Update 10/30, 3:30pm EST: Shaker Aamer praised his supporters in a statement quoted by ITV News:
I feel obliged to every individual who fought for justice not just for me but to bring an end to Guantanamo.
Without knowing of their fight I might have given up more than once; I am overwhelmed by what people have done by their actions, their thoughts and their prayers and without their devotion to justice I would not be here in Britain now.
The reality may be that we cannot establish peace but we can establish justice. If there is anything that will bring this world to peace it is to remove injustice.
After more than thirteen years of torture, abuse, and unjust detention at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, Shaker Aamer has finally been released.
A British resident and father of four children who was born in Saudi Arabia, Aamer was cleared for release in 2007, when British foreign secretary David Miliband urged the U.S. to free him along with other British detainees. He was cleared for release again by President Barack Obama’s review task force in 2009.
Pressure by activists around the world and British officials increased significantly in recent years, and on January 16, British Prime Minister David Cameron was moved to mention Aamer’s case to Obama.
For some time, it seemed the U.S. might send him to Saudi Arabia, where there was a risk he would be subject to a sham trial. Aamer and his lawyers actively campaigned against any decision to transfer him to any country but the U.K, where his family lives. And, last month, the U.S. government notified the British government Aamer would be released.
One of his attorneys from Reprieve, Cori Crider, reacted, “We are, of course, delighted that Shaker is on his way back to his home and his family here in the U.K. It is long, long past time. Shaker now needs to see a doctor, and then get to spend time alone with his family as soon as possible.”
In 2013, Aamer declared, “The eyes of the world are the only thing that will ever get me home to my family.” For the most part, he was right.
A Window Into the Brutality of Guantanamo
Aamer wrote numerous letters from Guantanamo about the prison and what he endured. The letters were the expression of a strong and resolute individual, who maintained a sharp wit and remained committed to surviving so he could see his family again one day. They also were one of the few ways for the world to know the truth of what was happening in the prison.
He described in his first letter from Guantanamo in 2003:
I don’t know when I am coming out but pray for me that it will be soon. I cried a lot when you told me about how the kids talk to their cars and toys as if I am talking to them on the phone. Please try to be easy on them. Don’t send any pictures of the kids – it will make it hard on me here in jail.
In 2013, he was one of the prisoners involved in leading a massive hunger strike, which brought renewed focus on releasing innocent captives and closing the prison. He signed on to a letter pleading for independent medical doctors to be allowed to treat prisoners.
I do not wish to die, but I am prepared to run the risk that I may end up doing so, because I am protesting the fact that I have been locked up for more than a decade, without a trial, subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and denied access to justice. I have no other way to get my message across. You know the authorities have taken everything from me.
Shaker Aamer’s words were a window into how the U.S. military was suppressing a growing uprising within Guantanamo in 2013. The spark was an alleged violation of their Qurans. Aamer and others were subject to forcible cell removals by an “Emergency Reaction Force” known to have brutalized prisoners before.
Military personnel treated Aamer as if he was suicidal to justify isolating him in a cell block for disabled prisoners, which had not been used for several years. He suffered sleep deprivation because of noise in the cell block.
When asked if he wanted to harm himself, Aamer told a psychiatrist, “I have a wife and kids and I expect to be released sometime in the near future as I have been cleared for more than five years. It is not me who wants to harm me, but the [Obama] Administration that is harming me.”
Aamer was one of the leaders of a peaceful protest and hunger strike in 2011 as well. From Camp 5E, he and other prisoners condemned the “opening and continuing operation of this unjust detention facility for the ninth year of my continuing and indefinite detention in the absence of any real accusation or crimes committed,” and called himself a “hostage.”
He and others further castigated Obama and the U.S. government for failing to “remove the injustice” that had “befallen” them. He protested the deprivation of access to family calls and demanded prisoners be allowed to contact family at least once every fifteen days to talk to them for no less than two hours each time.
On or around July 26, 2005, Aamer helped prison authorities negotiate an end to a widespread hunger strike when multiple prisoners on strike had reached the “life-threatening stage.” He negotiated and not only pushed for better conditions but also for prisoners to be charged and tried or released.
The negotiations broke down and he was put in isolation for over 360 days despite the fact that prison rules only permit isolation for a period of 30 days.
During this chapter of his confinement, the prison showed disregard for the medical problems he suffered from: his asthma, arthritis, kidney pain, tinnitus, constant constipation and stomach pains. They did nothing about the living conditions causing him extreme pain.
“I Am Living Just to Die”
In 2014, Aamer penned a moving letter on Valentine’s Day, which marked the twelfth year of his detention. He arrived at Guantanamo on February 14, 2002, and his youngest child, Faris, was born. (He is thirteen now and Aamer will hug him for the first time today.)
“I feel lonely and lost. Not knowing my future is the worst torture,” Aamer declared. “I am living just to die. I am confused about everything and everyone. It is not enough for them to leave us alone with all this pain we are suffering. It is not enough for us to live only with our memories, which bring more pain.”
He suggested “dead people” were “better off” than Guantanamo prisoners.
“They are living a new way of life, knowing that they are dead and facing the consequences of their past actions,” Aamer contended. “But our suffering is endless—and with it, our loved ones’ suffering is endless. We are not dead but they forget us after a while, because they cannot see us or feel us and know how we truly are.”
Indeed, in 2005, his daughter, Johina, who is now 17, wrote to then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
“Can you please help me bring my dad any time? He was there for about 5 or 6 months. I wrote him many letters before. He used to love me when he was with us all. We all are sad and depressed. We used to cry a lot for him. Sometimes my mum cries a lot on her bed or on her chair and on the floor and I don’t know how to stop her. Sometimes when she used to cry then I cried.
“I want my dad back tomorrow,” Johina pleaded. She asked Straw to to help her dad get out from Guantanamo.
British Complicity in U.S. Torture and Detention of Aamer
Sadly, there is ample evidence British authorities and officials were indifferent to the pain and anguish of the Aamer family. They heard their protest but did not aggressively act to free Aamer.
Clive Stafford Smith, a Reprieve attorney who represented Aamer, previously alleged that Aamer could “describe in detail how a U.K. intelligence agent was present while he was beaten.”
“A British operative, he claims, was present as a U.S. interrogator repeatedly smashed his head against a wall shortly before he was sent to Guantanamo,” The Guardian reported in 2013. “Described as articulate and highly intelligent, Aamer’s allegations of British complicity in his torture and detention would undoubtedly reopen the vexed and fraught debate over British complicity in the darker side of America’s ‘war on terror.’ Aamer has already announced he is suing MI5 and MI6 for defamation.”
Aamer was captured in Afghanistan while doing charity work. As summarized by the advocacy organization, CAGE, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks, Aamer was separated from family.
“He got as far as Jalalabad where an Afghani family turned him in,” CAGE recounts [PDF]. “He was sold to the Northern Alliance who then subsequently handed him over to another group in Kabul. When he heard the sounds of American accents, he was filled with relief at the thought that at last he might be rescued, however, to his dismay he had only been sold again.”
While in custody at a U.S. military prison at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan, according to journalist Andy Worthington, Aamer “apparently called almost immediately for hunger strikes to protest about the abusive treatment to which the prisoners were subjected, and he also claimed that he was subjected to serious abuse by U.S. forces, but also in the presence of a British intelligence officer, after he was transferred to the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase. This was not revealed until December 2009, in a court case in the U.K., when a judge granted his lawyers access to information in the British government’s possession that dealt with his claims.”
Aamer recalled that while in Kandahar military officers jumped “up and down on me in their boots, on my back and head. Yelling about my religion, my family and my race. A soldier took the holy Quran and threw it in the shit bucket on the floor.”
Upon leaving Bagram, he was tied with other prisoners and forced to keep his hands in the air. Prisoners who could not keep their hands up were “hit on the head.”
He wrote back in 2005:
I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for many years… I have problems many problems from the filthy yellow water…I have lung problems from the chemicals they spread all over the floor…I am already arthritic at 40 because I sleep on a steel bed, and they use freezing air conditioning as part of the interrogation process. I have ruined eyes from the permanent, 24-hour fluorescent lights. I have tinnitus in my ears from the perpetual noise… I have ulcers and almost permanent constipation from the food. I have been made paranoid, so I can trust nobody, not even my lawyer. I was over 250 lbs. I dropped to 130 lbs in the hunger strike. 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
In 2012, Aamer likened his treatment to the torture in George Orwell’s “1984,” which became a favorite book of his while at Guantanamo.
“There is so much to say about the evil they do in this place, specially the small things that no one pay attention to it but one thing you need to know,” Aamer stated. “They control the air we breathe. Control the light, control the noise, control the food, control the water. They control everything and they use it against me any time they want. All that you need to know about this place you just need to read ‘1984’ by George Orwell.”
What the U.S. did to Aamer was deeply inhumane. He was robbed of the opportunity to see his children grow up. His children were robbed of an opportunity to have a father while they grew up. And yet now he is better off than dozens of Guantanamo prisoners who remain at the facility.
There are 112 prisoners, and a little less than half face no charges and are cleared for release. They continue to “live to die,” as Aamer put it, while Aamer and his family fortunately get to share in each other’s warmth for the first time in over thirteen years.