Activists march in front of the White House, protesting the Guantanamo Bay detention facility’s continued existence, despite President Obama’s promises to close the prison. (Rebecca Nelson / Medill)
An attorney for one of Guantánamo prison’s most high-profile captives has raised new fears that the United States intends to release his client to Saudi Arabia, where he would likely be imprisoned again.
Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the UK-based human rights group Reprieve, provided The Nation with a copy of an urgent letter he sent to Parliament that contains new information about the US government’s plans for 46-year-old Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen and the last British resident detained at Guantánamo.
The letter was sent July 17 to British MP Jane Ellison. In it, Stafford Smith writes that another member of Aamer’s legal team recently told him their client’s family had sought advice over whether they should hire a Saudi attorney named Abdallah al-Badrani.
“Mr. al-Badrani had made contact and asked for authorization to represent Shaker in partnership with an unnamed London-based lawyer,” Stafford Smith wrote in the letter. “This seemed suspect.”
Stafford Smith said Aamer’s family declined the offer to have al-Badrani represent them, but expressed concern over possible “moves afoot to try to send Shaker to Saudi Arabia under the pretext that his family lawyer has been authorized to facilitate such a move.”
Stafford Smith told The Nation neither he nor Ramzi Kassem, an associate professor of law at City University of New York School of Law, who was contacted by Aamer’s family, tried to contact al-Badrani.
“The clear implication is that the Saudis are trying to do the US and UK intelligence services’s dirty business by creating the pretext that they are authorized to take Shaker, whereupon he disappears into the silent vortex that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Stafford Smith told The Nation.
An Internet search for al-Badrani turned up only a half-dozen results, some nearly a decade old. (Its possible Stafford Smith may have received an incorrect spelling of Al-Badrani’s name.)
A spokeswoman at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, declined to comment about the matter.
In addition, in a phone call, Aamer told Stafford Smith that Saudi authorities recently visited him at Guantánamo and told him he would be sent to a “rehabilitation program” because he had left Saudi Arabia and resettled his family in the UK without permission from the Saudi government.
Aamer’s name appears on a closely held list, released by the Pentagon last month, that identifies for the first time prisoners 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].”
Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, would not comment specifically on the allegations raised in Stafford Smith’s letter. But he told The Nation, “There have been ongoing talks with a number of countries for potential repatriation or resettlement of eligible detainees.”
“As with all diplomatic discussions, we simply do not discuss them until the transfer is complete—and only then, if the diplomatic agreement allows for such discussions,” he said. “As for any alleged arrangements that may or may not be in the works with countries into which detainees in our charge could be transferred, this is among the most sensitive work in which we engage. We simply will never discuss issues like that.”
A State Department official, speaking to The Nation on background, also declined to discuss specifics of Aamer’s case, but added that, “President Obama was pretty clear about the Administration’s commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo in his speech at the National Defense University this past May.”
“While I do not have a timeline on when particular detainees will be transferred from Guantánamo,” the official said, “each transfer will be evaluated by the interagency group that reviews transfers on a case-by-case basis.”
At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on July 24, centering on new efforts to shutter the Guantánamo prison (and the first major hearing on the topic in years), Senator Dick Durbin called for the repatriation of the eighty-six cleared prisoners. But he did not offer a timetable as to when it would happen. The executive branch is required to notify Congress thirty days before any prisoners are released.
Stafford Smith told The Nation he believes senior British government officials want Aamer returned to the country and are working toward that goal. But he believes elements in MI5 and MI6 are working against it, largely because the intelligence agencies have been subject to investigations into their roles in Aamer’s torture and the mistreatment of other prisoners, and they don’t want “a live witness.”
“The last criminal probe of MI5 and MI6 fell apart because the Saudis wouldn’t let the main witness talk,” Stafford Smith said.
Details of Aamer’s brutal torture were laid bare in a September 19, 2006, declaration written by his former lawyer, Zachary Katznelson. Aamer told Katznelson that he naval military police beat him for him for two and a half hours on June 9, 2006, “gouged his eyes” and “held his eyes open and shined a Maglite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat,” because he refused to provide his captors with a retina scan and fingerprints.
More recently, Aamer told Stafford Smith that since he launched a hunger strike in February he has been subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings and violent forced cell extractions several times a day as punishment for refusing to eat.
“My back and my neck are getting worse day by day. I don’t want the end of this torture here to be paralyzed. I want to carry my kids when I get home; I don’t want my kids to have to wash me. I don’t want to be the third one paralyzed in this place,” Aamer told Stafford Smith, according to an April 11 sworn declaration Stafford Smith signed.
A Powerful Figure?
Aamer was rendered to Guantánamo on February 14, 2002, the same day his wife gave birth to his youngest son, Faris, whom he has never met. An assessment on Aamer prepared by a military analyst in November 2007 portrays him as a close associate of Osama bin Laden, so powerful a figure that he is capable of controlling other detainees to the point of being able to compel them to commit suicide. The assessment calls says that he is “extremely egotistical,” that he “manipulated debriefers and guard staff” and that, on the advice of Stafford Smith, led a hunger strike in the summer 2005, involving more than 100 detainees. (Stafford Smith has ridiculed the allegation. Although Aamer did lead a hunger strike that year, but it was aimed at bringing the prison in line with the Geneva Conventions.)
“The military thinks whoever is the most loudest is the most evil,” Stafford Smith says.
Aamer’s case has become an international rallying cry for thousands of supporters, activists and celebrities who have demanded the closure of Guantánamo. Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin invoked his name when she interrupted a major counterterrorism speech Obama gave last May and called for the president to release eighty-six prisoners who have been cleared for release. (These include Aamer, who has never been charged with a crime.) UK Comedian Frankie Boyle recently launched a hunger strike in solidarity with Aamer in hopes or raising awareness about his plight. And Aamer’s teenage daughter, Johina Aamer, launched a social media campaign, in collaboration with family and human rights groups, urging people to sign a petition to pressure Prime Minister David Cameron to secure her father’s release. She regularly tweets at Cameron, reminding him that her father remains locked up at Guantánamo.
Earlier this month, Johina tweeted that she and her mother identified her father as the voice of the prisoner leading the call to prayer at the maximum security Camp 5, where “noncompliant” prisoners are held.
Punished for Speaking Out
Aamer himself has been vocal about his continued detention and treatment, describing sleep deprivation, forced cell extractions and beatings since he waged a hunger strike in February.
In his letter to Ellison, Stafford Smith said sources within the United States told him that Aamer’s public protests have “incensed” government officials, who are now “determined to punish him by making sure he does not go back to the UK.”
“It is bad enough that they mistreat him in Guantánamo Bay, but the idea that the US would refuse to reunite him with his family as a punishment for expressing his views is abhorrent,” he wrote.
In a phone call with Stafford Smith last week, Aamer said he would not return to Saudi Arabia “voluntarily.” Aamer told him that he has heard that “the Saudi issue would be concluded before the end of the month.”
Many other Guantánamo prisoners who have already been cleared for release are likely to be forced to enter a rehabilitation program when returned to their home countries. In Kuwait, such a rehabilitation center has already been built. It sits inside a prison yard and would house the last two Kuwaitis at Guantánamo if they are ever released. Other prisoners would simply be resettled in countries that have agreed to take them in without having to spend additional time in detention.
“They will hear me screaming in London if they try to drag me away from here to Saudi Arabia,” Aamer told Stafford Smith. “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.”
In response to Stafford Smith’s letter, Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister in London, said, “Mr. Aamer’s case remains a high priority for the UK Government and Ministers and senior officials maintain an active dialogue with the US on this issue,” but that “any decision regarding Mr. Aamer’s release remains in the hands of the US Government.”
Aamer himself will have little say.
“It would be unfortunate if a detainee didn’t consent to a transfer to his home country, but that in and of itself wouldn’t prevent such a transfer from happening,” the State Department official said in a telephone interview. “The department isn’t a travel agency.”