On September 24th 2015, US congress announced that 13 years after the arrest of its most notable prisoner, Guantanamo Bay would finally be releasing Shaker Aamer.
The last British resident to remain in US captivity, father of four young children and husband to an extremely dedicated wife (Aamer’s father-in-law has previously spoken of Aamer’s offer to willingly allow his daughter to divorce him after his arrest which she declined, saying ‘No, I will wait for you’ -a statement she has stood by right up until this very day). The 46-year-old is now being held for a further 30-day ‘waiting period’ after which- once bureaucracy is satisfied- he may return to his home and family in the UK.
The release of Aamer is a controversial subject for a number of reasons, perhaps the most prominent being that throughout his entire time in captivity, he has neither been charged with nor bought to stand trial for any crime.
Aamer grew up in Medina, Saudi Arabia but left at the age of 17, deciding instead to travel to Europe before settling in the US where he attended University in both Georgia and Maryland. Shortly after graduating, he began working as a translator for the U.S army during which time he visited much of the Middle East before finally relocating to the UK. Here he met his British wife, Zin Siddique and the couple later began a family. During this period in the UK, Aamer worked as a translator for various Law firms in London whilst devoting his free time to helping incoming refugees who were facing struggles with the home office. In 2001, Aamer’s work took him to Kabul, Afghanistan where he began volunteering for an Islamic charity during the chaotic aftermath of US bombings. It was here that he was abducted by members of the Northern Alliance and promptly sold to US intelligence, who firmly believed that he had been a key figure in terrorism, accusing him of both financing Al Qaeda and aiding Osama Bin Laden. Initially vehemently denying the accusations, his US captives began mentally and physically torturing him. Keeping him hooded and shackled, regularly beating him until he eventually cracked, agreeing to their accusations. He was moved to Guantanamo bay on Valentines day 2002.
Despite being cleared for release twice, first by George W Bush and then President Obama, Aamer remained imprisoned in the military base for 13 long, turbulent years. The news of his release last month sparked an outcry of relief for both his family and the huge number of campaigners who have regularly pushed for this moment. It also synchronously raised the question: could his release mark a significant turning point in the prolonged battle to close Guantanamo bay down?
On his return to the UK, Aamer will be the recipient of a £1 million payout from the British government by means of ‘compensation’ for his traumatic rendition at the hands of US intelligence. No doubt he will be thoroughly vetted and debriefed by government security services, who will do their best to play down any stories of torture and violation of human rights, as they have previously done before.
Since its establishment in January 2002 as a ‘place to detain extraordinarily dangerous people, interrogate detainees and prosecute detainees for war crimes’, Guantanamo has become less of a high security prison, built to sustain the safety of a nation against the on-going threat of terrorism; and more of a sadistic playground in which the the twisted minds of the powerful and elite can pick and chose any number of innocent victims to torture. Despite Bush administration frequently denying stories of torturous conditions during his chaotic stint as president and team Obama regularly playing down rumours of abuse; photos and video footage emerged painting a very different picture of life inside Guantanamo bay. With rumours quickly mounting, the military curtain was eventually pulled back on the detention centre some years ago, providing a small and select number of journalists with a rare opportunity to ‘tour’ the camp. The result was even more horrifying than anyone could have anticipated- despite communication between journalists and inmates being denied due to Article 13 of the Geneva convention- news of force-feeding, waterboarding, starvation, prolonged and painful stress positions, solitary confinement and sexual assault were quickly uncovered. These stories were only intensified by the release of several inmates, who went on to expose in graphic detail, first-hand experiences of life behind Guantanamo bars. Although a supreme court ruling in 2006 should have meant that inmates were covered under Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which clearly states that the following acts were to remain prohibited within Guantanamo: “(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment”, it became evidently clearly that this ruling was not (and still is not) being upheld.
In March of this year during an empowering economic speech in Cleveland Ohio, US president Barack Obama was asked by an audience member what advice he would have given himself upon his early days of entering the White House. His reply, ‘“I think I would have closed Guantánamo on the first day” before pledging to do just that, sent the nation into a frenzy. If the president of the United States himself is acknowledging the need for the camp’s closure, then why the hell is it still a fully financed and functioning institution? Despite the number of detainees having fallen steeply in the past 14 years, from 775 at its highest to just 116 as of June 2015, the majority of prisoners are yet to have any specific charges bought against them and so are, for all intents and purposes, innocent men. Although in recent interviews it is clear that Obama now has a more imminent urge to have the prison closed down, (whether this is due to his personal feelings towards the situation or mounting pressure from various campaigners and the general public is still unclear). He faces continuous opposition from both US congress and former vice-president Dick Cheyney, who has repeatedly claimed that the presence of the prison makes America a ‘safer place’, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. What Cheyney obviously fails to realise is that America is no more ‘safer’ WITH Guantanamo than it is without it- innocent men are held in a high-security prison whilst the real terrorists and criminals are still out there controlling, financing and killing. The U.S. federal courts’ record for prosecuting terrorists is far greater than Guantanamo military commissions ever has been and likely, ever will be. Thus, Cheyney’s remarks and Congress’ reasoning for maintaining Guantanamo’s operations remain unjustified. Furthermore, the costs associated with it’s existence (an estimated $3 million a year per detainee) are hugely disproportionate in comparison to its trial success rate. Add to this the consequent damage it has bought to US relationships with key allies, and America can no longer be seen as the fair and just nation it once proclaimed to be.
As commander in chief, Obama is responsible for carrying out an effective foreign policy whilst upholding the human rights and reputation of his nation. But with the camp still running, Its difficult to see how he is effectively performing these duties. However, with the upcoming release of Shaker Aamer, there is now a strong possibility that the situation surrounding Guantanamo could progress at a much quicker pace. With Aamer and his plight having gained such a tremendous amount of media attention worldwide and with a strong, prevalent support network surrounding him. It may well be that Aamer utilises his new-found position as a key-player within the American political system to help bring Guantanamo to a complete shut down once and for all. His release has not only bought the on-goings of Guantanamo bay to the forefront of international news and thus, our minds. It has bought together a nation of people who are no longer prepared to sit and wait around for Obama to uphold his pledge to put an end to the political torture chamber that is Guantanamo.