Euan McColm: Shaker Aamer travesty was collateral damage

Aamer was transported to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba in 2001. Picture: PA
Aamer was transported to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba in 2001. Picture: PA
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THE release of Shaker Aamer after 14 years in captivity without charge marks the end of what shadow chancellor John McDonnell calls one of the worst miscarriages of justice in 30 years.

After being seized by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001, Aamer was transported to the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba where, according to reports, he was regularly tortured.

This weekend, Aamer, a Saudi Arabian national, returned to the UK, a free man reunited with his wife and four children (one of whom was born when Aamer was in captivity and has never met his father).

By any standard, Aamer’s treatment seems extraordinary. Snatched by US forces in Afghanistan (where, he says he was carrying out charity work), he was taken to Guantanamo and soon earned a reputation as a troublemaker. He spoke out about the treatment handed out to fellow detainees and went on hunger strike, losing half of his body weight.

He was, says his lawyer, deprived of sleep, and exposed to extreme temperatures. Throughout, he maintained his innocence.

When the Americans seized Aamer, they believed they had captured a terrorist, working with al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of the 11 September, 2001, attacks in the US, security services were in no mood to take chances. Aamer was one of almost 800 spirited away to Guantanamo Bay.

At the time of Aamer’s capture, we were told – on the basis of US intelligence reports – that he was a dangerous man. Then there was the drip-drip of questions which helped us fill in the blanks. What was a Saudi national (Aamer has leave to remain in the UK because his wife is British) doing taking his family to Afghanistan when that country was dangerous and becoming more so? Why did Aamer have a Belgian ­passport?

But we are, I would venture, less inclined to accept what intelligence services tell us these days. Aamer’s is far from the only case which throws up questions about the methods spooks use to gather information.

It says much about Aamer’s character that he did not curl up and accept his fate. His defiance – defiance which may, by unsettling the US government, have prolonged his incarceration – must have required remarkable strength.

We will, no doubt, hear much from Aamer in the weeks ahead. The story he has to tell will surely make un­comfortable listening not only for the US but for its allies in the “war on ­terror”.

As Aamer gives more details about his ordeal, those MPs who declared in 2001 that the UK was with America all the way in its response to the 11 September atrocities will face more questions about their judgment. Some of them may even indulge in a little soul-searching.

This is precisely what should happen. Aamer’s treatment must make even the most hawkish among us uncomfortable, mustn’t it?

So let us hear uncomfortable truths about the measures security forces take on our behalves. But let’s not kid ourselves that Aamer’s will be the last example of an injustice perpetrated in the name of our freedoms.

The rise of Islamic extremism is a real thing, with real consequences. The maniacs of Isis continue to carry out acts of such barbarism that one recoils at some of the details.

The argument that the West is to blame for this rebellious insurrection is a popular one and cases such as Aamer’s help encourage that widely held belief. But we can’t turn the world off then back on again; there is no reset button for humanity.

Aamer’s case should make us think about the balance between security and freedom. We expect the intelligence services to keep us safe, but are we willing to make sacrifices to our privacy in order that they can do just that?

Police want more powers to examine phone records and internet histories. The state wants the right to invade our lives when it deems it appropriate.

The natural reaction is to rebel against this. You and I have done nothing wrong, after all, so why the hell should we have to answer to anyone? It’s none of the bloody government’s business whom we phone or what we search for online.

But this is a simplistic response.

We’ve read a lot in recent months about young British citizens leaving the country to join Isis. It’s important that we try to understand why they might do this, why joining an organisation whose members murder and rape without compunction holds more appeal than staying in the relative safety of the UK.

However, simply understanding the motivation of those who have already left to join the organisation is not enough. We also need to prevent others from doing the same. And we need to prevent, if possible, Isis-inspired attacks on British soil

Those who end up in Syria, killing for Isis, got there by first making contact with others in the organisation online. The internet is the Isis recruitment office.

How can we square our belief in privacy and personal freedom with the need to stop young Brits ruining their lives, potentially becoming murderers?

We can take the principled position that privacy is absolute. If the state has no right checking our internet histories then it has no right checking anyone else’s. If we truly believe in the rights of the individual, then how can we respond in any other way?

But do we have the courage of our convictions in this instance?

If our idea of personal freedom includes the right not to be killed in a terrorist attack then surely we have to accept that the state might infringe upon our privacy.

Shaker Aamer was held in captivity for 14 years when he had no case to answer, when there was no evidence whatsoever that he was involved in dangerous illegal activity.

It will be cold comfort to him, those who love him, and those who campaigned hard for his release, but his imprisonment represents collateral damage in a battle against extremists who must be taken on. «