Ten years on, UK resident remains in detention at Guantanamo

Shaker Aamer has spent a decade behind bars in Cuba. Picture: PA
Shaker Aamer has spent a decade behind bars in Cuba. Picture: PA
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A DECADE after shackled detainees began arriving at Guantanamo Bay, the last British resident held there continues to languish behind bars despite UK protest.

The controversial military facility has its tenth anniversary tomorrow, a grim milestone that will be marked by human rights campaigners around the world.

For all but a month of the camp’s existence it has been home to Shaker Aamer, 43, a Saudi-born UK resident. The British government has said it is committed to securing his release, but his lawyer has said that the continued failure to free him makes a mockery of the so-called “special relationship” between the UK and US.

Clive Stafford Smith, director of legal charity Reprieve, said: “Shaker Aamer will be celebrating his tenth anniversary of being in Guantanamo Bay on Valentine’s Day – we are talking about somebody who is totally innocent.”

Mr Stafford Smith last saw his client in November. Extended periods of isolation in a solitary cell had left Aamer in poor health, the lawyer said.

“I do not think it is stretching matters to say that he is gradually dying in Guantanamo Bay,” Mr Stafford Smith said in a letter to foreign secretary William Hague following his visit.

Aamer was picked up by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in late 2001 and handed over to the Americans. Supporters say he suffered terrible abuse at Bagram Air Force Base and that an alleged confession was obtained under torture.

He was subsequently transferred to Guantanamo Bay a month after the camp began to take in enemy combatants. The father-of-three has yet to see his youngest son Faris, born while Aamer was in captivity.

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 “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted for his role in plotting the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

But supporters say the claims are made up, or obtained under duress. Aamer has never been charged or faced trial.

Moreover, he was cleared for release by the Bush administration in June 2007, a decision that was re-affirmed three years later.

During a visit to Washington in December, Mr Hague raised Aamer’s plight with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Last week, UK and US officials again met to discuss the case. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said the government remained “committed to securing Mr Aamer’s release and return to the UK”.

But Mr Stafford Smith criticised the lack of progress.

He said: “The British government has been talking with the Americans for a long time; it doesn’t say much for their special relationship.”

Aamer is one of 171 detainees left at the camp, in Cuba. More than half of those are from Yemen, along with 18 Afghanistan citizens and 11 Saudis.

Guantanamo Bay remains open despite President Barack Obama’s promise to close the centre “within a year”, following his inauguration in 2009.

Mr Stafford Smith said the president’s “naïvety” had allowed Guantanamo Bay to become “a political football that the Republicans are happily kicking around”.

Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was released without charge back to Britain in 2005, believes that the camp’s tenth anniversary will not be its last.

He said: “It is three years since Obama made the speech announcing that it was to close, and I can’t see it doing so any time soon.”

He said his life will forever be scarred by his experience: “You can’t get over it, it’s impossible.”

He added: “It has done so much damage to America’s reputation that it will never recover.”