UK Secretary of Defence tells Guardian government is actively pursuing the release of Shaker Aamer, who is on hunger strike
- Sunday 12 May 2013 09.24 EDT
Serious questions have been raised over the British government's commitment to securing the release of the Guantánamo Bay detainee Shaker Aamer, after a senior US lawmaker was told by the Pentagon that the UK was in "no rush" to get him out.
Aamer, a British resident, has been held at the controversial detention camp for 11 years, despite never having been tried or charged with any crime. He has been cleared for release on two separate occasions, but remains behind bars as the last Briton at the camp.
The issue of his continued incarceration has seemingly become a sore point between the UK and US governments. The British government maintains it is committed to getting Aamer out of Guantánamo. Over the last two weeks, foreign secretary William Hague and defence secretary Philip Hammond have lobbied their US counterparts – secretary of state John Kerry and defense secretary Chuck Hagel – over Aamer, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.But the official UK line has seemingly been undermined by the Pentagon, with officials reportedly briefing that Britain's commitment to the detainee's release is half-hearted.
The senior senator from New Mexico, Tom Udall, enquired into the status of Aamer after being lobbied by his supporters. What he was told by an official at the Department of Defense's legislative affairs division differs substantially from the long-held British line that UK officials are focused on Aamer's release.
An email seen by the Guardian from Udall's chief of staff, Michael Collins, to advocacy group Code Pink's founder Medea Benjamin suggests that UK commitment is less than full-throttled. Collins states: "We were told that the UK is not exactly in a rush to get him and Saudi Arabia [the place of Aamer's birth] … isn't interested either.".
Speaking to the Guardian over the weekend, Hammond vehemently denied that interpretation of British efforts. In regards to the "no rush" claim, the minister said: "That is not the position of the UK government. Every time I meet with my US counterpart I always raise the case of Shaker Aamer and I will do so again when I meet him in Singapore [for the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference] and at the upcoming Nato meeting."
Aamer's lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said that claims of a lack of urgency in seeking his client's release were "very worrying". On Friday, he wrote to Hague, urging him to issue a "suitably robust response" to the US over the allegation that the British government was not "in a rush" to see the last remaining Briton being held in Guantánamo Bay released.
"We need to be 'in a rush to get him', as Shaker Aamer is being horribly abused even as I write this, after 11 years of prior mistreatment," Stafford Smith wrote.
Aamer, 44, is one of 100 detainees currently on hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay. Last month, the inmate talked of his fears of dying in the camp. At that stage – some 60 days into his strike, he said he had lost nearly a quarter of his body weight.
Aamer wrote: "I barely notice all of my medical ailments any more – the back pain from the beatings I have taken, the rheumatism from the frigid air conditioning, the asthma exacerbated by the toxic sprays they use to abuse us. There is an endless list. And now, 24/7 (as the Americans say), I have the ache of hunger."He added: "I hope I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children and watch them grow. But if it is God's will that I should die here, I want to die with dignity. I hope, if the worst comes to the worst, that my children will understand that I care for the rights of those suffering around me almost as much as I care for them."
Of the 100 hunger-striking detainees, 29 are being force fed; five need hospital assistance.
In a further worrying development, lawyers reported over the weekend that detainees are now being subjected to humiliating body cavity searches if they want to see their lawyers."Under the new search policy, a detainee who leaves his camp is subject to a search including his private parts and holding his private parts," lawyer David Remes told the AFP news agency. He added that the move was a "scare tactic" designed to deter inmates from meeting their legal representatives and "another tool to break the hunger strike".
The latest hunger strike protest is now in its fourth month, with some prisoners having refused food since 6 February. The strike has led to renewed calls for Guantanámo Bay to be shut. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama again signalled his intention to close the camp. But a similar pledge delivered just days after he took office in 2009 led nowhere, with Congress blocking the move.Wrangling over Aamer continues.
According to the briefing Senator Udall recieved from the US Department of Defence, there appears little chance of a early release date.
Collins' email states "Also according to (the Department of Defense legislative affairs), he's not on the top of the release list, but is one of 56 detainees approved for transfer 'subject to appropriate security assurances' and that there is no plan for immediate transfer."A possible sticking point could be that the US does not believe the UK will adhere to strict security conditions that would be a condition of release.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt Col Todd Breasseale, told the Guardian: "Certain conditions must be met, and those detainees who may be resettled of repatriated must do so into nations where all necessary security assurances (to include concerns regarding recidivism) may be met." He added that host nations would be aware of what the stipulated conditions of release were. Hammond acknowledged that what was being demanded by the US over Aamer was "a high test".
But Stafford Smith dismissed any concerns in regards to security assurances, noting that the UK has the best record in respect to the release of Gunatánamo Bay prisoners. Furthermore, Aamer has agreed to enter any reasonable security arrangement on his release.
In his letter to Hague, Stafford Smith wrote: "Shaker Aamer never committed a crime in the first place, so there is no reason to believe that he would do that now; all he wants is to be returned to his wife and children."
Aamer was taken to Guantánamo Bay in 2002. He had been picked up by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in late 2001, and handed over to the Americans. According to leaked files, the US believes the British resident met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and led a unit of fighters against Nato troops. They also allege an association with the shoe bomber Richard Reid and the convicted 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui. Aamer's supporters claim he suffered terrible abuse at Bagram air base and that an alleged confession he made to captors was obtained under the pain of torture.
It has been suggested that British secret service agents were present while Aamer was tortured by US interrogators, who repeatedly smashed his head against a wall, prior to his transportation to Guantánamo. It has also been suggested that Aamer's allegation of British complicity in his torture has led to a the British secret service actively lobbying against his release.
Hammond categorically denied that to be the case. "The only place I have heard that is in your newspaper," he told the Guardian, adding: "I'm not aware of any issue being raised by the secret services."
The Foreign Office, which is leading official lobbying efforts by the UK government said it would continue to press for Aamer's release, also denying claims that it was in "no rush" to get him back.
A spokeswoman told the Guardian: "We have been lobbying for a long-time [over Shaker Aamer]. She added: "We have been speaking to the US at the highest level and will continue to do so."
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