On 14th February 2002 Shaker Aamer became a father for the fourth time, his British wife Zin Siddique bearing him a son, Faris. On the same day, Aamer was incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay detention camp, where he has remained ever since. He has never met his youngest son, now aged 11. There has been no trial. He has never been convicted of, nor even charged with, any crime.
Shaker Aamer had been working for an Islamic charity in Afghanistan in 2001 when he was captured in Jalalabad and handed over to US officials. He was interrogated and then transported to Guantánamo Bay. Based on the evidence of a fellow detainee, Aamer was believed to have been working as a “recruiter, financier, and facilitator” for al-Qaeda. He has consistently denied all such allegations, and it was argued on his behalf by Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve that the evidence against him was unsafe, being inherently incredible and the product of false promises and even torture.
The Bush administration acknowledged that it had no evidence against Aamer and cleared him for release in 2007. The Obama administration cleared him for release in 2009. Four years on and Shaker Aamer continues to languish in the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, no charges preferred against him, no apparent bar to his release, his physical and mental health declining as he maintains a hunger strike – a glaring example of the most scandalous abuse of natural justice it is possible to imagine.
It has been speculated that Aamer “knows too much” about the goings-on inside the detention camp; allegations of torture have been made over the years, and Aamer himself has referred to instances where he has had his head beaten against a wall, and on one occasion waking from a severe beating to find a pistol on the table in his cell. It may be felt by some that it is the potential embarrassment to the authorities, consequent upon Aamer being free to speak out, that is the reason behind his continuing imprisonment – not any outstanding issue of national security.
Aamer is a charismatic and eloquent man, sometimes described as the “unofficial spokesman of the detainees”, so it may well be that there is something for some people to fear in what he might have to say when he is fully at liberty to speak. Clive Stafford Smith again: “I have known Shaker for some time; because he is so eloquent and outspoken about the injustices of Guantánamo he is very definitely viewed as a threat by the US. Not in the sense of being an extremist but in the sense of being someone who can rather eloquently criticise the nightmare that happened there.” Whatever the reason, there can be no excuse. The governments of the UK and the US agree that Aamer should be released: there is no charge against him; there is no evidence against him. And yet there he remains having already served longer, and in the harshest of prison regimes, than many a convicted murderer.
The US stands accused in the light of this scandalous situation of behaviour it would roundly condemn if perpetrated by a regime in a third-world country. The UK in its ineffectual stance over efforts to release Aamer, stands complicit in such a charge. Neither country emerges with any credit intact over such a blatant injustice, maintained over such a long period of time. The situation demeans both nations, and casts into a dubious light their mantra of “freedom over fundamentalism, democracy over dictatorship”. In allowing the incarceration of Shaker Aamer to continue, along with that of his fellow detainees who are also imprisoned without charge or trial, the leading lights of the western world are in danger of having their credibility shredded by their failure to act where the dictates of justice and the principles of democracy clearly indicate that urgent action is required.
The viewpoint of some of the public in this country, hearing of Shaker Aamed’s plight on national radio, is perhaps predictable in the climate since 9/11 and particularly this past week since the Woolwich atrocity. But it is nevertheless cause for head-shaking despair at the ease with which people are hoodwinked into ignorant bigotry. “Why are you running this item?” demanded one irate texter. “I am white, British and proud.” Others cited pearls of wisdom such as: “no smoke without fire”, or “well he’s not even a British citizen.” Yet this is a human being, acknowledged by successive political leaders of the nation that has deprived him of liberty and family life for eleven years as “clear to be freed”. That has been his status for the last five years. And yet still he rots away in his prison cell, subjected to daily humiliation and ill-treatment, missing his family growing up. It’s difficult to imagine a more appalling Human Rights abuse, and yet this is being condoned and allowed to continue by the self-styled “Leader of the Free World”. And there are people who applaud this, and recoil in apparent disgust at attempts to stand up for the rights of those detained without trial. It’s almost too depressing for words.
It’s not just the US either. Up to 90 Afghans are held without charge at Camp Bastion by UK forces, allegedly “for their own safety”. This has been described as a “mini Guantánamo Bay” – and when the name of a detention camp is used as a byword for all that is wrong with the legal process and principles behind such imprisonment, you know that there is something fundamentally wrong. Guantánamo Bay may not have the genocidally evil resonance of Auschwitz, Dachau or Belsen, but the metaphorical application is not a million miles away.
Shaker Aamer’s family now live in Battersea in South London. His wife has been ill since he was incarcerated eleven years ago; she has suffered from depression and other episodes of mental health disorder. Aamer himself is worried about how things will be when he finally is released, a prospect he views with touching confidence that it will actually happen; yet with some trepidation too. “I may find it difficult to respond to being called Dad,” he says. “Maybe my kids will have to call me Prisoner 239”. In January 2010, his 12-year-old daughter Johina wrote a letter to then UK Premier Gordon Brown asking for his release. This was three years after President Bush cleared him for freedom and one year after Obama did the same thing. In 2011, Aamer’s father-in-law Saeed Siddique commented, “When he was captured, Shaker offered to let my daughter divorce him, but she said, ‘No, I will wait for you.’ She is still waiting.”