prisoners will be held.

This law was a further blow for Mr Obama, who this year – in the face of Republican opposition – was forced to abandon long-cherished plans to close Guantanamo.

Brent Mickum said that the legislation will make his former client’s bid for release “nigh on impossible,” because “Guantanamo is now a weapon Republicans are using against the Obama and the Democrats.”

“For these reasons, the US will never let him go back to Britain, although I certainly hope British officials continue to try.

“But it is looking increasingly likely that he will die in that jail.

Last year, David Cameron launched an independent inquiry, led by Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Peter Gibson, into a catalogue of allegations of British complicity in the torture of terrorist suspects held by other countries in the months and years after September 11, 2001.

Typical Guantanamo cell - Getty

The Government paved the way for the inquiry to start by making out of court payments to 16 former detainees. Channel 4 News revealed that the former Guantanamo inmates set aside a portion of their payments to help Mr Aamer’s legal costs.

However, human rights campaigners have since threatened to boycott the inquiry, saying they were disappointed about a number of issues, including the fact that the Government would remain involved in decisions on what material could be publicly disclosed.

He has the most important testimony to give the Gibson inquiry. I don’t see how it can proceed without himAsim Qureshi of Cageprisoners

Asim Qureshi, Executive Director of Cageprisoners, a Guantanamo Bay human rights organisation, said that the inquiry cannot go ahead without the presence of Mr Aamer, because it is alleged by his legal team and those who spent time with him in Guantanamo that he has suffered the most extreme torture of any detainee.

“If the Government is serious about committing to human rights and an inquiry into its complicity in torture, they need to bring Shaker back. He would have the most important testimony and evidence to give. I don’t see how it can proceed without him,” he told Channel 4 News.

A spokesperson for the FCO said: “As the Prime Minister confirmed on 6 July, we continue to request the release and return to the UK of Shaker Aamer. The Government takes this matter very seriously. We have reiterated this request to the US Government on a number of occasions. These requests have been at a senior level.

“The outcome of these confidential discussions remains uncertain but we have been assured by the US that they understand the importance that we attach to this issue and that our request is being actively and seriously considered. Any decision regarding Mr Aamer’s release remains in the hands of the United States Government.