February 23, 2010
On Friday, it emerged in a UK court that the Metropolitan Police is investigating allegations that MI5 was complicit in the torture, in US custody in Afghanistan, of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held at Guantánamo. In the High Court, Richard Hermer QC, counsel for Aamer, told Mr. Justice Sullivan that Met officers had visited his solicitors, Birnberg Peirce, on Wednesday. "It became apparent they are now investigating allegations raised by Mr. Aamer into the alleged complicity of the UK security service in his mistreatment," he said, adding that the police had made an application to the court "for release of relevant documents" relating to Aamer’s allegations that the confessions he made in US custody were obtained through torture.
This is another blow for the government, which recently gave up a short-lived struggle to prevent the release of the documents to Shaker Aamer’s lawyers, following a High Court ruling in his favour. Expressing dissatisfaction with the government, Mr. Justice Sullivan stated on Friday, "These whole proceedings have been a gigantic waste of time and money," and ordered the government to pay the costs of Aamer’s lawyers, granting an interim payment of £25,000.
As I have explained before, the emergence of torture allegations against Shaker Aamer — and his lawyers’ pursuit of relevant documents in the possession of the British government, allied to the claims that MI5 was complicit in the torture — reflects the case of Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was freed from Guantánamo last February, after both the British and American governments realized that releasing him would, at least, take the edge off a mounting torture crisis that showed no sign of going away.
In Mohamed’s case, the High Court judges refused to back down, leading to an extraordinary ruling two weeks ago, in the Court of Appeal, ordering the government to release information revealing how US agents had tortured Mohamed in Pakistan, and how the British government knew about it, which foreign secretary David Milband had been trying to suppress for 18 months.
The police investigation into Shaker Aamer’s allegations is the third such case to be pursued by the Metropolitan Police, which is investigating claims relating to the interrogation of Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan by an agent identified only as "Witness B," and also to allegations against MI6 that have been made by another unidentified man. There is, moreover, an overlap between two of these cases, because Shaker Aamer is a key witness in the allegations made by Binyam Mohamed.
In Shaker Aamer’s case, there is no guarantee that releasing him will do much to ease the discomfort of the security services and the government in light of increasing calls for an independent investigation into the full extent of British complicity in torture. These now have a momentum of their own, unprecedented in any country that was deeply involved in the "War on Terror," and in marked contrast to the recent whitewash in the US of the Justice Department lawyers who wrote memos authorizing the use of torture.
On Saturday, it was reported that the British government’s human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, had become involved, and that the Commission’s Chair, Trevor Phillips, had written to Justice Secretary Jack Straw, stating, as the Times described it, that "it can no longer ignore the growing body of allegations against MI5 and MI6." In the letter, Phillips wrote that the government’s "blanket denials" were "an inadequate response," and that "Not enough has been done to reassure the commission and the public that these allegations are unfounded."
Entering into territory that has previously been almost the exclusive preserve of the Guardian (whose reporter, Ian Cobain, has worked tirelessly to expose evidence of British complicity in the torture of British citizens abroad), the Times added, "A dossier of 25 cases has now been built up, including complaints of ill treatment, illegal detention and torture." The Times also devoted a two-page spread to these cases, and added that the Equality and Human Rights Commission was "concerned about mounting evidence that these actions were condoned by British agencies."
Trevor Phillips explained, "Given the UK’s role as a world leader on human rights, it would be inexplicable for the Government not urgently to put in place an independent review process to assess the truth, or otherwise, of these allegations." He also told the Times that he found it "inexplicable" that the government was a year late in providing a report to the United Nations Committee against Torture.
Given these developments, the plight of Shaker Aamer is unlikely to be a show-stopper. However, securing his release would certainly blunt some of the criticism, and would, moreover, demonstrate that the government is still capable of doing something right.
Shaker Aamer has been cleared for release from Guantánamo since 2007, but has not been freed, despite British requests for his return. The US authorities have cited ongoing security concerns, which makes a mockery of the whole process of clearing someone for release. However, beyond this obvious hypocrisy there are also fears that it suits both the British and the Americans to keep holding, for as long as possible, a man routinely described as the most influential prisoner in Guantánamo — not because he has any terrorist connections, but because he is extraordinarily eloquent and charismatic, and a passionate advocate for justice who has resisted the lawlessness and brutality of the "War on Terror" from the first day that he was sold to US forces by bounty hunters in December 2001. As a result, he may well know more about the dark workings of Guantánamo than any other prisoner, and this — added to his eloquence and outspokenness — undoubtedly makes him a threat.
Last September, former prisoner Moazzam Begg, one of Shaker Aamer’s closest friends, captured something of his personality in an excerpt from the last letter received by his wife in 2008, in which he wrote:
Yes I lost a lot of weight, yes I have a lot of sicknesses, yes I’ve got short sight, yes my bones are aching, yes I got white hair, yes I got old, but my heart is still young, my mind still strong — a lot stronger than ever. My soul’s got the biggest wings to fly and help others to fly. I am a lot wiser, a lot [more] patient, a lot [more] knowledgeable, a lot [more] merciful, a lot [more] loving and caring, a lot [more] helpful. I feel I can change the world to be a better place. I feel I can restore justice so we can have peace and love amongst each other.
Clearly, holding onto Aamer is not a delaying tactic that can prevail forever, and it would, therefore, make sense for the British government to exert the kind of pressure on its closest ally that it is undoubtedly capable of when necessary, and demand Shaker Aamer’s immediate return to the UK, to rejoin his British wife and his four children. As his solicitor, Gareth Peirce, explained on Friday, "Mr. Aamer is a victim and key witness in [the police] investigation — and yet where is he? He is in Guantánamo where the police can’t go to interview him." She added, "It is of central importance that everything is done to have him returned to this country," and also explained that, although the British government claimed that it was making "strenuous efforts" to have him returned, "There is no diplomatic pressure being exerted. There is none. The Americans are saying: 'What pressure?’"
Note: Gareth Peirce will be speaking about Shaker Aamer at a screening of the new documentary, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" at the National Film Theatre on Saturday February 27, at 2 pm. Further information about the screening, which is organized by the BFI, can be found here, along with booking details.
Directed by filmmaker Polly Nash and journalist Andy Worthington (also the author of The Guantánamo Files), "Outside the Law" tells the story of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 flight from the law by focusing on the stories of three prisoners in particular: Shaker Aamer, Omar Deghayes, and Binyam Mohamed. Omar, Andy and Polly will also be speaking after the screening, in a Q&A session chaired by Victoria Brittain, and Omar and Andy are then taking the film on a UK tour, where they will focus on Shaker Aamer’s plight. Details of the tour can be found here, and details of an Amnesty International campaign to secure Shaker Aamer’s release can be found here.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.