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Obama Will 'Prioritize' the Case of Shaker Aamer, the Last British Detainee at Guantanamo

The same week Republican senators moved to limit transfers of Gitmo detainees, British PM David Cameron pleaded Aamer's case to President Obama.
January 17, 2015, 12:10am
Photo by Alastair Grant/AP

The case of Shaker Aamer, the last British detainee held captive at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, was a topic of discussion when UK Prime Minister David Cameron met with President Barack Obama in Washington this week.

"Prime Minister Cameron raised this case with the president, and the president told him that he understands why this case is of great interest to the prime minister and the British people," Bernadette Meehan, a White House National Security spokeswoman, told VICE News. "The president committed to the prime minister that we will prioritize this case, while making sure any action taken is consistent with our national security."

Cameron said prior to his visit that he would seek assurances from Obama that Aamer would be repatriated to the UK as soon as possible.

Earlier this week, Republican senators unveiled new legislation — the Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act of 2015 — that calls for a moratorium on the transfer of medium- and high-risk detainees out of Guantanamo. Aamer was assessed by military analysts to be a high-risk detainee in 2007, although some of the intelligence interrogators obtained about him may have been gleaned through coercive means.

Aamer, 46, is also a high-profile detainee at Guantanamo Bay who other detainees consider to be their leader. He was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007 and again by an interagency task force that reviewed his case in 2009. He was rendered to Guantanamo on Valentine's Day 2002, the same day his wife gave birth to his youngest son, Faris, whom he has never met.

The Saudi national is a resident of the UK whose ongoing detention has caught the attention of legendary singer Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. Aamer wrote a letter to Waters and quoted lyrics from the Pink Floyd album The Wall. Waters filmed a video in which he read the letter and Aamer's case.

Aamer's name appears on a closely held list, released by the Pentagon in 2013, that identifies detainees designated for either indefinite detention or repatriation. A "decision" box next to Aamer's name says, "Transfer to [redacted] subject to appropriate security measures, including [redacted]."

At the time, a high-ranking Department of Defense official said the country in question was Saudi Arabia. But Aamer has made it clear he does not want to return to Saudi Arabia — his family lives in the UK — and that he believes he would be sent to a rehabilitation program for extremists.

"They will hear me screaming in London if they try to drag me away from here to Saudi Arabia," Aamer wrote in a letter to his attorney two years ago. "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. Most important is my family. They deserve me and I need to go back to them."

Aamer's lawyers at the international legal organization Reprieve have mounted a campaign to win his release by pressuring the UK government to demand that the US repatriate him. In addition to Waters, the group enlisted singer PJ Harvey, who wrote a song titled "Shaker Aamer," and other celebrities to back their cause.

Aamer's wife, Zinneera Ahmed, sent a letter to Cameron January 10 saying she and her family are "desperate."

"I am sure you are able to bring my husband home - you must be able to get the very government that has told him he can leave Guantanamo to send him back to Britain. Please do not come back from yet another meeting with President Obama emptyhanded. Return, at least, with a date on which Shaker will come back to the UK," she wrote. "Our four children have been without their father for too long. I have been without my husband for too long. Our ordeal can be ended by the actions of just a few men, and you are one of them. Please bring my husband home."

The conditions of Aamer's confinement at Guantanamo and his treatment — he alleges he continues to be subjected to physical abuse, a claim Guantanamo officials vehemently denied — have taken a toll on his health, an independent physician who evaluated him said in court papers filed last year. Aamer, a frequent hunger striker, has been diagnosed with severe edema, liver problems, and possible post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of being held in solitary confinement.

An assessment on Aamer prepared by a military analyst in November 2007 and leaked by Wikileaks said Aamer, who was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001, was a close associate of Osama bin Laden and so powerful a figure that he is capable of controlling other detainees to the point of being able to compel them to commit suicide. Aamer has never been charged with a crime. He has denied being associated with al Qaeda and says he was working for an Islamic charity in Afghanistan during the US invasion in 2001.

The assessment said Aamer is "extremely egotistical," that he "manipulated debriefers and guard staff" and that, on the advice of one of his Reprieve attorneys, Clive 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.

Stafford Smith told VICE News it's a "positive" sign that Aamer's case is now being "prioritized."

"If the most powerful man on Earth 'prioritized' sending someone to the moon, he could do it tomorrow — so if he is honest Shaker ought to be back with his wife and kids by Monday," Stafford Smith said. "But the proof of honesty and sincerity will be action."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold