Saudi-born Shaker Aamer, 38, who has been a British resident since 1996, is married with five children, the youngest of whom was born after his capture. In 2001, he travelled with his family from his home in south London to Afghanistan, where he shared a house in Kabul with released British national Moazzam Begg and his family, and worked to establish a girls’ school. After 9/11 and the US-led invasion, he arranged for his family to flee Afghanistan, but was captured in Jalalabad and sold to the Northern Alliance, who in turn sold him to the Americans.
In Guantánamo, his charisma, his mastery of English and his relentless campaigning on behalf of his fellow detainees led the US authorities to conclude, erroneously, that he was “The Professor,” a major player in al-Qaeda. Since leading a short-lived “Prisoners’ Council” in August 2005, which was encouraged and then suppressed by the authorities, he has been held in solitary confinement, and has been on a hunger strike for the last year, a desperate course of action, which has provoked a savage response from the prison’s commanders.
Like all the long-term hunger strikers (of whom there are several dozen), twice a day Shaker is strapped into a restraint chair – a process that involves 18 separate straps – and force-fed liquid food through a thick tube inserted into his stomach through his nose. This is an agonizing process, made worse by the authorities’ insistence – as an attempt to “break” the strikers – that the tube is removed after each feeding, and not kept in place as it was in the early days of the hunger strikes.
Omar Deghayes, 37, was born in Libya, and arrived in the UK with his family as a teenager in 1986, after his father, a prominent lawyer and trade union activist, had been tortured and murdered by Colonel Gaddafi’s secret police. A law student at Wolverhampton University, he took a break from his studies in 2000 to travel to Afghanistan, where he married an Afghan woman and had a child, but was captured after crossing into Pakistan after the US-led invasion began.
Blinded in one eye during an assault by armed guards in Guantánamo, he has also been threatened by Libyan intelligence agents, who were flown to Guantánamo on a CIA-chartered plane. The only justification for his continued imprisonment is a claim that he was identified on a videotape as a Chechen militant, even though his lawyers in the UK, with the help of journalists from the BBC’s Newsnight, proved in 2005 that it was a case of mistaken identity.
Jamil El-Banna, 45, who was born in Jordan, arrived in the UK in 1994, and was granted asylum in 2000. Like Shaker Aamer, he is married with five children, and his youngest child was born after his capture. With Bisher al-Rawi, a British resident from Iraq, El-Banna was seized in November 2002 by US agents in the Gambia, where the two men had travelled to establish a mobile peanut-processing plant with al-Rawi’s brother Wahab.
Shockingly, they were captured after the British intelligence services provided false information to their American counterparts, claiming that both men were involved in terrorism (which they were not), neglecting to mention that al-Rawi had been working for MI5 as an informer, keeping tabs on the radical cleric Abu Qatada, and ignoring the fact that both men had been informed, before their departure, that they were not under suspicion.
“Rendered” to Afghanistan, El-Banna and al-Rawi were first held in the “Dark Prison,” a secret, CIA-run prison near Kabul, whose medieval savagery was supplemented by the addition of non-stop amplified music and noise, and were transferred to Guantánamo in March 2003.
Under pressure from the men’s lawyers, who discovered the part played by the British intelligence services in their kidnapping and “extraordinary rendition,” the government broke with its long-standing declaration that it would not act on behalf of the British residents in Guantánamo, and accepted the return of Bisher al-Rawi in March 2007, although it refused, initially, to press for the return of El-Banna, even though a military review board had cleared him for release.
Despite the fact that El-Banna has a British wife and five British children, and that the intelligence services were complicit in his capture, the government initially hoped to test its newly unveiled attempts to shred international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture by returning El-Banna to Jordan (which he had fled because of religious persecution), on the basis of a “memorandum of understanding” – allegedly guaranteeing that any returned nationals would be treated humanely – which lawyers and human rights activists have condemned as worthless.
Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi, 29, a refugee from Ethiopia who arrived in the UK with his father in 1995, was a janitor at a mosque in west London. Captured in Pakistan in April 2002, he was then handed over to the US authorities, who, in what appears to be one of the most devastatingly inept failures of intelligence in the whole of the “War on Terror,” decided – apparently based on a “confession” extracted under torture by Abu Zubaydah, a “high-value” al-Qaeda suspect, who was had recently been captured – that he was a major al-Qaeda terrorist, who was planning to radioactive “dirty bomb” in a US city.
In a successful attempt to force a confession out of him, al-Habashi was “rendered” to Morocco, whose notoriously brutal interrogators, working on behalf of the Americans, tortured him for 18 months, repeatedly cutting his penis with razor blades, and he was then transferred to the “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan. Scheduled to face a Military Commission (a show trial in which secret evidence is withheld from the accused), his case was dropped in June 2006 after the Supreme Court ruled that the Commissions were illegal, and has not been reinstated.
Abdulnour Sameur, 34, an Algerian refugee, was granted asylum in the UK in April 2000, after deserting from the Algerian army, because, he said, he was “made to go in the streets and shoot innocent people.” He had been living in the London suburb of South Harrow, but travelled to Afghanistan after a crisis of faith, when someone he met at a mosque suggested that he would find a purer life in Afghanistan, and that, if he liked it, “he would help me figure out how to build a house there.”
Accused of having advance knowledge of 9/11, he explained in Guantánamo that he made this up in the US prison in Kandahar airbase, when the interrogators threatened to withhold medical treatment. “I told them this in Kandahar during the interrogations because the interrogators were dogs,” he said. “I had an injury in my leg. I had metal sticking out of my leg and they would not clean the wound; they would not give me treatment ... I just told them anything, whatever they wanted to hear because I wanted them to treat my leg. I saw other people whose legs had to be cut off. I did not want my leg to be cut off ... If you were in my place, if you were in Kandahar you would have done the same thing. Just like a small child.”
Ahmed Belbacha, 37, is a former professional footballer in Algeria. After retiring from the game, he worked as an accountant for a government-owned oil company, Sonatrach, but was called up for military service and threatened by members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Islamist militants opposed to the government. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the UK in 1999, and settled in the seaside town of Bournemouth, where he found a job as a waiter in a hotel, and where, after being vetted by MI5, he was working during the Labour Party conference in 1999. According to a Guardian article in 2006, “His friends recall[ed] his pride at receiving a £30 tip and a personal letter of thanks from John Prescott,” after he had helped the Deputy Prime Minister during the conference.
In autumn 2001, Belbacha took a month’s vacation to visit Pakistan and an Afghan refugee camp, but was captured near Peshawar, after crossing back into Pakistan, by villagers who sold him to the Pakistani authorities. Once he was in American custody, he was transported to the prison in Kandahar airbase, where he was “repeatedly beaten,” and was then taken to Guantánamo, where he was falsely accused of attending a training camp in Jalalabad and meeting Osama bin Laden on two occasions, even though, at the time of his vacation, he was waiting to hear from the British government if his application for asylum had been successful. With a grim irony, his application was turned down, but he was granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK in June 2003, when he had already been in Guantánamo for over a year.
What I didn’t realize, while I was explaining these men’s stories and encouraging the audience to take action on their behalf, was that the BBC was about to break the news that four of these men were soon to be released. As the BBC described it, Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes and Abdulnour Samuer were to return to the UK, while Shaker Aamer would return to his native Saudi Arabia.
While this seems to be extraordinarily good news for those who have campaigned for the men’s release for nearly six years – and also for the Gordon Brown’s government, which broke with its predecessor’s refusal to act on behalf of the residents by formally requesting the return of five of the men in August – it’s also apparent that an announcement is not the same as the realization of these men’s freedom. While various news sources began speculating immediately on the date of their return (they “could be back by Christmas,” chirped the Daily Mirror), the BBC scrupulously maintained that the British government had “not confirmed” the move and that a release date was “unknown.”
This was indeed the case. When the Foreign Office finally issued a statement, a spokesman cautiously declared, “We have held detailed discussions with the Americans. We considered the circumstances of each case with the US and we are in contact with the families and the legal representatives of the five. While the discussions are ongoing we are not going to make further comment.” Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, the legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, including the British residents, explicitly told the BBC, “There's no doubt that the agreement has been struck, that they will return home. The question is, when? There's no reason why they couldn't come home tomorrow, but the US are insisting on a lot of red tape.”
Even if the men are home by Christmas, however, Shaker Aamer’s repatriation to Saudi Arabia remains troubling. A source close to his family explained to me that Shaker has “expressed for some time that he would like to be returned to Saudi Arabia,” pointing out that, if he were to return to the UK, it is feared that he “would face a travel ban, if not some form of control order, which would prevent him from being reunited with the rest of his family in Saudi Arabia, or moving back at some point in future should he wish to do so.” Given that the Saudi government has shown a commitment to helping former detainees to reintegrate into Saudi society after a period of “reeducation,” even going so far as to provide financial assistance as the men begin to rebuild their lives, it’s understandable that Mr. Aamer has chosen this option, although, as my source also explained, it remains unclear “how easy it would be for his wife and children to settle there or visit him in this period” – a potentially appalling trade-off for someone who, as Moazzam Begg has pointed out, was absolutely devoted to his family.
More troubling still, of course, is the ongoing detention of the two residents who are not scheduled to be released: Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi, the only one of the five whose return was requested in August, and Ahmed Belbacha, whose return was not requested at all.
As the Independent explained, “the reasons for Mr. al-Habashi's continued detention remain unclear,” but “the US is believed to be determined that he should face one of Guantánamo's military commissions … which could jail him for life.” Describing his predicament, Clive Stafford Smith reiterated that there was “no evidence” against his client. “He was taken to Morocco and had a razorblade taken to his penis,” he explained. “Naturally, as any human being would do, he made statements saying whatever they wanted to hear. They [the US authorities] believed that stuff.” He added, “I've seen no evidence in Binyam's case that isn't evidence that was tortured out of him. The bottom line is that we're happy for him to face a fair trial, if that's what everyone wants to do. But the problem we do have is that trying him using torture evidence, using secret evidence, is giving him an unfair trial. The British Government has made it perfectly clear, the military commissions are unfair.”
In the case of Ahmed Belbacha, who, like Jamil El-Banna, has officially been cleared for release from Guantánamo, the British government has refused to act on his behalf, because, technically, he was not actually a British resident at the time of his capture. In August, I wrote to the Foreign Office to complain, explaining that “the refusal to act on Mr. Belbacha's behalf would, I believe, portray the new administration, of which you are a key part, in a very unfavourable light, and would suggest that the government is only prepared to act – as in Mr. al-Rawi's case – when faced with the possibility of being shamed by revelations that the detainee in question was actually working for the British intelligence services.”
In September, I received a reply from Nicolas Jankowski, of the Counter Terrorism Policy Department, who explained that the decision to request the return of the British residents was “limited to those who were lawfully resident in the UK prior to their detention. We believe we have identified all of those to whom this relates who are currently detained at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Ahmed Belbacha does not fall into this category.”
As I wrote at the time, I was disappointed by the “meanness of spirit expressed on behalf of the Foreign Office by Mr. Jankowski,” and added that, “because, technically, Mr. Belbacha was not a British resident at the time of his capture, this innocent man, who has been through five and a half years of extraordinarily bleak treatment at the hands of his US captors, will not be rescued from the prospect of further ill-treatment in the country of his birth because the government has turned its back on the decision it made to welcome him to stay in Britain while he was suffering in Guantánamo. This rather makes a mockery of the supposedly principled stance made by Gordon Brown’s new administration when it requested the return of the other five men, and does little to persuade me that the government is as concerned with justice as it is with PR.”
My opinion has not changed. While I await the release of four of the residents, and urge anyone concerned with the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo not to forget that Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi remains mired in a dark and disturbing netherworld of spectral allegations obtained through torture, in which the British intelligence services were at least partly complicit, I also maintain that the government’s intransigence in Mr. Belbacha’s case shows, only too clearly, the hard, unyielding edge of the government’s policy towards refugees. It’s a situation faced every day by families and individuals in the UK, who are threatened with being returned to countries where they face the risk of torture or worse, and is highlighted in Mr. Belbacha’s case by the fact that he would rather remain in Guantánamo – in one of the most lawlessly isolated prison environments in the western world – than return to the country of his birth.
Readers who are concerned about Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi’s continued imprisonment, and the refusal of the British government to act on behalf of Ahmed Belbacha, are encouraged to make their feelings clear by writing to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who can be reached at: email@example.com.
A template for a letter about Mr. Belbacha can be found on the website of the National Guantánamo Coalition ( http://www.guantanamo.org.uk).
Further information about the men can be found in The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison ( http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/?page_id=17).