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Shaker Aamer, the Last Remaining UK Guantanamo Detainee, Has Been Released

Aamer, long acknowledged to be a leader of detainees at the detention facility, was never charged with a crime during the 13 years he spent as a captive of the US government.

by Jason Leopold and Ben Bryant
Oct 30 2015, 9:50am

Imagen por Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The US military has repatriated 46-year-old Shaker Aamer to the United Kingdom, marking the most high-profile detainee release in the nearly 14-year history of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Aamer's flight touched down just after 1pm (9am ET) at Biggin Hill — a rural commercial airport just south of London with a small Royal Air Force military designation. The Gulfstream private jet landed and turned off the runway into a hangar.

In a statement issued through his attorneys Gareth Peirce and Irene Nembhard hours after he arrived in the UK, Aamer said: 

The reason I have been strong is because of the support of people so strongly devoted to the truth. If I was the fire to be lit to tell the truth, it was the people who protected the fire from the wind. My thanks go to Allah first, second to my wife, my family, to my kids and then to my lawyers who did everything they could to carry the word to the world. I feel obliged to every individual who fought for justice not just for me but to bring an end to Guantanamo. Without knowing of their fight I might have given up more than once; I am overwhelmed by what people have done by their actions, their thoughts and their prayers and without their devotion to justice I would not be here in Britain now.

Clive Stafford-Smith, another of Aamer's lawyers, told VICE News that Aamer was expected to go straight to a hospital for a thorough medical examination. Aamer may also be questioned by MI5 or UK anti-terrorism police. 

Stafford-Smith watched the jet touch down from behind a fence with the assembled media. "It's really weird standing here," he told VICE News. "I'm absolutely thrilled. 

"What Shaker wants is to resurrect his life and his family. Then in the longer term he wants to establish a human rights charity — The Shaker Aamer Foundation for Peace."

Aamer's family had agreed with the detainee not to greet him off the plane, Stafford-Smith said. "It's a really traumatic thing for his family," he added.

Stafford-Smith said that he did not believe Aamer intended to seek compensation for his 13-year detainment in Guantanamo, despite being in line for a payout that could run to more than 1 million pounds ($1.5m). "Shaker's interest is the truth," he said. "He wants a proper inquiry into the truth."

Clive Stafford-Smith, one of Shaker Aamer's lawyers, watches for his jet at Biggin Hill airport, London. (Photo by Ben Bryant/VICE News)

In an unprecedented move, the US Department of Defense publicly announced a month ago that it planned to transfer Aamer, a Saudi national whose wife and children are British, back to the UK after notifying Congress about his release as required by law. Aamer, who is looked upon by other detainees as their leader, has never been charged with a crime. He was often held in solitary confinement at Guantanamo in a camp designated for noncompliant detainees, and he has said in court filings and letters to his attorneys that he was routinely tortured during the 13 years he has been held captive by the US military, a claim that Guantanamo officials have denied.

A plane believed to be carrying Shaker Aamer, the last UK Guantanamo detainee, lands at Biggin Hill airport in Kent, Britain. (Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA)

In recent years, Aamer's case had received international attention from thousands of supporters, activists, and celebrities who demanded his immediate release. His continued detention attracted the attention of Pink Floyd–cofounder Roger Waters. After Waters saw a letter Aamer wrote in which he quoted lyrics from the Pink Floyd album The Wall, Waters filmed a video in which he read the letter and discussed Aamer's case. Singer PJ Harvey wrote a song called "Shaker Aamer," and other celebrities mounted hunger strikes in solidarity with Aamer, himself a frequent hunger striker.

In May 2013, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin invoked Aamer's name when she famously interrupted a major counterterrorism speech President Barack Obama gave at the height of a mass hunger strike taking place at Guantanamo. During his speech, Obama announced that he was undertaking a new initiative to shutter the detention facility.

An ambulance believing to be carrying Aamer, the last UK Guantanamo detainee, leaves the airport. (Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA)

Last January, the White House said that Obama was prioritizing Aamer's case following discussions Obama held with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. But nothing happened for months, sparking the ire of members of British Parliament who took to the opinion pages of the New York Times to blast the Obama administration for failing to establish a concrete timeline for Aamer's release.

Details of possible security restrictions governing Aamer's repatriation remain unknown.

In June, the British ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott, sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a UK delegation met with her and other lawmakers to lobby for Aamer's release. The letter said UK law enforcement authorities are well equipped to deal with security.

"The British government is fully aware about the concerns in Washington about recidivism and the possible risks that former Guantanamo Bay detainees could pose to the US and its citizens," Westmacott wrote. "The British police and security service have established procedures to identify any re-engagement in terrorist activity at an early stage. They have a range of investigative options based on the nature and extent of the threat they judge any individual to pose. We remain confident in the ability of our police and the Security service to deal with any such threats."

Related: Life After Guantanamo: Exiled in Kazakhstan

Feinstein, who referred to Aamer as a "troublesome" detainee in a statement she released last month, said she supported Aamer's transfer and is confident the UK's "strong counterterrorism laws and highly competent intelligence, security, and law enforcement services" can "prevent Shaker Aamer from harming US and British national security."

Still, Feinstein and her colleagues were apparently unaware of Aamer's plight, despite the widespread media coverage his detention generated. The British parliamentarians who wrote the New York Times op-ed said they were "astonished" to find that no one they met with in Washington seemed to know anything about Aamer's case, the seeming result of "a troubling failure by the White House to communicate the importance of it."

They noted that they were told the holdup over transferring Aamer back to the UK might be due to "security considerations."

'Shaker's prolonged detention [was] entirely unjustifiable. The UK government and security services must now guarantee the safety of Shaker and his family upon his arrival home.'

"Any suggestion that Britain does not have the legal structures, the security and intelligence skills, or the care capacity to address any issues with Mr. Aamer is deeply insulting," they wrote.

Aamer was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007 and again by an interagency Guantanamo task force that reviewed his case in 2009. His detention, however, was delayed for years by the Department of Defense, which had considered him a national security threat and had proposed sending Aamer back to Saudi Arabia where he would have been forced to enter a rehabilitation center for jihadists, according to documents obtained by VICE News.

In a letter Aamer sent to Stafford Smith a couple of years ago, the former detainee said, "They will hear me screaming in London if they try to drag me away from here to Saudi Arabia. If they come in the middle of the night I will resist them every step of the way. I am going to London only; I wish to be with my wife and my kids. I have many concerns about Saudi and I am not going back to Saudi for many reasons."

Aamer, who speaks English and Arabic, earned the nickname "the professor" while he was held at Guantanamo. Aamer was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 on suspicion of being an al Qaeda associate and a close confidante of Osama bin Laden, allegations that Aamer and his attorneys have vehemently denied. He was held at Bagram Air Base and sent to Guantanamo on Valentine's Day 2002, the same day his wife gave birth to their youngest son, Faris, whom Aamer has never met.

Aamer has said repeatedly that his presence in Afghanistan was strictly humanitarian. He and his family moved to Kabul, where Aamer had briefly lived with another former UK Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, prior to 9/11 to build wells and work on projects in support of building a girls' school.

Another of the conditions governing Aamer's release that the Department of Defense had discussed earlier this year was to prohibit Aamer from communicating with Begg, according to officials knowledgeable about the discussions pertaining to Aamer's transfer who spoke with VICE News on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details about those talks.

Begg did not respond to requests for comment.

Navy commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told VICE News that he cannot discuss "the specific assurances we receive from foreign governments."

"However, the decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat, and to ensure that the individual receives humane treatment," he said.

An intelligence assessment on Aamer prepared by a military analyst in November 2007 and later leaked by Wikileaks said he was so powerful a figure that he was capable of controlling other detainees to the point of being able to compel them to commit suicide.

The assessment said Aamer was "extremely egotistical," that he "manipulated debriefers and guard staff," and that, on the advice of Stafford Smith, he led a hunger strike in the summer of 2005 involving more than 100 detainees. Stafford Smith ridiculed the claim. Aamer has said the strike was aimed at bringing Guantanamo in line with the Geneva Conventions.

The suicide reference relates to a notorious incident at the detention facility Aamer has been accused of helping to orchestrate — the June 9, 2006 deaths of three detainees, who Guantanamo officials and Navy investigators concluded committed suicide by stuffing rags down their own throats, tying their arms behind their backs, and fashioning a noose out of bed sheets and hanging themselves. (In a lengthy New York Times Magazine article published in September 2006, the warden of the detention facility said that before the three detainees died, Aamer spoke about a "vision" in which three detainees needed to die in order for the rest to be freed.)

Former Guantanamo guard Joseph Hickman, who was present at the detention facility the night the three detainees died, challenged the military's narrative surrounding the June 2006 deaths in his book, Murder at Camp Delta. He came to believe the detainees were murdered. [Jason Leopold provided a blurb for Hickman's book.]

Joseph Hickman tells VICE News about three mysterious prisoner deaths at Guantanamo.

On the night the detainees died, according to a sworn affidavit Aamer's attorney Zachary Katznelson filed in federal court in September 2006, Aamer was "beaten for two and a half hours straight."

"Seven naval military police participated in his beating," Katznelson's affidavit said. "Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs. The [guards] pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out. This whole time the officer in charge of the camp was outside the cell, but did not intervene."

Aamer was also present in the adjacent cell of another detainee, Yemeni Adnan Latif, who the military said committed suicide on September 8, 2012 by overdosing on antipsychotic pills he hoarded and hid in his groin. In documents obtained by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Aamer told military investigators at the detention facility that Latif had been mistreated by nurses in the hours leading up to his death.

The former detainee has also leveled claims against British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, asserting that officers were present and participated in his torture while he was detained in Bagram. The intelligence agencies have been subject to investigations. 

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion who undertook a 24-hour fast in solidarity with Aamer, repeated calls for a judge-led inquiry into the UK's complicity into Aamer's alleged torture.

"Shaker's prolonged detention [was] entirely unjustifiable," Lucas told VICE News. "The government and security services must now guarantee the safety of Shaker and his family upon his arrival home. His lawyers must be also allowed to implement a care program for him without any interference. Shaker's case reinforces the urgent need for the judge-led enquiry into UK complicity in torture that the prime minister promised in 2010 but then backtracked on."

Aamer will face questions from parliament on his return, David Davis, the senior Conservative party MP who co-chairs the Shaker Aamer All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), told VICE News. Davis added that Aamer's input could be of value to the Chilcot report, the repeatedly delayed public inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war that is now expected to be published next summer. 

"I and other members of the APPG will be seeking to see him as soon as is reasonable, but not before he's seen his family," Davis said.

Related: Moazzam Begg Is Officially, Allegedly a Terrorist — Again

Separately, the Pentagon announced Thursday that it had also repatriated a Mauritanian detainee, 45-year-old Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was detained since 2002 but, like Aamer, never charged with a crime. There are now 112 detainees who remain imprisoned at Guantanamo. A military intelligence assessment on Aziz leaked by Wikileaks claimed that Aziz was a member of al Qaeda who swore allegiance to bin Laden, but Aziz denied being involved in any terrorist activities.

Given that Aamer was present and in a leadership position during Guantanamo's darkest days, many people will be eagerly awaiting any comments from Aamer about what he knows about the detainees who died, as well as details about the operations of the detention facility.

For now, however, Aamer told his attorneys that his first priority is to spend time with his family in Battersea, England.

"Then, I need a full medical check-up, somewhere totally confidential where they will finally respect my privacy," Aamer said. "I am an old car that has not been to the garage for years."

Follow Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) and Ben Bryant (@benbryant) on Twitter.