This article, published simultaneously here and on Andy Worthington's website, contains information from a visit to Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, by Ramzi Kassem, one of his lawyers, and was made available exclusively to Andy Worthington at Shaker's request.
By Andy Worthington
Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the U.S. "war on terror" prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has a message to the world, which has been made available exclusively to me, at his request. He wants people to know that the treatment of the prisoners is "completely arbitrary," and there are "no laws, rules or SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] in Cuba." Subjected to violence every day, he continues to demand "freedom and justice."
In information from a visit on May 14 this year by Ramzi Kassem, one of his lawyers, Shaker, who has spent much of his time in Guantánamo in isolation, explained how, from December 2011 to April 2012, he was held in the maximum security cells of Camp V, where those regarded as troublesome have been held since the block was built in 2004, but was then returned to isolation in a block known as Five Echo.
The existence of Five Echo -- where the cells are only half the size of those in Camp V -- was first revealed by the U.S. military in December 2011, when David Remes, another of Shaker's lawyers, explained to the Associated Press that his client had been held there and that it was "a throwback to the bad old days at Guantánamo.”
At the time, Ramzi Kassem also said that Shaker had "described abysmal conditions in Five Echo," explaining that "the squat toilet is difficult to use, there are foul odors, bright lights shine on detainees and air conditioners keep it extremely cold." He added, “It is decrepit, filthy and disgusting. Those are the words he [Shaker] used to describe it.” He also said that Shaker had told him "there is not enough room in Five Echo for the Muslim prisoners to do their prayers."
In May, explaining his understanding of how decisions are made in Guantánamo, Shaker told Ramzi Kassem, “It is completely arbitrary. There are no laws, rules or SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] in Cuba.” He also complained that the personnel at Guantánamo refuse to acknowledge that he is being held in isolation, even though a digital display at the entrance to the cell block reads, “Isolation Block -- Echo Five.” Shaker explained that he has started mocking the guards, saying, “Even the computer knows that this is isolation, yet you deny it!”
This sounds light-hearted, but the abuse it disguises is horrendous. Shaker has spent years in isolation, even though prolonged isolation is torture, and for him to be returned to isolation so long after being cleared for release only confirms how Guantánamo remains a place of almost casual cruelty.
Shaker also provided further evidence of this when discussing his recreation time. After explaining that he is only allowed out of his cramped cell for two hours of recreation per day, he told his lawyer that, every day, he refuses to leave the recreation area and return to his cell. He described this as "a peaceful protest, to remind his captors that he is being mistreated and wants to go home," but it is met with violence every day.
Although Shaker repeatedly makes his point peacefully, and asked the authorities to allow him a one-week period to protest peacefully about his continued imprisonment, anywhere in the prison (even outdoors), his request was refused. Instead, everyday, Shaker is forcefully extracted from the recreation area and dragged back to his cell by the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF), the five-man teams of guards who enforce even the most minor infringements of the rules with violence.
In the process, as Shaker told his lawyer, he is "often beaten and sometimes choked." He also made a point of stating that "abuse at GTMO is common because there is little to no oversight," explaining that this is the real GTMO, and that, if the treatment he endures daily is possible for him, if it is possible for any prisoner in Guantánamo. Furthermore, he described this as "a time warp back to the conditions that prevailed for the prisoners in 2005."
In further descriptions of conditions in Guantánamo, Shaker also stated that many prisoners have been brought from Camp VI -- where the majority of prisoners are held, and are generally allowed to have some time to socialize -- to Five Echo, and added that he believes that this means there have been many problems at Camp VI.
He added that he was not surprised, because, in the past, the prison authorities showed their dominance of the prisoners, and subjected them to humiliation by making them kneel, and that one of the ways they did this was through bribery, offering prisoners watches, MP3 players and DVDs in exchange for their compliance.
Shaker also explained that, recently, he was being harassed for several months by a watch commander who threw out some of his personal items. He stated that, in protest, he broke the mirror mounted on the wall in his cell and cut his hand. Eventually, the watch commander was re-assigned.
Shaker showed his lawyer the scars on his hand and forearm during the visit in May, and this, together with his return to isolation in Five Echo, added poignancy and power to his desire for a formal request to be made on his behalf for a meeting with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Méndez.
Shaker also recalled that, when a delegation of senior officials in the Obama administration met with him three years ago, he reacted negatively when they said that they "wanted to ensure his comfort," telling them, “This isn’t comfort to me. It’s about freedom and justice!”
Shaker Aamer's words always carry weight. He is well-known as an eloquent, charismatic man, who has always stood up for the rights of his fellow prisoners, but now, however, his words are more highly charged than ever before, because it has been officially revealed, for the first time ever, that he was cleared to leave Guantánamo three years ago; in other words, that the Obama administration has no desire to hold him any longer.
The shame that ought to accompany this news is two-fold: firstly, that he continues to be held despite being cleared for release three years ago; and secondly, that, since this information was publicly released, on September 21, he has not been promptly put on a plane and flown back to the U.K., to be reunited with his British wife and his four British children.
The information about Shaker's status was revealed on a list of the names of 55 cleared prisoners that was released as part of a court case, surprising lawyers for the Guantánamo prisoners who had been told since 2009 that this information was classified, and that it was important that it remained secret, in order to help the US government's attempts to secure new homes for those who cannot be safely repatriated because of human rights concerns in their home countries.
28 of these names were previously known, as we revealed here in June, in an exclusive report entitled, "Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago." Shaker was one of the 28 men named in that report, but whereas almost everyone else in the report had their status confirmed in publicly available documents, Shaker's status as a cleared prisoner had only been confirmed indirectly, in a letter to Congress by four British MPs in December 2011.
In light of the recent news of Shaker's status as a cleared prisoner, and this latest information about how terribly he is being treated, it is time to renew calls to the Obama administration -- and to the British government -- to secure Shaker Aamer's return to the U.K. A petition to the British government is here, and an international petition is here.
In conclusion, it's worth remembering what the British MPs who wrote a letter to Congress about Shaker noted, last December, about what Shaker was told in a notification of his cleared status by the U.S. government. “On January 22, 2009 the president of the United States ordered a new review of the status of each detainee in Guantánamo," the document stated, adding, "As a result of that review you have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo … The U.S. government intends to transfer you as soon as possible.”
That time is now, and no more excuses can be tolerated.