December 25, 2013
As I spend Christmas with family, I recall that, on this Christian holiday, which commemorates the birth of Jesus — drawing on an older tradition of celebrating the winter solstice, and the beginning of the sun’s rebirth after the shortest day of the year — there are other people who are unable to be with their families, including the men in Guantánamo who have been the focus of my work for the last eight years.
In the lull between opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner, I’m pleased to have the opportunity to make available a recent article from the Huffington Post by Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represent 15 prisoners still held at Guantánamo, including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison.
I have been writing about Shaker’s case for the last eight years, and will continue to do so until he is freed, as his ongoing imprisonment is a disgrace that ought to disturb the Christmas dinners of the most senior representatives of two governments — the US and the UK — because there is, simply put, no good reason why he is still held, and is not back in London with his family.
The only reason he is still held is because, as an eloquent, forthright and intelligent man, and the foremost defender of the prisoners’ rights since they were first seized, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan 12 years ago, he has come to know more than most of the prisoners about the crimes committed by US officials, operatives and military personnel, and the complicity in these crimes of other countries’ representatives, including, of course, the UK.
In his article, Clive reproduces a recent sermon for Amnesty International by the Reverend Nicholas Mercer, a former senior legal advisor to the British Army, in which Rev. Mercer not only talks about the unjust imprisonment of Shaker Aamer — and, by extension, the 78 other prisoners cleared for release by a high-level task force four years ago — but also discusses Britain’s long history of involvement in torture, predating its role as America’s staunchest ally in the "war on terror."
I hope you have time to read the sermon, and to share it if, like me, you believe that it touches on important truths that people should be reflecting on at this time of year.
Ex Senior Army Legal Advisor’s Words Give Comfort in Guantánamo
By Clive Stafford Smith, Huffington Post, December 10, 2013
My client, Shaker Aamer, penned a letter to me in late November from his tiny, metal cell in Guantánamo Bay. If you don’t know about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident stuck in the purgatory that is the American island prison, allow me to tell you a bit about him.
Shaker, a Saudi national, travelled to Afghanistan with his British wife and children to do charity work. After 9/11, he sent his family onto Pakistan where he planned on reuniting with them. However, fate had other plans when he was swept up and sold to American forces for $5,000. First rendered to Bagram Air Force Base, he was then sent to a make-shift prison in Kandahar. Almost 12 years later, Shaker has yet to see his family, including his youngest son, Faris, who was born on the day Shaker was transferred to Guantánamo Bay where he remains today.
After over 11 years in Guantánamo, I try to send Shaker anything and everything to do with the prison in the press, especially because the prison authorities try to withhold as much of this information as possible. I sent Shaker the sermon Reverend Nicholas Mercer delivered in October which denounces the UK’s involvement in the tortuous and horrifying tactics used in the 'war on terror’ and its continued denial of justice to those still subjected to those same practices.
Shaker, clearly touched, wrote back almost immediately:
Please translate the Mercer sermon into Arabic and spread it around the internet. I want my Muslim brothers and sisters to know that the Christian Reverend Mercer is fasting in protest of our treatment here and he is helping us. I want to make sure that my brothers and sisters see that the struggles we face here in Guantánamo are universal and not just about Muslims. Guantánamo is an issue of justice for human beings and nothing shows that more than Rev. Mercer’s sermon. Please ask the Muslims who read this sermon to do as Mercer has and begin to speak up in mosques and on the streets about the injustices we face.
As Shaker wished, we have had the sermon translated into Arabic to share widely. Reverend Mercer’s words follow below.
Amnesty International Service, Salisbury Cathedral, 17th October 2013
By The Reverend Lieutenant Colonel N J Mercer
Two weeks ago in our Benefice we had a week of fasting for "Stand Fast For Justice". Stand Fast for Justice is a campaign which is currently being sponsored by the Charity Reprieve. In this week of Benefice Fasting, parishioners — aged 12 to 90 — fasted in sympathy with the prisoners at Guantanamo who are currently on hunger strike and being force fed. In particular we remembered Shaker Aamer. Shaker Aamer is British and has been cleared twice by the Guantanamo authorities for release. Once by George Bush and once by Barack Obama.
Yet he remains in custody.
It appears that he is nothing more than an innocent bystander, caught up in the fog of war for which he has lost eleven years of his life. Most alarming is his claim that he was tortured at Bagram Airbase and at Guantanamo — and that MI5 have been complicit in his torture.
The reason for his delay, some allege, is that if he is released he will reveal details of his treatment. The authorities want him sent back to Saudi Arabia even though he is a British Resident. His family live in South London and he has a son whom he has never seen.
The service this evening is the Amnesty International Service which remembers, in particular, prisoners of conscience. These are individuals who are held in prison for their conscientiously held beliefs and lose their liberty for no other reason than holding the wrong beliefs or opinions. They are wholly innocent of any crime and this category of wholly innocent prisoner is my own nexus for me being asked to preach this evening, for there is another category of wholly innocent prisoner, and that is the prisoner of war.
As their title suggests, these individuals are imprisoned for no other reason that they were on the opposing side in armed conflict. As the Geneva Conventions state, they become prisoners of war when they fall "into the power of the enemy" and for no other reason (Art 5 1949 GCIII).
Some of you may know my background, but I was the senior legal adviser in Theatre for the Iraq War in 2003. I had legal responsibility for all operations in the field and this included the difficult issue of prisoners of war. I became embroiled with this issue arose quite by chance whilst visiting the Prisoner of War camp in Um Qsar in March 2003. I went down to visit the camp — on a totally unrelated matter — and, as I entered the facility, I glanced down a hessian corridor at the entrance.
Unknowingly I was looking at the Joint Force Interrogation Unit and to my horror, I saw about thirty to forty Iraqi prisoners, hooded and in stress positions, kneeling in the sand in 40 degree heat with a generator running outside the interrogation tent.
As a soldier, I knew exactly what was going on. The interrogators were trying to intimidate the prisoners. I intervened and demanded to know what was going on. The Officer Commanding replied that he didn’t take his orders from me but "direct from London". I was told that such practises were "in accordance with UK doctrine".
Needless to say, I was unable to change the situation there and then — but I reported the matter to the British Commander that evening. It led to an unseemly row between lawyers, interrogators and higher Headquarters. It was only the intervention of the Red Cross which turned the tide in my favour. There was, as many have remarked, a general indifference to prisoners.
Six months later however, a prisoner called Baha Mousa was beaten to death during tactical questioning. The whole episode was examined first at Court Martial and then in the Public Inquiry that followed. It was revealed that not only were prisoners hooded and in stress positions, but were also being deprived of food and sleep and were probably being subjected to what is termed "white noise". Indeed, one prisoner had been chained to a generator whilst it was running and belching out carbon monoxide.
These so-called Five Techniques were banned in 1978 after the United Kingdom was taken to the European Court of Human Rights (Ireland v UK) — yet somehow they had remained. This episode was to have a profound effect on my life. Like so many pivotal moments in our lives, it set me on a journey that I neither expected nor desired.
I left the Army in 2011. Not long afterwards however a book called Cruel Britannia [by Ian Cobain of the Guardian] dropped through my letter box. The publishers (Portobello Books) asked me to review the book and I felt flattered as I had never been asked to review a book before — but the book horrified me.
It revealed a catalogue of torture by the British from the end of the Second World War and throughout the colonial campaigns of Malaya, Kenya, Cyrpus, Aden and then onto Northern Ireland and Iraq and the episodes which I have just described.
There was one particular quote I want to share with you about the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya:
Men were whipped, clubbed, subjected to electric shocks, mauled by dogs and chained to vehicles before being dragged around. Some were castrated. The same instruments used to crush testicles were used to remove fingers. It was far from un-common for men to be beaten to death.
The assistant chief of police in Kenya at that time (Duncan MacPherson) said that: "The conditions I found existing in some camps were worse, far worse, than anything I experienced in my four and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese".
The British narrative is that we are a people who pride themselves on decency and fair play, except it is a myth. We have been unspeakably cruel to our prisoners in the post war period and that includes Iraq and Afghanistan.
I recently spoke at a dinner hosted by The Tablet where I met a young SAS Trooper called Ben Griffin. You may or may not have heard of him, but he was first in the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS and a thoroughly decent soldier. However, he was so appalled by the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan that he refused to soldier on. He said that Coalition Forces were treating prisoners as "sub-humans" and that we were "accepting illegality as the norm". Rather than Court Martial him, he was discharged — honourably — from the SAS. His Commanding Officer described him as a "balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions".
He now lives under a High Court injunction; Reveal what he knows about prisoners — and he goes to jail. But he is not the only one whose silence has been wrought.
Those former prisoners, like Shaker Aamer, who seek to bring a claim against the British Authorities now have to do so in a secret court where they can neither have their own lawyer, see the evidence against them, or challenge the witness or judgement against them, thanks to the "Justice and Security Act" which was skilfully managed through Parliament this year.
I recently preached on the Roman Persecutions in the Early Church where the historian Tertullian — a lawyer and a priest — wrote in his Apology (197) how the Roman Authorities similarly rigged the trials of the early Christians. Now we rig the trials of prisoners and silence those who seek to speak out on their behalf. As an Army Officer, I expected the State to behave honourably.
What I stumbled upon was what one commentator described as "Britain’s dirty little secret", what the Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne recently described as a "ghastly cloud" which overshadows this country.
We have as a nation kidnapped innocent men and women. We have been complicit in their torture. We have covered it up. Wholly innocent prisoners — be they prisoners of war or prisoners of conscience — it amounts to the same thing.
In this service, in this beautiful Cathedral, in this rural idyll of Salisbury, most are oblivious to our own sordid history. The psalmist tells us that God "hears the groans of the prisoners" (Psalm 102:20). The United Kingdom still actively suppresses those groans on threat of imprisonment or injunction. This, of course, happens all over the world, but if it can happen so easily in one of the world’s oldest democracies on our watch, just think how easily it can flourish elsewhere.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the "Close Guantánamo" campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and "The Complete Guantánamo Files," an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
Please also consider joining the "Close Guantánamo" campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.