Torture settlement brings hope to last British inmate in Guantanamo

Britain presses US to free Shaker Aamer after almost nine years in detention
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The Independent Online

The Government has agreed to step up its efforts to bring home the last Briton held at Guantanamo Bay as part of a multimillion-pound settlement to end legal action over allegations of MI5's complicity in torture.

Shaker Aamer, one of the 16 British nationals and residents to benefit from the compensation deal announced this week, has been held at the US naval base for nearly nine years. Concern over Mr Aamer's detention formed part of the negotiations between the former inmates and the Ministry of Justice.

Moazzam Begg, who was released from US custody without charge in 2005, confirmed that the British detainees agreed to drop their legal claims against the Government only after being reassured that Britain would do everything in its power to return Mr Aamer to the UK.

This raises questions about whether Mr Aamer is bound by the settlement, as he was not directly party to the negotiations. Should he be released he may be free to continue his legal action in the UK. Mr Aamer, 42, who has not been charged with any crime, is married to a British national and lived with their four children in London before he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002.

Mr Begg said: "Most of all, we wanted the last remaining British prisoner, Shaker Aamer, reunited with his family. That is why he is one of the claimants in absentia – and why we told the Government that having Shaker back was more important to us than any settlement amount they were offering. We are pleased to see that the Government has placed his case back on priority."

Mr Begg denies that any claimants received £1m in compensation.

Mr Aamer's case was raised by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, on Wednesday when he met Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, in Washington. Mr Aamer's supporters believe the settlement represents a breakthrough in the campaign to have the south London man returned to the UK. They argue that the US security agencies would have been appeased by the decision to reach agreement with the British Guantanamo detainees and end the litigation.

The Obama administration had expressed its dismay at the threat of further court-ordered releases of sensitive CIA intelligence while the torture cases were being litigated in the UK. A spokesman for the Foreign Office confirmed that the Aamer case was a priority for the Government but that the "ultimate decision" on his release was for the Obama administration.

News of renewed action on Mr Aamer's case came after opponents of President Barack Obama's plans to shut Guantanamo Bay and try detainees in the regular US court system seized on a mixed verdict delivered in the case of the African embassy bomber Ahmed Ghailani as proof that they will not work and should be abandoned.

"It's an embarrassment," said Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, saying that he hoped the outcome would persuade the Attorney General, Eric Holder, that terror suspects and the civilian judiciary do not belong together.

The first Guantanamo prisoner to be tried on US soil, Ghailani was convicted of conspiracy to blow up government buildings in connection with the al-Qa'ida attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998. He was acquitted of more than 280 other charges against him, including counts of murder for each of the 224 killed.

While Justice Department officials said that he would serve a minimum of 20 years because of the one guilty verdict and perhaps even life, the outcome of the trial is one more political setback for Mr Obama, who promised on taking office to close Guantanamo within 12 months.

Mr Obama's original plan envisioned sending some Guantanamo inmates back to their homelands and moving the remainder to a refurbished and isolated prison in Illinois. Political resistance grew quickly, however. His position became still more difficult when the Justice Department said it intended to try to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other masterminds of the 9/11 attacks in a New York City courthouse, and then reversed itself after officials in New York made clear they were not ready to have the trial there.