Last year, VICE asked me if I wanted to edit a series of stories about the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Working with the legal charity Reprieve, which represents a number of Guantánamo detainees, we put together Behind the Bars: Guantanamo Bay, a collection of stories, reviews, and reports that featured several pieces written by men who were still locked up inside the detention center.
One of those men was Shaker Aamer, a Saudi national who was the last remaining British resident in Guantánamo. On Friday, it was announced that Aamer is finally going to be released and returned to his family in London, possibly as early as October 25. This has been a long, long time coming. Aamer has been cleared for release from Guantánamo since 2007 but—for reasons that remain hard to fathom but are probably related to the horrific treatment Aamer witnessed and received—he has not been allowed to leave.
Read one of the stories Shaker Aamer wrote for VICE: The Declaration of No Human Rights
His situation is not a polarizing one. This isn't the story of a politically divisive figure championed by some and scorned by others. Every British newspaper, from the usually right-wing Daily Mail to the usually left-wing Guardian, has covered Aamer's case from the perspective that his detention without trial has been an injustice. Politicians like the Conservative MP David Davis and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have lobbied for Shaker's freedom.
In 2001, Aamer told us, he was working for a charity in Afghanistan. After 9/11, the American military was offering financial rewards to any local who brought in suspicious characters—and Aamer was apparently suspicious enough. In November 2001 Northern Alliance troops took him into custody and passed him to the Americans. It was claimed that he was an al Qaeda operative. But like many Guantánamo inmates, he was never charged with any crime.
Aamer has said that he was tortured at Bagram Air Base, a CIA "black site" in Afghanistan. Once, he recalled, a British intelligence officer was in the room while he was having his head repeatedly smashed into a wall. Eventually, he was taken, hooded and shackled, to Guantánamo. Aamer has four children, the youngest of whom was born on the day he was taken to Guantánamo.
Twelve years later, I found myself working—albeit at a distance of a few thousand miles—with Aamer. We asked him questions and his lawyers would get answers for us, usually with the help of Clemency Wells, Reprieve's brilliant, tireless press officer. Aamer asked us questions about the outside world and we commissioned pieces based on what he and his fellow detainees had asked. He wrote about his experiences and his lawyers would pass the writing—and some of his artwork—on to us. I read his work, looked at the photos of a smiling family man, and wondered how anyone who was experiencing what he was experiencing could remain committed to the idea of living in this world.
His longest piece for our series wasn't a jeremiad. It wasn't a list of the terrible things that had happened to him. It was a piece of satire: Shaker took the UN Declaration of Human Rights and rewrote it as the US Declaration of No Human Rights. He joked about "Muslims with beards," Donald Rumsfeld, and how it would be less embarrassing for Barack Obama if we all shut up and pretended that nothing was happening on this strange chunk of American land at the tip of Cuba.
Shaker's choice of subject was not accidental. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, written as it was after the trauma of the Second World War, represents a highpoint in human cooperation, a document that says that what applies to one must apply to all. The prison at Guantánamo Bay, which sits outside the law, is a betrayal of these ideals.
The British detainee built on this idea, accessed his inner-Aesop and wrote a fable, "Colonel Bogdan Has No Nose," about the man who basically ran Guantánamo for a number of years. The story was beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple and told the tale of a land that, because of the actions of a king long since dead, had come to think of cutting off the noses of its children as normal practice.
The point Shaker was making was simple. He wrote:
And so it is with Colonel Bogdan, the Admiral, the Guantánamo administration, and even the US Government. They believe what they are doing in the name of the "War On Terror" is normal and that everyone should act exactly the same. But it is time to tell the people of No Noseland that they should not cut off the noses of their children. It only spites them, and makes their world a nastier place.
Reprieve told me that they had only found out about Aamer's release after the British government announced it. The battle will not be over until he is at home with his wife and four children. Emad Hassan and Younous Chekkouri, the two other detainees who contributed to our series, were released from Guantánamo earlier this year. Younous is not free yet, though, as he faces a series of baseless charges back in his home country, Morocco.
Today, though, we can celebrate the release of a good man.
UPDATE 9/27: Via Reprieve, here's a statement from Shaker Aamer's family: "We must still say this tentatively, as our hopes have been dashed before, but today is a good day. It is one that has been far too long coming. Shaker was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007 and has never faced any sort of a trial or been charged with any crime. We have been through a terrible ordeal and we ask the British and American governments not to prolong that ordeal any longer and tell us when we can expect our husband, father, and son-in-law to walk back into our lives. We would like to thank everyone for their support and ask that the press respect our privacy while we process this news."
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