Who is responsible for the appalling denial of justice in the case of Shaker Aamer? Now released after a decade and a half in Guantanamo Bay, it seems unlikely that those responsible for the plight of this British citizen will pay anything near the price in loss of freedom, pain and physical and mental harm that Mr Aamer has endured.
The United States’ so-called war on terror was also supposed to be a fight for human rights, the rule of law and for universal principles of justice. Mr Aamer’s incarceration shows how flawed that very concept was. His survival has been a sort of moral victory, but, given the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine any American administration admitting that the US made mistakes and agreeing to make recompense and punish those responsible. The policy of detention in the judicial limbo of Guantanamo Bay was determined at the highest levels.
We do, though, have much more opportunity, and right, to know much more about what our own officials and ministers did during this long injustice. In the early years, did the British Government collude in the imprisonment of people without trial? Despite there being little or no evidence to go before a court, and without any charges laid against them? Did our intelligence services examine the evidence against Mr Aamer, such as it was? Did they know about allegations of torture? Did their political masters? Why were the Americans so reluctant to heed the pleas of British prime ministers to let Mr Aamer go free?
As Amnesty International put it, “given the time involved, the lengthy spells in solitary confinement and the torture allegedly used against him, Shaker Aamer’s plight has been one of the worst of all the detainees at Guantanamo”.
There is no need in this to be naive about many of those captured in the Tora Bora mountains after 9/11 and the UN-approved invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. There were evil people there, though, of course, many of the more obviously guilty, including Osama bin Laden himself, managed to elude capture. Yet, without evidence or trials of some sort we will never know the truth about many of those sold to the Americans by bounty hunters – not even rounded up by the Marine Corps.
Mr Aamer was one of those handed over in this way and his lawyers have not been allowed to see evidence that might actually prove his innocence. Ideally, some kind of trial would have examined that evidence and whatever part he supposedly played in terrorism. The next best thing now would be for the authorities to release such material to Mr Aamer, if not place it in the public domain.
Other former detainees at Guantanamo have received around £1m in compensation, though it would be hard to put a value on Mr Aamer’s deprivation of access to one of his children, born on the day he was incarcerated in Guantanamo in 2002. This is what is meant by the human right to a family life. Mr Aamer is a reason, indeed also a symbol, of why we need the Human Rights Act, because its existence in UK law compelled ministers to seek his release.
The police investigation into the allegations of torture launched in 2012 ran into the sand for want of evidence and they interviewed Mr Aamer at that time. Now he will be freer to speak and take action, although his health is reportedly not robust. Although they did not take the option of putting a bullet in the back of Mr Aamer’s head, he emerges from his ordeal a much damaged and changed individual. If he had been a terrorist and accomplice of Bin Laden, as the US agencies maintain, he could not have had a much worse time in any conventional jail.
Still, if he had been such a dangerous mastermind perhaps he should now be kept under lock and key indefinitely. America’s failure to provide proper evidence and pursue due procedure means that they could no longer detain him in any case. Logically, Mr Aamer is either likely to attempt further terrorism or he has been an innocent charity worker all along, but there is nothing that has suddenly happened in recent weeks to settle that because there has never been a trial.
A proper inquiry into the Aamer case has been promised by the Prime Minister. In the meantime, it seems clear that British officials failed to restore his liberty, and we should be told more about how energetically they pursued his case, given he was a Saudi citizen but with the strongest of family ties to Britain. The only thing that has driven Mr Aamer’s return seems to be the impending end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the delivery of his promise to shut down the Guantanamo detention camp. Mr Aamer, like anyone else, deserved better than that.
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