Shaker Aamer: Guantanamo's last British detainee
He was supposed to return to Britain in 2007 – but Shaker Aamer is still being held inside Camp Delta. Who is this charismatic prisoner? And what happened to him at the hands of MI5? Robert Verkaik reports
Wednesday 03 March 2010
Those who were there compare it to a scene from The Shawshank Redemption or Cool Hand Luke, the moment when the hero-prisoner finally emerges squinting from the darkness of solitary confinement. In those classic movies, prisoners bang their cell doors in admiration; even the guards acknowledge respect. It's the triumph of the human spirit over a brutal system, the transient moment power is handed from the prison to the prisoner.
Such a moment happened in 2005 at Guantanamo Bay, America's most famous jail. Shaker Aamer, a Muslim man from London, was the inmate stubbornly refusing to bend to the will of the governor when he led a protest against the Guantanamo authorities, co-ordinating a hunger strike which succeeded in briefly lifting the harsh regime of the camp. It may have been the defining moment in Shaker Aamer's incarceration. As he was led back from the Guantanamo medical centre to the main prison block the whole prison erupted in applause.
Accompanying Aamer to his cell, the Guantanamo warden, Colonel Michael Bumgarner, recalls the prisoners' respect was only too apparent: "I have never seen grown men – with beards, hardened men – crying at the sight of another man ... It was like I was with Bon Jovi."
Shaker Aamer has now been held at the US naval base in Cuba for more than eight years, and such is his influence over other inmates – and even some of the guards – that he has been held in solitary confinement for three of the last four years.
Since his arrival in Guantanamo in early 2002, following capture in Afghanistan, Aamer's fluency in Arabic and English has earned him the role of unofficial spokesman for the prisoners. He speaks up for their welfare and doesn't hesitate to chastise the camp commanders when he witnesses cruel treatment. He is responsible for the establishment of a prisoners' grievance council and he has helped force the commanders to deal with inmates under the terms of the Geneva Conventions. Even the meals the prisoners eat are based on a healthier diet which Aamer personally negotiated after he agreed to end the hunger strike.
Aamer, who worked as an Arabic translator for London law firms, has also made it his business to familiarise himself with the Guantanamo Bay rule book, and he now knows the disciplinary codes better than some of the guards in charge of implementing them. There are stories of soldiers who disagree with his interpretation of the rules scuttling off to consult with the warden only to discover that Aamer, scholar of the regulations, was right after all. His resolute determination not to bend under Guantanamo's brutal oppression has brought him notoriety in the camp. And, largely through his charismatic personality, he has attracted a loyal following, especially among the Guantanamo shahab, the young Muslim prisoners who regard him as something of a demagogue.
But this high profile comes with a price. Of all the 200 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, Aamer is kept in the harshest of conditions – in solitary confinement, in a cell 6ft by 8ft, with 24-hour exposure to light and next to a noisy generator in a camp that is now empty of three quarters of its prisoners. According to his lawyers, Aamer has suffered some of the worst tortures experienced by any of the inmates and a succession of hunger strikes has left him weighing half his original 17st.
There are those who still believe that for the Americans to go to so much trouble to isolate one prisoner, Aamer must be a high-value detainee, a key al-Qa'ida operative bent on the destruction of the West.
Shaker Aamer, 42, grew up in Medina in Saudi Arabia with his four brothers and sisters. His parents divorced when he was a child, his father remarrying. According to his friends who knew him at the time, his stepmother was unkind to her new family and at the age of 17, Shaker ran away to America to stay with a family he had known from home. He spent the next few years travelling in Europe and the Middle East before moving to London in 1996 when he met his wife, Zin. Their first child, Johina, was born in 1997 then Michael in 1999, and Saif a year later.
The Americans claim that Aamer based himself in Britain because it was a convenient place from which to support an armed conflict in Bosnia and Chechnya. But his friends say he put his family at the centre of his life in London; his wife talks of him being a hands-on father who changed nappies without complaint.
Outwardly, he led a respectable existence, working as an Arabic translator for a firm of London solicitors specialising in immigration cases. In his free time he helped refugees find accommodation and offered them advice on their struggles with the Home Office.
It was during this period that Aamer met Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee released in 2005, who shared his religious duty of zakat – a responsibility to improve the conditions of impoverished Islamic societies. In 2001, the pair took their families to Afghanistan to help build schools in parts of the country where few children receive an education. Even then, Moazzam Begg remembers his friend's strength of will. "He is vociferous in his views, especially when he is helping others, but he is funny as well. People who meet him tend not to forget him. My father only met him once but he still talks about Shaker."
Begg last saw Shaker Aamer in late 2001 when the Northern Alliance launched its offensive against the Taliban. "We worked on the same project and we were sharing a house. When the cruise missiles started falling on Kabul I took his wife and children and led them to a cellar and put mattresses over the windows. We separated and went to different villages south west of Kabul. It wasn't a tearful farewell because we thought we would be reunited after the bombing stopped in a few days' time. I didn't know it would be the last time I would see him."
Begg and Aamer were captured by tribal militias before their transfer to Guantanamo.
"I never saw him at the camp because we were held in solitary confinement. But I knew he was there. The only contact I had with him was when the guards passed a message to me to say that his child had been born. I sent a message back saying the same thing [Moazzam Begg's child was born during his captivity in Guantanamo]."
Aamer's wife, Zin, who has found it difficult to bear the strain of being separated from her husband for so many years, says it was Shaker's idea to leave their London home in the summer of 2001 because he felt frustrated at not having a proper home to bring up his family.
She told The Independent in 2007: "The council couldn't find us a flat or house in London so we decided to leave. Shaker was always helping people in England and he wanted to help the children of Afghanistan, but wasn't sure whether he should be teaching or helping build a hospital."
She vividly remembers the invasion: "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."
Zin recalls: "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?"
Shaker Aamer was captured in December 2001 by the Americans, who claim he was fighting with the Taliban. Reprieve, the human rights group which was representing him, maintains that he was sold by villagers to the Northern Alliance who in turn sold him on to the Americans.
The US has accused Shaker Aamer of a whole host of fanciful charges ranging from being Osama Bin Laden's personal interpreter to "being introduced to a humanitarian charity". But the truth is he has never met Bin Laden and until 2000 he had never heard of al-Qa'ida. In 2007 the Bush administration conceded it had no evidence against Shaker Aamer and he was cleared for release with the other British detainees.
Aamer's lawyers believed he would be soon reunited with his family in London. Last year when it was announced that Binyam Mohamed was to returned to Britain, hopes were raised that Shaker Aamer would also be aboard the Gulfstream jet that flew out of Guantanamo. But when the plane touched down at RAF Northolt almost a year ago, Mohamed was the sole passenger. Aamer's family, Zin and their four children, including the boy that he has never seen, were devastated. In public the case for his release has become a diplomatically charged issue with Britain repeatedly making requests to the Obama administration for Aamer's release.
The Americans, who have called on other countries to help them close Guantanamo, say he can be released and the British want him home. But behind the scenes it may suit both governments to keep him where he is. Lawyers for Shaker Aamer have lodged a torture claim in the High Court in London where it is alleged that MI5 and MI6 agents were present when he was badly beaten by CIA officers in Afghanistan in 2002. If true, it would be more powerful evidence of British involvement in the torture of British suspects held by the Americans during the war on terror.
The Government and the Security Service MI5 – reeling from judicial condemnation of their actions in relation to the treatment of Binyam Mohamed when he was detained by the US – must fear more damaging allegations played out in public.
Binyam Mohamed, who occupied a cell one door down from Aamer, believes he knows why neither Governments want to see Aamer released.
He even raised the question of Shaker Aamer with British officials on his flight home last year: "I spoke to the Foreign and Commonwealth officers on the plane about Shaker, and they did say that he was meant to be on the plane, and the UK had requested from the US for his release."
Mohamed told Moazzam Begg in an interview last year that he thought Aamer's continued detention had more to do with what the prisoner knows about the suicides of three detainees in 2006. "I would say the Americans are trying to keep him as silent as they could. It's not that he has anything. What happened in 2005 and 2006 is something that the Americans don't want the world to know – hunger strikes, and all the events that took place, until the three brothers who died ... insider information of all the events, probably. Obviously, Shaker doesn't have it, but the Americans think he may have some of it, and they don't like this kind of information being released."
Mohamed's theory is supported by a new investigation of the suicides conducted by American law professor Scott Horton who claims that the deaths may have been the result of abuses committed at Guantanamo and that Shaker Aamer may have suffered similar treatment on the same night the men died.
The three men were all found hanged in their cells with cloth gags stuffed in their mouths. Shaker Aamer has said that he too was gagged and beaten by guards but somehow survived. Nevertheless his lawyers believe it is what happened to him before he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay that may support a motive for the UK Government's failure to secure his release.
Aamer's allegations against the secret services, which the UK Government denies, are now the subject of the court case in which he claims he was brutally tortured. Last month it emerged in court that Scotland Yard had begun investigating Aamer's allegations of British involvement in his torture; his lawyers say that because he is a witness in a Scotland Yard criminal investigation, the UK has a duty under international law to bring him back to London to help the police.
In a statement made to his London lawyers, Birnberg Peirce, Aamer says he was taken to a prison at the Bagram Airbase in 2002. In his own words Aamer alleges: "After a few days of sleep deprivation they took me to the interrogation room and the intelligence team started coming one after another and the room was full, up to 10 or more. One of them, a British MI5 agent, was standing and they started talking to me in different languages – English, French, Arabic – and shouting. I started shouting with them and after that I do not know what happened. All I know is that I felt someone grab my head and start beating my head into the back wall – so hard that my head was bouncing. And they were shouting that they would kill me or I would die. After this, they left the room and told to think and tell them the truth or I would die."
He says he was left alone with a gun on top of a table: "I did not know what to make of this. Do they want me to kill myself or do they want me to touch it so they can shoot me and say that I tried to shoot them? I was just sitting looking scared."
During these torture interrogations Aamer says he made false confessions before he was moved to Guantanamo Bay on 13 February 2002. His lawyers claim his ill-treatment continued at Guantanamo Bay and included beatings, sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of temperature, force feeding and years of solitary confinement.
The last person outside Guantanamo to have seen Shaker Aamer is American lawyer, Brent Mickum, an experienced attorney who represents a number of high-profile suspects, such as Abu Zubaydah, described by George Bush as al-Qa'ida's chief of operations. The CIA has admitted subjecting Zubaydah to brutal tortures, including waterboarding or simulation drowning.
The first meeting between Mickum and Aamer, which took place in May last year, got off to a bad start. A visit to Guantanamo is an exercise in bureaucracy as much as a consultation between client and lawyer and it can take days before a visitor is granted clearance to come onto the base. When Mickum finally reported to the Guantanamo guard room he was told that Aamer didn't want to meet him. "I was really pissed off because I was there to help. I thought I've come all this way and he can't be bothered to see me."
But Mickum says the situation was not as it had been portrayed by the camp's authorities. "He's allowed to refuse to see anyone he doesn't want to see. And if they don't tell him that it was me [his lawyer], he thinks it's someone from the camp and declines the visit. He knows the rules."
Later that morning Mickum managed to persuade the guards to pass a note to Aamer and finally the visit was approved.
"I had heard a lot about Shaker from the other Brits, Bisher and Jamil [Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna were both released from Guantanamo in 2007] so I was expecting a forceful personality."
The man waiting for Mickum in the visitors' room was gaunt with a beard and long black hair tied back in a pony tail. He was sitting at a table with his feet and hands shackled. "I persuaded the guard to free his hands but he refused to shake my hand. He was very angry and I don't blame him for being angry. He gave me a letter setting out his many complaints. He has the right to be distrustful of America. But I had to get through to him about what I was doing here. I said here's who I am and what I intend to do in his case."
Before the interview was cut short by Mickum's appointment with Zubayda in the afternoon, the lawyer passed on some advice to his British client.
"I advised him to try to get on because that is in your interest. I said the most important thing is to get you home and when you are home and safe you can say what the fuck you want. At the end of the meeting he got up, smiled, shook my hand very firmly and said, 'They told me you were strong.'"
Four months later Mickum flew back to Guantanamo to see Aamer a second time but the prisoner again declined the visit. For two days Mickum tried to see his client without success, leaving the lawyer no choice but to return home.
Then, in December last year, he was allowed a telephone call with Aamer. "The line was bad and I could hardly hear him. I told him that the last time I came down, they said you didn't want to see me. But he said that wasn't true and in fact he couldn't see me because he was being 'ERFed' [the deployment of an Extreme Reaction Force when guards storm a cell and subject the prisoner to beatings and restraints]. He couldn't see me because he was hog-tied in his cell." That was the last contact Aamer had with the outside world.
Mickum believes there are now serious attempts to force Aamer to agree to a transfer to Saudi Arabia whose government has a "rehabilitation programme" for troublesome former Guantanamo detainees with difficult stories to tell.
"Funnily enough once they go to Saudi they never seem to get their story out," says Mickum who last month was granted access to classified documents released in America that many believe will confirm Aamer's allegations of torture, including those made against British agents.
Until these documents are declassified Mickum can't say what they show. But he does say this: "Shaker is a political problem, he is a public relations nightmare. The British problem is that they were present at some of his torture. But the difference between your country and mine is that if they get into court and are required to tell the truth, the impression I have is that they eventually do tell the truth. I think that they know they are in for a tough time if Shaker comes back. And there is no doubt in my mind that if David Miliband and Gordon Brown said to the US, your most staunch ally, give him back, the US would acquiesce."
The story of Shaker Aamer may one day be made into a film. And if it is it will recount how one man's extraordinary personality overcame one of the most brutal prisons systems in the world. But more than that, it is also a story that has the potential to shame two nations.
The British inmates
The Tipton Three
Shafiq Rasul, 32, Ruhal Ahmed, 28, and Asif Iqbal, 29, called "the Tipton Three" after the town from which they hail in the West Midlands. The trio were captured and taken into US custody in November 2001 in Afghanistan. After they were released in March 2004 they reported receiving significant abuse while incarcerated in Guantanamo. rob sharp
A father of four from Birmingham, Begg, 41, moved to Kabul to run an Islamic bookstore in July 2001 before being imprisoned by the US, first in Bagram Internment Facility in eastern Afghanistan and then Guantanamo Bay, between February 2002 and January 2005. Was released with Richard Belmar, Martin Mubanga and Feroz Abbasi.
Abbasi was born in Uganda in October 1979 and his family moved to the UK when he was eight. He studied computing in Surrey, becoming increasingly religious and attending Finsbury Park mosque. The last time his mother, Zumrati Juma, saw him was in December 2000 when he announced he was going to Afghanistan. Arrested a year later by US forces in Kunduz, Afghanistan, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Martin Mubanga, 37, a joint Zambian and British citizen from Wembley, northwest London, Mubanga was arrested in Zambia in March 2002 after travelling in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He says after his arrest a British intelligence officer told him his passport had been found in Afghanistan along with documents listing Jewish groups in New York.
From Marylebone, London, Belmar, 30, trained as a mechanic and worked for the Post Office before converting to Islam in 1999. After a spell in Pakistan he travelled to Afghanistan to study at a religious school in July 2001. He was arrested in Pakistan in February 2002, handed to US authorities and held at Bagram, before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay that December.
Mohamed, 31, was born in Ethiopa in July 1979 and sought political asylum in Britain in 1994. Visited Afghanistan in 2001, allegedly spending 45 days in a training camp. Arrested in Pakistan in 2002 trying to board a flight on a false British passport. Held in Guantanamo September 2004 and February 2009.
A 32-year-old a former care worker for the elderly in east London. Believed captured in the Tora Bora mountains by the Taliban after the US military onslaught in 2002. One of his arms was amputated after he was wounded. Contacted his family to say he was held by the Taliban, then came into the custody of the US military. Sent to Guantanamo in May 2002 and released in March 2004.
(also known as Jamal Al Harith), 43. Born in Manchester as Ronald Fiddler to church-going Jamaican parents, web designer Udeen converted to Islam in his 20s. Held in Guantanamo Bay between February 2002 and March 2004. Claims he was visiting Pakistan and strayed into Afghanistan by mistake, where the Taliban held him and handed him to US forces.
Bisher al-Rawi, 49, Jamil el-Banna, 57, Omar Deghayes, 49 and Ahmed Errachidi (also known as Ahmed Rashidi), 43, Al-Rawi is an Iraqi with British residency, el-Banna and Deghayes are Jordanian and Libyan and were awarded refugee status, Errachidi was a Moroccan given "indefinite leave" to remain in the UK. Released in April, August, December and May 2007 respectively.
Born in Algiers in 1969, Ahmed Belbacha, 39, worked in England for two-and-a-half years before he was refused asylum status. Currently he is in limbo: he has been cleared for release but fears going back to Algeria where he thinks he will be tortured, and so he chooses to remain in Guantanamo Bay.
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