protesters outside the US Embassy
Wednesday 13 January 2010: report by Aisha Maniar, London Guantánamo Campaign
In this report:
- LGC: 8 Years of Guantánamo London demonstration
- Other actions to mark the eighth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo Bay
- Justice for Guantánamo prisoners?
- What you can do
8 Years of Guantánamo demonstration:
2922 days after the illegal prison camp at Guantánamo Bay opened on 11 January 2002, protesters gathered outside the US Embassy in London to mark this unfortunate anniversary. Over forty people braved the cold weather to come out at lunchtime to call for justice and an end to the regime of illegal and secret prisons, arbitrary detention and torture. A brief vigil was held by protesters wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods, symbolic of the prison camp, and holding banners calling for its closure. In a rally led by Dan Viesnik from the London Guantánamo Campaign, protesters were addressed by various speakers, including Joy Hurcombe from Brighton Against Guantánamo who called for the return of south London resident Shaker Aamer to the UK, stating that “time is running out for Shaker Aamer”, who faces a hearing before a Guantánamo Detainee Review Taskforce to determine whether he should be charges and tried (Mr. Aamer has never faced charges before) or released on 22 January; Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop The War Coalition, criticised President Obama for failing to honour his pledge to close Guantánamo and the UK government for going along with US policy on this issue; Nicki Jameson from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! raised the issue of Guantánamo’s location as being in a part of the island of Cuba whose “tenancy” by the US is disputed and the detention camp’s past history as a prison for detaining refugees fleeing Caribbean nations; John Clossick from the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign emphasised the need for local and collective action to close down Guantánamo Bay and ensure the release of prisoners. Highlighting the case of Shaker Aamer, he stated that it was too late to demand justice for Mr. Aamer and instead his immediate release should be called for. The need for solidarity and action was emphasised by Maria Gallestegui from the Parliament Square Peace Strike.
Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London, criticised the lack of justice and respect for human rights and the rule of law at Guantánamo Bay, stating that its existence perpetuates the terrorist threat to the world. She pointed out the failure of the US and the UK, “two of the world’s great democracies”, to work out an agreement on the release of Shaker Aamer. She also criticised the slow response of European states to US calls for help in closing down Guantánamo. While several countries responded positively and have taken action, others such as the Czech Republic have refused to. Ms. Lambert stated that MEPs would be stepping up the pressure on states to act this month at the European parliament as well on the issues of extraordinary rendition and human rights in the European Union. Having also addressed the seventh anniversary demonstration in 2009, Ms. Lambert said, “I said it last year but hopefully we won’t be here again next year”.
Chloe Davies from the legal action charity Reprieve, which represents several dozen prisoners, pointed out five current challenges posed by Guantánamo Bay: while President Obama will fail to meet the closure deadline of 22 January this year, many people believe that his verbal assurances that he will close it are enough; people are over-confident in Obama’s ability to deliver in this respect in spite of the little action taken thus far; the recent hysteria in the US and Europe over recent terrorism threats is hindering attempts to close Guantánamo Bay and poses a threat to the safety of the Yemeni prisoners held there, who currently constitute the largest single group of prisoners; Europe’s failure to act, as only eight prisoners have been taken in by European countries over the past year; and the US’s attempts to transfer prisoners to other prisons merely moves the problem and does not solve it. After eight years, the public should not give up on working to see Guantánamo closed – what the prisoners still held there have been through over the past eight years is far worse. In response to these challenges, Ms. Davies said that there were four things that activists needed to do: look beyond the reality of Guantánamo, continue campaigning for the prisoners held there to ensure that there are no more Guantánamos; help to find homes for the prisoners, such as the people of Amherst, Massachusetts in the US did by offering a home to British resident Ahmed Belbacha; challenge the hysteria surrounding the prison in the US and Europe; and make sure that Guantánamo Bay is closed and not just moved elsewhere. She announced that on Wednesday 13 January, Reprieve, along with Amnesty International’s European Sections and the US Center for Constitutional Rights would be launching a European tour to persuade Europe countries to do more to accommodate prisoners who have nowhere else to go.
Andy Worthington, author of the Guantánamo Files, who recently made the documentary, Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo, spoke about his concerns about the current lies and deception being used to perpetuate the problem; the recent terrorism allegations against Yemen in particular affects the chances of over 80 Yemeni prisoners being released, particularly as the US has recently said that it is suspending the release of Yemeni prisoners. He called on British activists to keep up the pressure for the release of Shaker Aamer. He criticised the UK for not accepting any prisoners on purely humanitarian grounds and called on activists to take up the issue with the British government for Shaker Aamer, Ahmed Belbacha and other prisoners. If no settlement is reached as to the release of prisoners, there is a good chance that there will be another anniversary next year.
Messages of support were sent from Bruce Kent, from Pax Christi, who stated “the whole long Guantánamo affair is a scandal and disgrace- a shocking breach of justice and decency and the rule of law”. Baroness Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat MEP for London sent the following message: “Last year, I welcomed the news that the newly-elected President Obama had issued an executive order to close Guantanamo. It signalled the end to a decade stained by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and promised a new commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
2010 must see the closure of Guantanamo and other prisons like Bagram in which the US holds detainees without due process. I understand that the closure of Guantanamo is a considerable undertaking. The US should not be expected to act alone in this matter. As Vice Chair of the European Parliament delegation to the United States, I firmly believe that the EU must work in partnership with the US. I have campaigned, and will continue to do so, for EU member states to assist the US by offering residence to Guantanamo detainees, where possible. As we are all painfully aware in this country, the moral responsibility for the ‘war on terror’ does not rest with the United States alone.
Also, we should not allow the attempted bombing on Christmas Day to be used as an excuse to keep Guantanamo open. As Obama has admitted, the real issue behind the Christmas Day attempt was a mixture of human and systemic failure to share the relevant intelligence. The US and the rest of the world now know that the ‘war on terror’ approach is not the way to deter terrorists or secure justice.
It is therefore my sincere hope that on 11 January 2011 we will not need to gather to campaign for the closure of Guantanamo, but instead will come together to mark a renewed global commitment to human rights and the rule of law”.
The LGC thanks everyone who took part in the action.
Media reports and pictures of the demonstration:
Other actions to mark the eighth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo Bay:
To mark the anniversary, Cageprisoners held two actions calling for the release and return of Shaker Aamer to the UK. At 2pm, a delegation made up of Shaker Aamer’s daughter Johina, Kate Allen (Amnesty UK), Kate Hudson (CND), Vanessa Redgrave, Baroness Helena Kennedy (barrister) and Victoria Brittain (journalist) delivered a letter to Downing Street. A copy of the letter, written by Johina, can be read at http://amnesty.org.uk/actions_details.asp?ActionID=675 Amnesty International ask everyone to add their name to her letter too and to then forward it to the Prime Minister, demanding her father’s return.
At 4pm, Cageprisoners also held a parliamentary meeting hosted by Martin Linton, Shaker Aamer’s MP and chaired by Victoria Brittain. At the meeting, Saeed Siddique, Mr. Aamer’s father-in-law, spoke about the suffering his daughter and her children have been going through for eight years without seeing Shaker and that he must be sent back to the UK where he has a family, not to Saudi Arabia. Vanessa Redgrave criticised the government’s use of secret evidence in his case and called for the campaign to continue for the release of prisoners. Brent Mickum, Mr. Aamer’s US lawyer mentioned some of the things he had been accused of, yet no charges have ever been brought as nothing can be proved: working as a translator for Osama Bin Laden, sharing a house with Abu Zubaydah and involvement with a terrorist group. When he met Mr. Aamer in the summer, it was the first time he had met anyone from outside in over three years. He accused the British government of not caring if he is sent to Saudi Arabia, even though the regime of abuse at Guantánamo continues. Gareth Peirce, Mr. Aamer’s British solicitor, stated that the UK system had failed Shaker Aamer and others like him. She likened his case – while held in Bagram, he was tortured and an MI5 agent was present at the time, information about which the government is seeking to suppress – to that of Binyam Mohamed: "The UK is thus complicit in torture, crimes against humanity and breaches of the Geneva Conventions". Stating that “"Shaker is not just a victim but a witness too", she said that something nasty had happened in his case which the British public has a right to know, however as with other prisoners, the British government does not act until it becomes embarrassing for them not to.
A message was read out from Binyam Mohamed, who returned from Guantánamo in February 2009 and the meeting ended with words from Cageprisoners’ director and personal friend of Shaker Aamer, Moazzam Begg. He described Guantánamo Bay as the “best of the worst places” – the worst of them being places such as the Dark Prison and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and the other secret prisons all the prisoners had passed through. Shaker Aamer had been in the first group of prisoners to be transferred to Guantánamo Bay and yet, unlike others, including Mr. Begg, who have since been released, he has never been charged. Embarrassing the government is the only way to get it to take action. He ended the meeting poignantly pointing out that, eight years later, “Shaker Aamer is still in Guantánamo and we need to ask why”.
Elsewhere, in Washington D.C., 70 people held a demonstration involving street theatre calling for Guantánamo Bay to close. This was followed by a press conference with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which British resident Omar Deghayes, from the Guantánamo Justice Centre, and French resident, Lakhdar Boumediene, recently released, took part in via video conference. A statement was read out by Somaliland prisoner Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, released less than a month ago. A transcript of his statement is at the end of this report. The day ended with a grassroots briefing at the Georgetown University Law School. For more details on these activities: http://www.witnesstorture.org/node/54
Witness Against Torture, organising the demonstration, also started an 11-day liquid-only fast as a form of peaceful protest to call for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. More than 125 people have signed up to take part. You can follow the progress of the fasters at www.witnessagainsttorture.org
Justice for Guantánamo prisoners?
“Liberty and justice for all” is the closing sentence of the American pledge of allegiance, yet even upon release from Guantánamo Bay, these concepts seem just as elusive to many prisoners. Just last month, two men of Tunisian origin were released from Guantánamo Bay and sent to Italy where they were promptly taken into custody pending charges for involvement in terrorism. Many other prisoners have been further imprisoned upon release and have faced abuse. A case is currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg concerning the torture, harassment and lack of a fair trial granted to prisoners upon their return to their native Russia. Rasul Kudaev, one of the men involved, who was left with serious health problems, was released from Guantánamo Bay in 2004. In 2005, he was arrested by the Russian authorities who accused him of involvement in terrorism. He was beaten so badly by the authorities that it is claimed that he has been left with permanent disfigurement to his face. He has not been released or given a trial or trial date. He is one of the “one in five” prisoners the US claims has “returned to terrorism”, yet this has not been substantiated. No evidence has been brought against Kudaev and his health was reported to be very poor last year.
British resident Ahmed Belbacha was sentenced in absentia to 20 years by an Algerian court in November 2009 for alleged membership of a foreign terrorist organisation. However, in early 2007, he was cleared for release by the Pentagon which does not consider him to pose a threat to anyone. He has remained in Guantánamo Bay as he would rather stay there than return to Algeria where his life is at threat from the government and militias and the British government is refusing to allow him to return to the UK on humanitarian grounds.
Reprieve has recently highlighted the case of one of its clients, Mohamed El-Gharani, a 23 year old Chadian, released last year and the youngest prisoner held at Guantánamo; he was only 14 when he was captured. Since his return to the country in June 2009, he has been refused the right to a passport and to travel (his family live in Saudi Arabia and he had not ever been to Chad until last year), refused specialist medical treatment which he cannot get in the country and is living in abject poverty, including not having enough to eat and having had to sleep rough many a night. Upon his return to the country, he was imprisoned. Commenting on his situation, last month his lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith said, “During the years he should have been in school, Mohammed el Gharani was learning how to survive a brutal military prison, and all because of faulty American intelligence. Yet this senseless persecution continues in Chad. Of all the stories to emerge from Guantánamo, Mohammed’s is one of the most heartbreaking. Chad must accept that Mohammed is a victim of tremendous injustice and treat him as such.”
Elsewhere, the network of secret prisons has not shrunk or closed. When the US administration closed several prisons in Iraq last year, they merely transferred over half of the prisoners, mostly also held without charge or fair trial, to other facilities. Over the past year, during Obama’s presidency, Bagram Air Base has expanded and has seen the new president choose to continue the regime of secrecy and lack of basic rights for prisoners held there.
The stigma of association with terrorism sticks with prisoners years after their release and hinders their re-integration into society, coupled with having to face the trauma of the physical and psychological abuse they have faced. While prisoners returning to the UK have been fortunate to have benefited from the support of specialists at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, in many countries no help at all in any form is forthcoming. For this reason, last year former prisoners, particularly Omar Deghayes and Binyam Mohamed from the UK, set up the Guantánamo Justice Centre to seek legal remedies to the wrongs they have suffered and to provide support to prisoners upon their release. To see how you can help or contribute to their work, visit: http://www.gitmojusticecentre.com/
What you can do:
Eight years later, Guantánamo is yet to be consigned to the rubbish bin of history and the suffering is not a thing of a past era. Take action to make sure that Guantánamo Bay closes down this year. Be a part of the solution.
- Write to the Foreign Office and demand that the British government take action at the highest levels to ensure that British resident Shaker Aamer is returned to his British family in the UK. Write to your MP to ask them to press the Foreign Office on your behalf too. Demand that the Foreign Office also allows British resident Ahmed Belbacha to return to the UK on humanitarian grounds. It is the least the British government can do. Feel free to make your demands as often as you like. The Foreign Secretary has also refused to meet a deputation of local organisation and MP Martin Linton to discuss Shaker Aamer’s case. Ask him why he does not wish to meet them even though Mr. Linton has requested this meeting twice. Model letters for these purposes are available from the London Guantánamo Campaign.
The Foreign Secretary can be e-mailed at: email@example.com
You can find out who your MP is and contact them via www.theyworkforyou.com
- Ask your MP to sign EDM 547 “Release of Shaker Aamer, Last British Resident in Guantánamo Bay”:
That this House welcomes President Obama's commitment to close Guantánamo and his appeal to European countries to take in released detainees; supports the representations by the Government for the release and return of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held in Guantánamo; notes that Mr Aamer has been detained for nearly eight years without trial or charge; further notes that he was a UK resident before his detention and that his wife and children have always lived in this country; and urges the Government to make renewed representations to the US to secure his release and return to this country.
Asking your MP to sign the EDM is a good way of getting your MP to know more about the issue and showing their support for Mr. Aamer’s release and the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
- Talk to your friends and family in the UK and Europe about the issue – many people think it has gone away – and ask them to contact their politicians to ask them to consider accepting prisoners.
- The London Guantánamo Campaign has been holding a demonstration outside the US Embassy on the first Friday of each month at 6-7pm (next one: Friday 5 February) since February 2007 calling for Guantánamo Bay to close down. Everyone has better things to do but we will maintain our regular presence until Guantánamo Bay closes and all the prisoners are released.
Andy Worthington has published an updated list of prisoners for 2010. There are currently 198 prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/01/04/guantanamo-the-definitive-prisoner-list-updated-for-2010/
London Guantánamo Campaign
Statement by Mohammed Sulaymon to CCR press conference:
"I say to the torturers of Guantanamo, their leaders, and the politicians and people of power who back them in Washington: is it not time that you should awaken from your slumber? Is it not time that you should realize what you are doing and acknowledge the mistakes you have made? Time has passed, and time passes quickly. Hurry up and close this prison that has become a blot of shame upon all of America. Do it fast. Do it quickly.
"Closing this place should not mean just the transfer of these men to other prisons. That would only make things worse. Closing it should mean the release of these men and transferring them to where they can be safe.
"And that is not enough. There should be an appropriate and reasonable apology. "To those who say that they fear that those men, when released, would join enemy groups and therefore we should keep them in prison indefinitely, I say: don't you know that keeping these detainees in prison is the very thing that feeds the animus against the United States? I say to those who believe in these notions: the thing you fear is the very thing you cause by your wrongful actions. This is what constitutes the real threat to the national security of the United States, not the closing of the prison and the release of detainees.
"Peace be upon you."