Victoria Brittains sobering and emotive speech at a meeting marking twelve years since the abduction of Shaker Aamer
Which of us could have imagined that after 12 years we would still be meeting like this? Twelve years of trying has not yet brought enough pressure on the UK government to bring home from a US prison an innocent man whose chosen residence for years was London, and whose family are british and live just here, near where we are today?
Thanks to the campaigning efforts of his family, and of so many people in this room, Shaker Aamer’s name is well known now in Britain and many other countries. His innocence is equally well known – including to the US government, military and intelligence agencies. They have twice cleared him for release. And the UK government know it too and have officially asked for his return. The scale of the injustice Shaker has suffered and still is suffering is also well known.
It is even better known this week after the powerful American TV company CBS broadcast Shaker’s voice heard shouting during their tour of parts of Guantanamo, including the wing where Shaker is held. We have all by now probably heard his powerful and moving words: “Tell the world the truth…Please, we are tired. Either you leave us to die in peace — or either tell the world the truth. Let the world hear what’s happening.” Shaker also said, “you cannot walk even half a metre without being chained. Is that a human being? That’s the treatment of an animal”.
I am not going to say anything about Shaker’s treatment over 12 years or his health problems. Everyone has had ample opportunity to read the reports from his lawyers over the years and in recent months.
I want rather to talk about two very different aspects of all this which came to mind from the CBS report. These are things for us to reflect on – after 12 years.
The first is Shaker’s personality, and the way he has kept his humanity by his constant campaigning from inside his cell for justice for everyone in Guantanamo – not just for himself. Every effort of publicity he has made – at great cost to his health from the repeated hunger strikes, and to his psychological state – has been to contribute to the ending of this unjust and inhuman system for his fellow prisoners. This has been the responsibility he took on for himself, recognizing that many of his fellow prisoners were far less equipped to do so – old, young, sick, uneducated.
Years ago the other prisoners chose him as one of the negotiators with the prison authorities to end the very first hunger strike. He stood out already not just because of his language skills, but, as many former prisoners have said, for his generous, fearless preparedness to fight for each and everyone of them to be treated as human beings, and given the rights under international law which they have been so shamefully denied.
The second thing comes from watching the CBS programme and hearing the statements of the Joint Detention Group commander Colonel John Bogdan. He considers himself at war with the prisoners under his control. I had to watch the programme twice to take in these words: “These men are enemies to us just as we are enemies to them.”
The colonel is talking about 164 prisoners. Eighty four of them, including Shaker, have been cleared for transfer by panels of some of the US’s most senior intelligence and military officials. How can he be at war with them?
The colonel went on to talk about his greatest preoccupation in Guantanamo, and it was not the hunger strike. Rather it was that soldiers working at the prison have twice the level of PTSD as US soldiers on the battlefield. He explained this as resulting from the fact that “they have enemy contact 12 hours a day” and they “fear physical assault.” All guards wear gloves and plastic face-masks constantly, as we see on the film. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to think of other reasons these young americans may be so disturbed in their minds. And anyone who has read the testimonies of guards who left the service because they could no longer stomach their work will understand how guilt can play on the mind.
There is certainly plenty of physical assault in Guantanamo Bay. There are former prisoners who have lost an eye, suffer permanent back and shoulder damage, or have lost their minds as a result of the Extreme Reaction Force teams of half a dozen heavily armed soldiers in protective body armour who enter a cell and man-handle the lone prisoner into shackles, and march him off for humiliation, isolation, and psychological torture. The thousands of young American men and women who have been part of all this over 12 years will never be able to forget what they saw and what they did.
Since Colonel Bogdan took over last year his men have been deliberately confrontational with the prisoners: with invasive searches of the bodies of prisoners who were meeting lawyers or making a phone call; ransacking of cells and removal of personal items; searching of Korans. The colonel’s harsh new regime sparked the prison’s worst-ever hunger strike, which began last February and at one time had more than half the prisoners refusing food, and dozens suffering force-feeding. He attempted publicly to downplay the hunger strike’s extent and seriousness.
Lawyers for the prisoners went into over-drive to publicize the outrageous – and illegal – conditions in which all this was happening. And within a few weeks last spring powerful media like the New York Times and Boston Globe called for the closing of Guantanamo. Leading members of Congress called for those men cleared to be repatriated. Hundreds of unknown American citizens donned orange jumpsuits, went on hunger strikes, demonstrated outside the White House. And dozens of nurses were sent by the administration to Guantanamo to carry out force-feeding twice a day and make sure that no prisoner could die. It seemed that perhaps the world had really woken up to the horror of Guantanamo, and that the men’s sacrifice of their health had succeeded.
But, like the moment of hope and excitement following President Obama’s long ago promise to close Guantanamo as he took up his post as the most powerful man in the world, this moment too was short lived. Over the months following, just one prisoner has been returned home, to Algeria. Colonel Bogdan has successfully fought off criticisms and challenges to his fitness for his job. The hunger strike was partially broken. A charade of justice has continued with military courts on the island.
However, the demand to close Guantanamo continues to garner significant support, recently from a group of 38 high ranking former military officers who wrote to congress, which has been engaged in a detailed debate over the wording of the latest annual National Defence Authorisation Act, which will affect the question of men leaving the prison.
The former generals and admirals wrote: “Guantanamo is a betrayal of American values. The prison is a symbol of torture and justice delayed…..As the United States ends the war in Afghanistan in 2014, the government must find a lawful disposition for all detainees captured as part of that war.”
The letter is a good reminder that next year, when the US war in Afghanistan ends with the return home of US troops, the Obama administration will face a new barrage of legal opinion that the men captured or kidnapped supposedly in connection with that war must be freed. (Of course many of them never had anything to do with that war anyway, as academic research has shown.)
Over these nearly 12 years hundreds of US lawyers, and many here too, have worked tirelessly to get due process – and been knocked back again and again by appeals from the government lawyers over every court case won. They are still working to end the limbo that men like Shaker and other cleared men have found themselves in.
Some prisoners know what that limbo is. The Yemenis for instance who were cleared, had a new obstacle put up by the president himself when he simply declared, after the 2009 failed Christmas aircraft bombing, that because of its origins in Yemen no one would be returned to that country. During the height of the hunger strikes in May he lifted that ban, but still no Yemeni has been returned home.
Others, like Shaker, who has a US ally Britain asking to have him back, simply do not know – as one of his lawyers said on the CBS film – why he is in limbo.
We live now in a new normality imposed by the US since that careless Bush-era phrase was coined – the war on terror. These are some of the elements:
Prisoners held indefinitely and without charge or trial.
The Geneva Conventions ignored.
Torture and abuse widespread.
The judiciary politicized.
New military technology kills civilians indiscriminately.
Shaker shouted from his cell that men in Guantanamo are “tired”. What an extraordinary understatement that is from an extraordinary man.
The Guantanamo lawyers I spoke of earlier are tired – they have had too many failures. People have burned out along the way, and some early legal advocates of the prisoners’ rights have even regrettably even joined the Obama administration.
The families of these prisoners are bone tired, but sustained by their faith. In truth, yes, we are all tired from the years of campaigning for the end of Guantanamo against a brick wall of official stupidity and moral cowardice.
But, we will never stop campaigning for Guantanamo’s closure and the return of Shaker and all those unjustly held, to their families. I wish we could name them all here today. They are all in our thoughts and prayers.
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