And so, thirteen years after his capture, eight years after the US Government cleared him for release, and seven years after President Obama’s spectacularly broken promise to shut down Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer has left the prison, as innocent as the day he went in.
No sooner had his plane touched down at Biggin Hill, than the focus shifted from US to UK responsibility for his ordeal. What happens in the weeks and months ahead will be critical to determining the extent to which any British involvement in his case will be brought to light.
That question may be answered by whether Aamer’s allegations are examined as part of the independent, judge-led inquiry.
Shaker Aamer, 48, was born in Saudi Arabia. He moved to the United States in 1985 and worked as a translator for the US military during the Gulf War. He later came to Britain, where in 1996 he was granted leave to remain. He met his British wife, Zin Siddique, while living in London.
Their fourth child was born on the day Aamer was flown to Guantánamo Bay. Captured by bounty hunters in Afghanistan in 2001, he claimed to have been working for an aid organisation there. Initially, he was detained at Bagram air base, accused of links to al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
His lawyers allege that Aamer’s torture began long before his transfer to the base in Cuba, and that while at Bagram he was subjected to sleep and food deprivation, doused in freezing water and forced to stand for up to 16 hours at a time. They say that British agents were present when Aamer’s head was slammed against a wall, and when a fellow detainee was tortured into making a confession that Saddam Hussein had been training al-Qaida operatives.
Aamer was transferred to Guantánamo Bay on 14 February 2012. He became an advocate for his fellow detainees and in 2005 lost half his body weight during a hunger strike. It is alleged that he was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, was beaten, and was exposed to extremes of temperature and sleep deprivation. It is also claimed that MI5 and MI6 interrogated him despite knowledge that he was being ill-treated by his captors at the time.
In 2007, the then Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, secured an agreement whereby Aamer and four other British detainees would be released. At that point, not only had Shaker Aamer not been charged, but the US had dropped any plans to charge him. The plan was for Aamer to be returned to Saudi Arabia.
Two years later, he remained in Guantánamo despite a US tribunal deeming for a second time that he was safe for release. US authorities refused to allow him to return to the UK.
The groundswell of support for Aamer’s release grew, and in 2012 protests took place to mark the tenth anniversary of his incarceration. In January this year, David Cameron raised concerns over the case with Obama, who said he would “prioritise” Aamer’s case.
On 25 September the US informed its UK counterparts that he would be released. It finally followed through only yesterday, as Guantánamo Bay’s 113 inmates became 112.
The official response to his release has been terse:
“As soon as he is returned to the UK, he is no longer in detention. He is free to be reunited with his family. The Prime Minister has been clear that the public should be reassured that everything to ensure public safety is in place.”
One might have expected that after 13 years of detention during which the world’s most potent military intelligence machine failed to lay a single charge against him, an assurance as to public safety might have gone without saying. And might it suggest that even now, while Shaker Aamer may be free to be reunited with his family (including the teenage son he has never met), he remains under surveillance?
By all accounts, Aamer is committed to seeking justice for himself and others who have suffered similar experiences. In the likes of Reprieve and his solicitor, Gareth Peirce, he has some effective and long-standing supporters. As in the cases of other former Guantánamo detainees, including Moazzam Begg and Binyam Mohamed, the Government will no doubt be keen to reach a settlement sooner rather than later.
Yet, anything less than a judge-led inquiry would seem ill-equipped to press the UK’s security apparatus in the way that ensures that Aamer’s allegations of torture, complicity and unlawful imprisonment are properly ventilated. Aamer’s release might well prompt further calls for a resumption of the scrapped Detainee Inquiry, or even the establishment of an altogether new inquiry.
Equally, while many will be encouraged that the Metropolitan Police have been investigating the alleged involvement of UK officials and ministers in human rights abuses, that will no doubt be the focus of Government arguments that a no-stone-left-unturned legal process is already in full swing.
The case would appear to lie at the extremes of what even a Government intent on watering down domestic human rights protections might be prepared to accept. Thirteen years was enough time for some awkward questions to pile up, some of which will overlap with claims made in the cases of Rahmatullah v Ministry of Defence and another UKSC 2015/0002 and Belhaj and Another v Straw and others UKSC 2014/0264. A bench of seven UK Supreme Court Justices will hear those cases the week after next.
Mr Rahmatullah was transferred by British forces in Iraq to their US counterparts in 2004. He remained in US custody – again without charge – for ten years, and alleges that he was tortured during that time. He seeks damages from the UK Government, which argues that his claims are barred by operation of either the foreign act of state doctrine or the doctrine of state immunity.
His case will be heard alongside that of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, a former opponent of Colonel Gaddafi who alleges that he and his wife were abducted in 2004 and rendered to Libya. He claims that the UK passed intelligence to the US that facilitated that process. Mr Belhaj was detained for some six years.
With the country’s highest court about to decide whether cases brought in similar factual contexts should be permitted to proceed to full trials, the timing of Shaker Aamer’s release adds to the pressure upon the Government to face up to allegations of complicity.
How it does so might tell us a great deal about the degree to which it repudiates the approach to human rights adopted by the United States in the wake of 9/11.