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When will the abuse end?

Sinead Nowak

November 1, 2013

If Shaker Aamer were American he would enjoy various rights: he certainly could not be tortured in violation of the Eight Amendment to the US Constitution. He would have the right to know the charges against him and to have a fair and public trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

But Shaker, a British resident now spending his twelfth year in Guantánamo Bay, does not enjoy the legal rights of an American. Indeed, because the US has not signed a single international convention that is enforceable on Shaker’s behalf, he has fewer rights than the iguanas that roam the US naval base in Cuba – at least they are protected by the US environmental laws.

In consequence, he has been held without charge for more than a decade; he continues to be held despite having been cleared for more than six years, first by the Bush and then the Obama Administration. He has suffered unceasing abuse at the hands of Guantánamo authorities. He is routinely subjected to the FCE, the acronym of the euphemistic forcible cell extraction which involves a gang of six burly soldiers bursting into his cell, shackling him and beating him up. All this for some petty act of disobedience – sometimes as inconsequential as refusing to allow the guards to watch him using the toilet in his cell.

So it should come as no surprise, perhaps, that only Americans have the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. To be sure, everything Shaker says is censored, and the world only gets to hear what the Guantánamo authorities deem fit for public consumption. After all, we have often been told of late that the truth about crimes committed by our security services must be kept secret at all costs.

But this censorship is taken to another extreme: just as we can only read those of Shaker’s words that pass the censors’ censorious review, so Shaker is only allowed to read books that make it through the other way.

Apparently it is not the torture that might get a detainee angry, or the fact that he has been held illegally for more than a decade – yet, in Shaker’s case, to meet Faris, the child who was born on the same day Shaker arrived in Cuba. No, it is reading books that contain too much profanity, anti-American or extremist themes, or "too much sex and violence," according to Milton, the Guantánamo librarian.

It is a source of endless entertainment to us to learn what may be deemed a threat to the tender sensitivities of our clients. In the past, they have banned Jack and the Bean Stalk, perhaps on the theory that a magic bean might assist the detainees over the serried ranks of barbed wire. Runners Monthly was rejected, notwithstanding the fact that any prisoner running away would have to take his chances with the second largest mine field in the world between here and the Castro part of Cuba. Surprisinly, perhaps, Sailing Monthly got in, though the Caribbean Sea would seem a more logical escape route. I tried to get a constitutional law book into one client, who had been training as a lawyer before he was rendered half way around the world to Guantánamo – but that was clearly considered a threat to the essential nature of the prison.

Two months ago John Grisham was mildly irritated when some of his books were banned. One can only imagine that it was his non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, that caused the fuss.

Recently, Shaker had asked for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, but that was deemed inappropriate – "the quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" is, perhaps, a message that jars with the Guantánamo regime. He also wanted to read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, but the authorities are predictably touchy about the word gulag, which was applied to their own detention camp by Amnesty International. They really should not be concerned, though, as the comparison with the Soviet Union is inapt: no gulag there continued to hold 51 percent of its prisoners (84 of 164, including Shaker) for years after declaring them cleared to leave.

It is, perhaps, something of a black mark over an author’s good name if Guantánamo Bay allows one of his books in. I suspect that Jeremy Paxman was rather offended to learn that The English was not considered worthy of an injunction. Various other writers from Plato to Enid Blyton are, no doubt, anxiously watching this space.

Shaker Aamer, who is represented by Reprieve, hopes to return to his wife and four children who all live in London. UK politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have repeatedly asked President Obama to allow Shaker to return home.



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