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Shaker Aamer: After 5,000 Days of Torment, Last British Prisoner at Guantanamo is Set for Release

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The 14-year nightmare of the last British prisoner at Guantánamo Bay could soon be coming to an end. The United States announced last month it will release Shaker Aamer, imprisoned without charge at Guantánamo since February 2002. Aamer says he was working as a charity worker in Afghanistan when he was kidnapped and handed over to U.S. forces. During his time in captivity, he claims he was subjected to abuses including torture, beatings, sleep deprivation and being held in solitary confinement for nearly a year. At one point, he lost half his body weight while on a hunger strike. Aamer has been cleared for release since 2007, but the Pentagon has refused to set him free. The U.S. announced last month that he will finally be released – but only after a 30-day notification period required by Congress. If the U.S. follows through, Aamer will likely be released on Sunday and flown back to Britain to join his wife and four children. Even as he’s set for freedom, Aamer has remained on hunger strike to protest his treatment. We are joined by Clive Stafford Smith, Aamer’s attorney and director of the international legal charity Reprieve.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Shaker Aamer,” a song written for the longtime Guantánamo prisoner by British musician PJ Harvey. Shaker Aamer has been held since 2001 without trial or charge, despite being cleared for release by President Obama in 2007 and President—by President Bush in 2007 and President Obama in 2009. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The 14-year nightmare of the last British prisoner at Guantánamo Bay could soon be coming to an end. The U.S. announced last month it will release Shaker Aamer, imprisoned without charge at Guantánamo since February 2002. Aamer says he was working as a charity worker in Afghanistan when he was kidnapped and handed over to U.S. forces. During his time in captivity, he claims he was subjected to abuses including torture, beatings, sleep deprivation and being held in solitary confinement for nearly a year. At one point, he lost half his body weight while on a hunger strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Shaker Aamer has been cleared for release since 2007, but the Pentagon has refused to set him free. The U.S. announced last month he’ll finally be released, but only after a 30-day notification period required by Congress. If the U.S. follows through, Aamer will likely be released on Sunday and flown back to Britain to join his wife and four children. Even as he’s set for freedom, Aamer has remained on hunger strike to protest his treatment.

We’re joined now by Clive Stafford Smith, Shaker Aamer’s attorney for 10 years. He’s a human rights lawyer and founder and director of the international legal charity Reprieve.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, start off by telling us how Shaker Aamer ended up in Guantánamo for more than 14 years. He was cleared eight years ago.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Yeah, and there are two questions there. One is how he ended up getting there. And unfortunately, that story is chillingly familiar, that we, as Americans—and notwithstanding my accent, I am American—we were dropping bounty leaflets so that if you, in Pakistan or Afghanistan, would turn in someone like Shaker, you got $5,000, which for us in New York would translate to about a quarter of a million dollars. And Shaker was part of that, and he got turned in through that. Now, the second question is much—

AMY GOODMAN: Where was he turned in?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: He was originally turned in by the Northern Alliance. He was trying to get out of the country and was seized by them and sold to the U.S. And Shaker was really happy when he was sold to the U.S. because he thought, you know, justice, because he had lived here in America for a while, and he believed in American justice.

Sadly, that turned out to be a false belief, because your second question, which is “Why is he still there eight years after being cleared?” is a very difficult one for the government to answer. I think I know the response, which is that he has seen things, he’s been a witness to things, that are just really, really embarrassing to us, the most important of all being our worst—of all the many dreadful things we did in torturing people, the worst result of that, which is when we had Ibn Shaykh al-Libi tortured with cattle prods in Egypt until he said that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were in league on WMD. President Bush quoted that on October the 7th, 2002, and so did Colin Powell as a reason to go to war, and we know what happened.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to the statement Shaker Aamer made to London’s Met Police detectives who were investigating British involvement in torture. The 2013 statement was only recently released. In it, Aamer said, quote, “I was a witness to the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi in Bagram. His case seems to me to be particularly important, and my witnessing of it particularly relevant to my ongoing detention. He was there being abused at the same time I was. He was there being abused when the British came there. Clearly the fact that I was a witness to all this does not make the U.S. want to let me free, for fear that I may be a witness to one of the most colossal mistakes of all those made in the last 11 years.” So could you talk about this, when this happened, his witnessing of this torture, and how much you think that’s been responsible for his ongoing detention?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, sure. And when you look at the dates, Shaykh al-Libi was one of the very early people who was detained. He was detained in November 2001. And the U.S. thought he was a big-time al-Qaeda person at the time, thought he was number three. And gosh, how many number threes have we had? He was actually not a member of al-Qaeda. He quite opposed it. And indeed, bin Laden tried to close down, successfully, the camp that he was running to try to combat—Shaykh al-Libi was trying to combat Gaddafi. Anyway, the U.S. had the wrong end of the stick. And there was a big old fight over how quickly we could get intelligence out of these people. And unfortunately, the CIA won that battle.

And what is crucial about Shaker is he was in one of those cages in Bagram Air Force Base. He had been taken in to see Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, but Shaker was one of the first five prisoners in Bagram. And so the two of them had seen each other. Shaker saw him. And then Shaker witnessed the incredibly notorious moment when a coffin was brought in by the—apparently by the CIA people, to get al-Libi, who they put in the coffin, took him out, took him to a ship, then took him over to Egypt and had him tortured.

Now, when you think about it, if I torture you, which I’m not going to do, even though I haven’t had enough coffee this morning—if I torture you and I get you to confess that you’re a wicked, evil person, that’s too bad for you. But if I torture you and I get you to say something that changes the international affairs and results in 100,000 and more people being killed in Iraq, and then results in the Middle East being tipped into chaos, that is a massive story. And when you look at the Senate torture report, that story appears in footnote 868 in one sentence, and there’s no real reference to that. And these are the things that if we’re going to learn the lessons of history, we kind of have to know what that history is.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain what you’re saying, what the information he gave over, under torture, resulted in.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: So, al-Libi, when he’s being stuck with electric cattle prods, says, “Yeah, Saddam Hussein’s been working with al-Qaeda on weapons of mass destruction, on”—

AMY GOODMAN: Even though they were enemies, al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, I mean, but people would believe all this drivel.

AMY GOODMAN: Right.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: And as a result, even though I think there were people in the intelligence services at the time who said, “Ah, you know, this is just kind of silly,” unfortunately, there was such a pressure to come up with a reason to go attack Saddam that the president himself relied on that. Now, when you think about the terrible things that are so embarrassing to our political leaders, the idea that you would rely on a torture statement that is now proven to be categorically false in persuading the world to go to war, you know, that’s about as bad as it gets, isn’t it?

AMY GOODMAN: In 2013, I spoke to Victoria Brittain, leading British journalist who covered Guantánamo for years. Her book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, included an excerpt from a letter Shaker Aamer wrote to his wife in 2006. Victoria Brittain read part of Shaker Aamer’s letter.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: “I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway. I would like to die quietly, by myself. I was once 250 pounds. I dropped to 150 pounds in the first hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no 'help', no 'intensive assisted feeding'. This is my legal right. The British government refuses to help me. What is the point of my wife being British? I thought Britain stood for justice, but they abandoned us, people who have lived in Britain for years, and who have British wives and children. I hold the British government responsible for my death, as I do the Americans.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Victoria Brittain, a British human rights attorney, reading a part of Shaker Aamer’s letter to his wife nine years ago in 2006. Nine years ago. He was cleared eight years ago, and yet he is still in prison. Can you talk about his wife, his children, what he comes home to, and how he responded when you told him he’ll be released on Sunday?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, you know, when you look at all the people in Guantánamo, it’s easy to talk about statistics and how there are 779 people who have been there. But, of course, each of them is a human being, an individual. And Shaker—you know, I’m a parent. I’ve got a seven-year-old son. And the idea of not seeing my son all the time, it would be dreadful. Shaker has four children now. He and his wife had three very small children when he was detained. His fourth child, Faris, was born on Valentine’s Day 2002, the very day that Shaker got to Guantánamo Bay. Shaker, in 14 years, has never met his child. He’s never hugged him, never nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s now a teenager.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Now a teenager. And all the other children, he’s never seen them, either. And his wife, Zinnira, he hasn’t seen her. And she’s gone through dreadful traumas herself, being left alone with these folk. And, you know, it’s been very difficult for her and her life. And all of this has gone on. And now Shaker, you know, even today—that was 2006, right? But we’re still talking about it. The reason Shaker won’t even go to the phone call to talk to his family at the moment—because we finally got them phone calls. He’s had two or three over the last 14 years with his family.

AMY GOODMAN: Two or three—

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —in 14 years?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, right. They didn’t do them at all until about 2010. But now they’ve come up with what they call—it’s not me saying this—scrotum searches—and you may have heard that before—which is this absurd thing where they humiliate the Muslim prisoners down there in Guantánamo Bay by groping them in order—with the pretext being that you have to be searched this way before you have a phone call with your children, as if there’s anything that, you know, your children are going to smuggle to you over the international telephone lines. And so, you know, Shaker finds this so humiliating, that I’ve had to apologize to his family that he can’t go through that humiliation even to have this conversation with his kids these days. So we need to get him out, so he can actually give them a hug.

AMY GOODMAN: And his reaction to being told—you know he’s going to be released on Sunday?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: No, absolutely not. We don’t know it. I mean, that is the first day that he could be released. But the last chap they released from Guantánamo, who could have been released after 30 days, it took 89 days, so three months. Now, one of the reasons we’re trying to keep the pressure up is that we need to get him out soon. Shaker had gone on hunger strike again, because he had been mistreated again. So we persuaded him that we would take it on. I spent five days last week without eating—which is a great new diet system, if you want to advertise it—in order for him to drop his hunger strike. But we need to keep the political pressure on to make sure they do actually bring him home this Sunday, or soon thereafter.

AMY GOODMAN: There are videotapes of a prisoner being force-fed. Can you explain who that prisoner is at Guantánamo and how that fits into this story? Have these videotapes been released?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, that’s another case that we at Reprieve represent the prisoner, whose name is Dhiab. He is now out, I’m glad to say. But we’ve been litigating this whole force-feeding business, where, you know, it’s one thing—it’s an interesting philosophical issue: If someone is going to die from starvation, should you go against their will and force-feed them or not? And, you know, when the British did that to the IRA, we let them die. But in here, they don’t do that. And that would be an interesting debate—if it weren’t for one thing, which is we do that force-feeding in a gratuitously painful way, where we take this big tube, stick it up your nose, 110 centimeters long, and instead of just leaving it there, we pull it out after each feeding and stuff it back in after each feeding. And it was the general in charge of SOUTHCOM who said that they were doing this to make it “less convenient” to go on hunger strike.

So, we had litigated this whole issue, and, you know, we had got—we’ve got to see these videos, but they’re classified. And what we’re trying to do is let you see them, because if you see what the government is doing in our name, I think there will be some serious disagreement with the government. That’s still being argued over. And so, since we couldn’t do it that way, we got Mos Def, Yasiin Bey, to go through it himself. It was very nice of him. And that’s on YouTube, and you can see it. And you can see generally what we do to the prisoners. You know, I don’t advise you to try it at home, but Yasiin Bey was kind enough to let us do it to him.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Shaker Aamer has expressed some concerns himself to you about returning to his family. Could you talk about that?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, that’s so hard, isn’t it? I mean, Shaker, when I see him, he always responds to his prison number. He’s number 239. And no one ever calls him his name in Guantánamo Bay. He’s 239. And he said things to me, and this is just one example that I think is quite illustrative. He says one of the things he’s afraid of when he gets home is one of his kids will say “Daddy” and he won’t respond, because his kids are not calling him 239. Now, you know, when you look at that and you look at the post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, that Shaker has gone through as a result of the torture we’ve done to him, you know, we’ve got a lot of work to do. And the first thing we’ll do when we get him back to Britain is take him straight to a medical clinic and get him some help.

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