Last British Prisoner Released From Guantanamo
February 24, 2016
Shaker Aamer was released after 14 years of incarceration, where he was once beaten by his American interrogators in the presence of a British official. Shaker Aamer was never charged with any crime. He had been cleared for release by U.S. authorities in 2007, but was never freed until today. Even Prime Minister David Cameron pleaded his release at a meeting with President Obama in January. Here to discuss his case and the future plans for Guantanamo Bay detainees is Shayana Kadidal. Shayana is the senior managing attorney of the Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.
Video and full transcript below:
PERIES: So Shayana, explain to us what has taken so long for the U.S. officials in terms of Aamer's release.
KADIDAL: Sure. Well, it's a little bit of a mystifying case, because he was cleared for release by the military itself as far back as 2007. And who knows, maybe even earlier than that. But that puts him into the category of people who you would have expected would have moved out of Guantanamo a long time ago. I mean, the last British nationals, I believe, citizens who were back in the UK by about 2005. Then there were another couple people who had residency of some form or another in the UK, either asylum or permanent residency. And the last of them, other than Shaker Aamer, were back in 2009. And so here we are, six years later, and he finally goes back. You know, there have been--there's been a lot of speculation about why somebody who seems like such a low-priority detainee, that he was cleared for years and years, would take so long to, to be released. And the best we can figure is this, that he, we know, is extremely charismatic, extremely well-spoken. Was sort of a leadership figure among the detainees. And he speaks English. And on top of that he would be going back to England, a place where he would have access to Western, English-language media. And so, you know, I think the common belief among all of [us] habeus council has been that the reason he wasn't sent back long ago is simply that the U.S. government wanted to shut him up, that they didn't want him out there being able to tell his story, in English, coming from a very charismatic guy who had lived in the West for a very, very long time, being an English resident. They didn't want that constant kind of public relations hit, of having someone who could actually communicate to the American public what it's like to be in Guantanamo and endure some horrific abuse, as he certainly did.
PERIES: Shayana, give us a sense of Aamer himself. What was he really accused of? Tell us a little bit about his life, what has happened in the last 14 years, and so on.
KADIDAL: Sure. He had moved, I believe, his family to Afghanistan in 2001. He says that he was working for a Muslim charity at the time in Afghanistan, and then was kind of one of the many foreigners who was swept up because people locally, whether they're warlords or hungry villagers or whoever, knew that the Americans were paying huge bounties for anybody who was foreign in Afghanistan. As one of our council likes to say, this is like the equivalent of driving while black in post-9/11 Afghanistan. If you were an Arab or any kind of non-Afghan foreigner the Americans would pay $5,000 a head for you. And that's probably what happened with him. He was, I believe, picked up by northern alliance folks and sent off to the Americans, where he was held at Bagram, beaten terribly there, and went to Guantanamo. And the same sorts of really kind of violent, physical abuse happened to him. He's kind of a large man, big tall guy. And I think that combined with the fact that he's pretty outspoken and speaks English probably attracted a lot of negative attention. But by the time about 2004-2005 rolled around, he had kind of become an intermediary between the detainees and the authorities. You know, which was actually the kind of person that the authorities really prized, right. If there was a hunger strike going on because of abuse of the Quran, Shaker could come in and kind of mediated between the authorities and the detainees. But at some point I think the authorities decided oh, he must be orchestrating a lot of this stuff, and they moved him off into solitary confinement. And he largely spent the next decade, until his release today, in solitary.
PERIES: And I understand he has a son that he has never seen in the last 14 years.
KADIDAL: And a daughter who I believe is 17, so she was very small, and I think a small son when he was taken into custody as well.
PERIES: Right. Now, what happened between 2007 and now? Why was he not released in 2007?
KADIDAL: Right. I think at the outset there was some question about whether or not the English government was demanding in private his repatriation as strongly as they maybe were saying in public. But I think those kind of concerns have gradually dispelled over the years. And it seemed pretty clear that the English government wanted him back.
PERIES: And I understand that even the Prime Minister had raised this issue with Obama in a meeting in January, and had asked for his release. But he also stated something very interesting, that he wanted to [assist] President Obama shut down Guantanamo. What does that mean?
KADIDAL: That's right. Meaning, you know, this would be one less detainee in Guantanamo. So it's interesting. Shaker is nominally a Saudi national, even though he had residency and his whole family lives in England. His wife is English. And so our, you know, our sense again from ten years back was that maybe the U.S. would have preferred to have him be sent to Saudi Arabia where it's essentially a police state and you know, maybe he wouldn't see the light of day, or at least in terms of media exposure if he were in Saudi rather than in the UK. So you know, who knows what was going on behind closed doors with the diplomatic dealings with the various countries involved. Plenty of other people went back to Saudi Arabia between 2007 and now, and he didn't. So you know, again, the whole thing seems to kind of potentially tie back to whether or not the U.S. was going to have to deal with the public relations blowback of having an articulate spokesman out there talking about what happened to him.
PERIES: Now, even upon his release there were some innuendos that this might be a security risk. In fact, a British official said that they wanted to ensure that the public was still safe, et cetera. These kinds of references are not very helpful for somebody who's trying to resettle after all of these years back into society. What do you make of that?
KADIDAL: I think Some of that are things that they have to say in order to placate the Americans, right. I mean, anybody who's been transferred out of Guantanamo over the years, the U.S. has a list of basically five sort of demands that it makes of the receiving country, whether they're taking back their own citizen or whether it's someone who's being resettled for asylum, or someone in kind of a weird in-between situation like Shaker. Among other things, no international travel. They want the passports pulled. All the English detainees who were repatriated had their passports pulled for at least a couple years. They also want their, their travel within the country to be restricted. They want them to be subject to constant police oversight, right. So in a country like England that's a relatively open democracy, where all the post-9/11 policies tend to be directed at second and third-generation Pakistani and other foreign-born folks who are UK citizens, so the population understands that anything that's done to those folks also applies to everybody else in England, I think the response to the post-9/11 era has been somewhat more muted than in the United States. And so in order to justify doing those things that the Americans want, basically, constantly supervising someone--they'll have to say a little bit about being concerned, right, at some level, substantively. On the other hand, they also said before Shaker went back that they didn't anticipate that he would be put in detention at all. And so I think that, that speaks volumes right there.
PERIES: Shayana, I know no compensation is enough for what Aamer has suffered. But will he receive or will he be entitled to any compensation?
KADIDAL: Sure. Well, those are two questions on the compensation front, right. Will he receive anything from the United States, I think the answer right now is clearly no. Just a few weeks ago on October 5, the Supreme Court rejected, decided not to review a rejection of claims for three detainees who had been cleared for years when they were let go from Guantanamo, cleared by military panels in 2004, and they were still abused in all the usual ways. Getting beaten, sleep deprivation, forced shaving of their beards, not allowed to pray. All that stuff, even after the military itself said, oh, these are not enemy combatants. And it didn't say that about very many people. So because of a variety of legal technicalities, from sovereign immunity to the idea that these officials essentially were expected to beat people up in military detention because we were trying to wring intelligence out of them, the courts here have thrown out damages claims. So nothing's going to come from the U.S. unless Congress decides maybe 40 years from now, like it did for the Japanese-Americans, that we should compensate people who are cleared but held and abused in Guantanamo, right. On the UK end, however, there was a case brought by I think about a dozen former U.S. detainees where their allegations were that the British were somehow complicit in turning them over to the Americans, somehow complicit in the chain that led to them being abused. And because the courts in the UK are not so liable to throw cases involving intelligence agency dealings out of court for secrecy reasons in the UK, as they would be in the U.S., that case started to proceed along. And supposedly, in order to keep intelligence sort of information, sensitive dealings out of the courts and out of the public eye, the UK government decided to settle that case. Now, my understanding is that Shaker was one of the original claimants. And there were rumors that the individuals who settled in that case got somewhere like a million pounds each. I don't know if that's true or not. But it seemed like there might have been some substantial sums there, enough to kind of rebuild your life upon release. Shaker, my understanding is that he would have to go through a little bit of a process in order to get compensated. But the most interesting thing for me is that if we believe that a lot of money was given to a number of former Guantanamo detainees as a result of that settlement, it's interesting to hear that those detainees insisted as part of the settlement that the UK government make strenuous efforts in order to get Shaker back. Because as a fellow Briton they all knew him, and they knew he was really one of the last ones left when the settlement was concluded. So you know, he may be able to get something out of that process from the United Kingdom. The sad thing is that he won't get it from the country most responsible, the United States.
PERIES: Right. And then finally, what will become of Guantanamo Bay? Will President Obama follow through and close it?
KADIDAL: Well you know, you hear a lot about how the president is going to submit a plan to Congress in order to get their consent or cooperation in closing Guantanamo down, right. But we know what the plan is going to be. It's going to be the same idea they've had all along, which is to try to move detainees to third countries who will take them in out of the goodness of their hearts, basically, even though the U.S. hasn't taken in anyone cleared. This is mostly Yemenis now at this point who can't safely go home. We need to find some place to resettle them, for the most part. And so that's going to be a challenge in and of itself. But the other half of the plan is basically to pick up everybody who's left, including some people who they don't want to charge but don't particularly feel like releasing right now, and move them into the United States, and then declare mission accomplished and say that Guantanamo's been closed. To my way of thinking that's not a plan for closing Guantanamo, it's a plan for importing it. It's a means of perpetuating the Guantanamo system, except just not doing it in a weird offshore enclave, but doing it inside the United States. So I don't really think Obama has any plan for closing Guantanamo in a real sense, and therefore I don't think we can ever really say that he's going to do it. What he's proposed is already going to be hard enough, given the Congress that we have.
Watch: Why didn't Obama close Guantanamo Bay years ago?