“We Demand to be Treated Like Human Beings”
By Andy Worthington
For three and a half years, since an account was first made public detailing the suffering of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident and a victim of “extraordinary rendition” and particularly brutal torture, he was one of the better-publicized prisoners held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
There have, in that time, been other compelling stories, of prisoners, who, like Binyam, eventually secured their release from the notorious prison that was initially designed to hold them outside the law for the rest of their lives. They include other British residents: Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna, for example, who were seized by the CIA on a business trip to the Gambia, after disturbing intervention by the British intelligence services, and Omar Deghayes, seized from a villa in Lahore with his wife and six-month old son, whose supporters in Brighton mounted an extraordinary campaign for his release. Others include two particular Sudanese prisoners: Adel Hassan Hamad, a hospital administrator whose lawyers and supporters mounted an impressive campaign that included a website and a YouTube video, and Sami al-Haj, a cameraman for al-Jazeera, who became a cause célèbre in the Middle East.
Unlike these prisoners, the stories of the majority of the other 278 men released in the last three and a half years are largely unknown, and the same is true of most of the 241 men who are still held, with the exception of a number of cleared prisoners (principally the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province), and a number of other prisoners — including two former juveniles, Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad, and five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks — who were put forward for trial by Military Commission.
Spotlight on Shaker Aamer
However, while I urge readers to examine the stories of the remaining prisoners — and a good starting point is the definitive prisoner list that I published last week, which features links to the men’s stories online and references to other stories in my book The Guantánamo Files — it’s clear that, with Binyam’s release, the spotlight, in Britain at least, must now be focused unerringly on the last British resident in Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer, a man so bright, so articulate, so charismatic and so passionately opposed to injustice that the authorities at Guantánamo named him “The Professor.” This sounds like a mark of respect, but, despite the fact that Shaker had no involvement whatsoever with terrorism, and was one of hundreds of Guantánamo prisoners who were sold to US forces for a bounty payment, his eloquence and influence unnerved the authorities at Guantánamo to such an extent that they mistakenly concluded that he was a leader of al-Qaeda.
Shaker’s resistance to injustice began long before his capture by US forces. Arriving in the UK from Saudi Arabia in 1996, he was granted leave to remain, and soon met and married a British woman, with whom he has four children (although he has never seen his youngest child, who was born after he was seized). Pursuing his passion for justice, he volunteered with a law firm as a translator, helping to advise other immigrants of their rights, but in 2000, after hearing about the opportunities for practical humanitarian aid in Afghanistan that were available through a Saudi-funded children’s charity, he and his friend Moazzam Begg, whom he had met in 1997, decided to travel with their families to Kabul to establish a girl’s school, and also to pursue a number of well-digging projects that they had funded separately.
In an interview for a forthcoming documentary, “Outside the Law: The Story of Guantánamo,” Moazzam explained to me that, although the Taliban had been “shunned by the rest of the world, there was at that time a drive, within certain sections of the Muslim community, not to shun the country but to inject it with support to help it, to bring it up to the standards of the rest of the world.”
The men’s compassionate adventure was, however, short-lived. They arrived in Kabul in the summer of 2001, and within a few months the 9/11 attacks took place. Unsure of what would happen next, they waited until the US-led invasion began before fleeing the country. As Shaker’s wife explained to the Independent in 2007:
The bombs were falling every night and we had to leave the city to stay in a village. The children were terrified and kept telling us to be quiet in case our noise made the bombs come. Shaker was frightened too and I can remember his face now, it was almost as pale as the colour of the cream suit he was wearing. Shaker left the village to find a safer place for us. But in the middle of the night the villagers told us we had to go with a group travelling to the safety of Pakistan. I was pregnant with our fourth child and we were all scared. In the end, I just went. I didn’t see Shaker again. Sometimes I regret that decision. What if I stayed — would we all be together now?
The answer to that question is, of course, unknown, but what is certain is that, having been separated from his family, Shaker soon fell prey to Afghan bounty hunters, taking advantage of the rewards, averaging $5000 a head, that were offered by US forces for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” who seized him and sold him to a group of Afghan soldiers, who in turn sold him to US forces.
“If no justice is offered then I will resist”
Once in US custody, in the brutal and rudimentary US prison at Kandahar airport, which was used to process prisoners for Guantánamo, Shaker’s command of English not only unnerved the US authorities; it also made him an invaluable bridge between the prisoners and their captors, as so few of the prisoners spoke any English. It was also in Kandahar that Shaker’s passionate sense of justice and fair play was immediately outraged by the prisoners’ treatment. As Moazzam explained to me:
When I was first taken into Kandahar, Shaker had been there a few weeks before I was, and he’d been in the first group of people that was sent to Guantánamo. And having spoken to interrogators there who’d asked me about him, first of all they were very impressed by his behavior, his attitude, his willingness to speak to them, to try to explain things to them, and yet they were also worried about his character, in that, if no justice is offered then I will resist. And part of his resistance began, I think, at that time in Kandahar, which included a hunger strike … and not just a hunger strike, but also telling other people, “We can’t accept this type of behavior with us. We’re human beings and we need to be treated like human beings.”
Shaker’s resistance to injustice continued in Guantánamo, of course, where, for three and a half years, he spoke up incessantly on behalf of his fellow prisoners. In 2004-05, after a Supreme Court ruling had granted the prisoners the right to file habeas corpus petitions asking why they were being held, he helped a number of prisoners with their petitions by designating himself as their “next friend,” which authorized him to file suits on their behalf. In an affidavit filed in a court in Washington D.C., he wrote, “I am their close friend as a result of being placed with them in Guantánamo. And I know they want me to act on their behalf as their next friend.”
In August 2005, he was briefly part of a six-man Prisoners’ Council that was allowed — over the course of a few weeks — to meet to discuss how to end a hunger strike that involved around 200 prisoners, but when the Council was brought to an abrupt end by the authorities, apparently because Shaker in particular had been agitating for their right to have a fair trial or to be released, they were so worried about what they regarded as the influence that he wielded over the other prisoners that they moved him to Camp Echo, a state-of-the-art isolation block in which the technology is so refined that prisoners have almost no contact with any other human being, where he was held in solitary confinement for at least 18 months until he was moved to Camp 3 — for prisoners regarded as having significant intelligence value, or, like Shaker, significant leadership qualities — where he is still held.
Some indication of the authorities’ fear of Shaker can be gleaned from the fact that, while he was held in solitary confinement, two other members of the Council were released from Guantánamo. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s representative in Pakistan, was released in September 2005, and Ala Muhammad Salim, an Egyptian cleric and one of eight freed prisoners that the Pentagon refused to repatriate because of fears that they would be tortured in their home countries, was released to Albania in December 2006.
The other three men who are still held are: Sabir Lahmar, a Bosnian of Algerian origin, and an Islamic scholar, who remains at Guantánamo even though three of his compatriots were released three months ago, after their habeas corpus case was reviewed in a US court, and the judge found that the government had failed to establish a case against him and four other Bosnian prisoners; Adel Ali Fattough El-Gazzar, a former officer in the Egyptian army, who has been cleared for release; and Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi who was scheduled to face a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo until Barack Obama called a four-month halt to the Commissions on his first day in office, to facilitate a review of the much-criticized trial system.
Further evidence of the authorities’ disproportionate fear of Shaker can be gleaned from the fact that, although Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden of Guantánamo who initiated the Prisoners’ Council, had initially been in awe of him, noting that, on a tour of the cell blocks when Shaker almost single-handedly called an end to the hunger strike, “I have never seen grown men — with beards, hardened men — crying at the sight of another man,” and adding, “It was like I was with Bon Jovi,” he never spoke to him again after the Council’s activities were abruptly curtailed, and Shaker was sent to Camp Echo. This was in marked contrast to Col. Bumgarner’s attitude to al-Sharbi, a self-confessed member of al-Qaeda (one of the few in Guantánamo), who had been captured with Abu Zubaydah, a training camp facilitator — and alleged senior al-Qaeda operative — in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, with whom he maintained an unlikely friendship.
Long-term isolation as a form of torture
The chronic isolation to which Shaker was subjected — amongst the longest endured by any prisoner in Guantánamo — was, of course, demonstrably cruel and inhuman. This was recognized in December 2002 by Defense Department lawyers, when the use of isolation was approved by Donald Rumsfeld for implementation at Guantánamo as part of a package of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (PDF). At the time of Rumsfeld’s memo, the lawyers, drawing on advice issued by the CIA in a definitive manual in the 1960s, warned that isolation was “not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days.”
In spite of this, and in spite of high-level opposition to the implementation of all the techniques, which also included forced nudity, sensory deprivation, hooding, 20-hour interrogations, the use of stress positions, forced grooming (shaving of the head and beard), and playing on prisoners’ phobias, such as a fear of dogs, it’s clear that prisoners were routinely subjected to isolation as punishment — often in cells where the air conditioning was either turned up full, so that they were freezing cold, or turned off completely, so that they had difficulty breathing — for periods in excess of a month, and that isolation is still a key component of the regime at Guantánamo, despite a change of administration.
As was reported by Murat Kurnaz, the German prisoner released in August 2006, in his book Five Years of My Life, isolation as punishment often pushed prisoners to the brink of suffocation, but when their time came to an end they were at least reunited with their fellow prisoners. For Shaker, held for so much longer, and deprived of even the barest crumbs of human comfort, the effect was far more harrowing. When Clive Stafford Smith, his lawyer, saw him in 2007, he declared that he was clearly suffering from psychosis, and one of the reasons that his story then slipped off the radar was because he appeared to have become so paranoid and withdrawn that he refused to engage with his lawyers, and therefore had almost no contact with the outside world.
To make matters worse, Shaker, who weighed 17 stone before his capture, has also spent much of the last three and a half years on a hunger strike, and at one point weighed only eight and half stone. Embarking on a hunger strike at Guantánamo is a gruesome process, which involves being strapped into a restraint chair and force-fed twice a day through a tube inserted into the stomach through the nose, but as long ago as November 2005, Shaker appealed for his right to die by starving himself, seeing no other way in which to protest the conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were held, “I am dying here every day, mentally and physically,” he wrote. “This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway … I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no ‘help,’ no ‘intensive assisted feeding,’ This is my legal right.”
Why is Shaker still at Guantánamo?
There is no good reason why Shaker is still held, beyond the fact that he long ago carved out a niche for himself as a particularly significant prisoner because of his eloquence, his command of the English language and his resistance to injustice. The US authorities have made feeble attempts to implicate him in terrorist activities, but have never substantiated any of them. In August 2007, for example, shortly after the British government requested the return of five British residents, including Shaker, Sandra Hodgkinson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the Pentagon, responded by conjuring up allegations that had never surfaced before, including a claim that Shaker “lived on stipends in Afghanistan paid by [Osama] bin Laden.” As Moazzam explained in response, “I find that really funny because we used to live together in the same house … I know he didn’t have any stipends from anybody.”
What makes his continued detention particularly galling is that he has, officially, been cleared for release from Guantánamo by the authorities, as part of a series of annual reviews designed to ascertain who is still regarded as dangerous and/or of ongoing intelligence value, and who can be released. On this basis, he should have been on the plane that flew Binyam Mohamed back from Guantánamo on February 23, but he was not. Compounding this lingering injustice — and demonstrating that, when it comes to releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, the whims of the Bush administration are still in effect — the Independent reported that a party of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, who visited Binyam at Guantánamo before his release, also had “limited contact” with Shaker, and that a spokesman for the FCO explained that “the Americans had told the British Government that they still had security concerns about Mr. Aamer and would not release him.”
It is, surely, time for this long travesty of justice — which has appalled Shaker Aamer to the core of his being and has driven him to the edge of his sanity — to come to an end.
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).