By Andy Worthington
This world exclusive is one of two articles providing new commentary by Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo -- and also reproducing a statement he made about conditions in the prison, and additional notes by Ramzi Kassem, one of his lawyers. The two articles are being published simultaneously -- here and on Andy Worthington's website. If you are interested in seeing Shaker Aamer freed from Guantánamo, please sign the e-petition to the British government calling for his release (if you're a UK citizen or resident -- whatever your age), and the international petition on the Care 2 Petition Site, which will be delivered to both the US and UK governments.
In a letter dated July 15, 2011, which has recently been unclassified by the Pentagon, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, explained why he was embarking on a peaceful protest, which also involved a hunger strike. These reasons are posted below, because they provide a compelling snapshot of the current conditions in the prison, touching on the injustice of holding people for nine years -- now ten -- without charge or trial, so that they can be legitimately regarded as hostages; preventing them from having contact with their families; and not meeting their needs regarding healthcare and diet. He also criticized President Obama administration for not keeping his promise to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office.
These complaints are valid for all the prisoners still held at Guantánamo (171 in total), but from what we understand, Shaker Aamer is one of 89 prisoners who are still held despite being cleared for release over two years ago by an interagency Task Force established by President Obama. This, of course, is an absolute disgrace, and in Shaker's case it is compounded by the fact that he was first told he was cleared under President Bush in 2007, and the British government has also been seeking his return for the last five years.
Following the points raised in the letter, below, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, who is one of Aamer's attorneys, explained that, on a visit in January, his client described what took place during the widespread peaceful protest and hunger strike on the tenth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo (on January 11 this year), and provided further background information regarding his complaints about the food and the lack of communication with his family, and also his frank and obviously very real fears about being killed.
From GTMO detainee to his lawyer.
I the signatory below, in Camp 5E ["Five Echo," described here] announce the start of a peaceful protest/hunger strike for the reasons enumerated below:
1. The opening and continuing operation of this unjust detention facility for the ninth year of my continuing and indefinite detention in the absence of any real accusation or crimes committed. Therefore I am hostage.
2. The inhumane treatment and deprivation of some of the items we are truly in need of, most important of which are the family calls since they are most critical to our families, especially to those experiencing special circumstances. Therefore, I want these calls to take place on a continuing basis and recur once every 15 days. These family calls ought to last no less than 2 hours with further consideration given to those experiencing special circumstances. I also speak for the regular mail to be made more efficient and provide us with e-mail.
3. The inhumane treatment is taking place at the hospital among other areas especially affecting the sick and those who are on strike and our deprivation of real treatment, health diet and appropriate clothing which are not provided to us nor are we allowed to provide them for ourselves.
4. Not upholding the promise that both your president and government gave on 01/21/2009 concerning the closing of Guantánamo detention facility. Very few people have left ever since although many here have been deemed to not represent any danger for the United States. Therefore, I ask you to establish justice and remove the injustice that has befallen us and our brothers in all detention centers.
By submitting these demands, I affirm our right to life. We want our freedom and the right to return to our homes since I am innocent of the charges (if there were any) you have levied against us. I ask that you establish justice that you claim to be a foundation of your country.
After these years of hardship we have spent here -- and which I managed to do only through the grace of God, otherwise I would have lost my sanity -- I want you to consider my case as soon as possible and give me the right to a just and public trial or set me free without conditions.
Shaker Aamer (00239)
Following this letter, Aamer was instrumental in organizing a peaceful hunger strike and protest on the tenth anniversary of the opening of the prison, on January 11 this year, which I reported here.
In a meeting with Ramzi Kassem on January 27, he explained that he and another prisoner were "on punishment status" during the week of the anniversary. With an eye for symbolism, they had asked to be issued with orange jumpsuits, which were worn by all the prisoners in the early days of Guantánamo, but were then issued only to prisoners "on punishment status." However, the Joint Task Force refused, and Shaker found it ironic that refusing to allow the orange jumpsuits to be used was "part of an effort to whitewash the prison’s image."
He complained that, despite claims that the prisoners are all fed well, the food is, in fact, "all mixed up together: the tuna mixed with the fruit salad, the eggs mixed with the oatmeal." And then, he said, "there’s the thick, heavy, oddly non-circular shaped pseudo-falafel," which he has taken to calling the “constipation cube.” He has explained that you could "throw it against a wall and it wouldn’t crumble apart." As he stated: “You gonna be clogged up. No way you gonna go to the bathroom.”
Aamer explained that the quality of the food improved slightly in the first half of January, in an evidently cynical attempt to keep the prisoners calm on the anniversary, but then became as inedible as ever -- so inedible, as Aamer said, that "sometimes even the stray cats he cares for during his recreation time won’t touch it."
He also explained his fears -- that he doesn't feel safe without the constant presence of attorneys, and the constant threat of embarrassment in the media directed at the prison authorities. Only then, he said, does he believe there will there be "a meaningful check" on the abuse of prisoners.
He has said that he fears for his life, and fears that if, in the course of a "Forced Cell Extraction" by the notorious Immediate Reaction Force (the armored guards responsible for maintaining discipline and punishing infringements of the rules), the guards kill him, they will tell the world it was a suicide. Who knows, he has asked, if the men that the authorities claimed committed suicide truly had -- the three men who died in 2006, and the others in 2007, 2009 and 2011? What, he wonders, if, instead of killing him, they paralyze him during one of their brutal beatings?
Touching on one of his major complaints in his letter of July 2011, Aamer stated that he has not been allowed to communicate with his wife and their children in London since a videoteleconference (VTC) arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross on August 12, 2011, and another with his mother and relatives immediately after Ramadan. The ICRC told him there would be another VTC with his family in December 2011, but that call never took place, and he wonders why. He also wonders why his brother and his family haven’t written to him, or if they know where to send letters.
He also fears that his letters to his family in the UK are not being sent, and has stated that he would like his attorney to find out how many of his letters have been received. Sadly, he has not received any letters from his wife in three years, with the exception of a single letter delivered by the British government via military lawyers for the prison authorities at GTMO.
Aamer asked Kassem if he knew what "SOP" stands for. He replied, "Standard Operating Procedures," but Aamer told him, “Shit on Paper,” and told him that was the running joke amongst the prisoners, guards, and officers alike.
Shaking his head, and noting that he is now 46 years old, Aamer explained that in the last ten years, he has sat across the table from roughly 200 interrogators, and said, "Some of them were extremely experienced, older than 70 years of age." However, neither they, nor the countless rotations of guards, have succeeded in breaking his spirit. As he said: “What keeps me happy, what keeps me alive, is that I haven’t surrendered. I tell the guards that even though they are putting shackles on me. I’m still a free man.”