I’m an activist with Amnesty International, and today is a reminder of why I have been doing this for more than 30 years. Shaker Aamer is finally returning to his family in the U.K., after being held without charge at Guantanamo for more than 13 years. Amnesty’s campaign, along with the work of countless activists around the world, has helped get the U.S. government to release him. It is the unwavering defense of the dignity of individuals such as Shaker Aamer that inspires me and keeps me active in Amnesty.
Amnesty was born when British lawyer Peter Benenson published his 1961 article The Forgotten Prisoners in The Observer newspaper protesting the arrest of two Portuguese students for raising their wine glasses in a toast to freedom. Benenson’s outrage lit a spark that ignited a global human rights movement. Amnesty demonstrated to ordinary citizens that they could make a difference in righting injustices affecting other individuals even in remote parts of the world.
Amnesty’s mission of defending human dignity – of preventing human rights from being a mere abstraction in the public mind – is, if anything, even more desperately needed now than when I first joined the movement as a volunteer activist in 1983. The ordeal of Shaker Aamer is one of many personal stories that show why this is so.
1. Who is Shaker Aamer?
Shaker Aamer was swept up in the wide net cast by the U.S. military after the 9/11 attacks. Granted permanent residency status in the U.K. based on his marriage to a British national, he had moved his family to Afghanistan in 2001, after a decade of living in the U.K. He was arrested by Afghan forces in the fall of 2001, subsequently transferred to U.S. custody, and sent to Guantanamo in February 2002.
Through his lawyers, Shaker Aamer has alleged that he was subjected to torture, including severe beatings, and other ill-treatment while being held in secret detention and interrogated at Bagram, Afghanistan, in early 2002. He has claimed that men who identified themselves as officers of the U.K. Security Service (MI5) were present, along with U.S. officials, at interrogations during which his head was “repeatedly banged so hard against a wall that it bounced.” In the years following his transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Shaker Aamer repeatedly alleged that he had been tortured there, too. Throughout his imprisonment at Guantanamo, his lawyers expressed concern about his physical and mental health, which they say was exacerbated by the lack of adequate medical treatment for the multiple illnesses from which he suffers.
2. Was Shaker Aamer’s Detention Unlawful?
Yes. Indefinite detention without trial, like torture, is recognized as a profound assault on human dignity under international law. The international committee of experts set up under the United Nations Convention against Torture to monitor compliance with the Convention considers indefinite detention to be per se a violation of the Convention.
3. Why did the U.S. hold Shaker Aamer for so long?
We don’t know the reason. What’s clear is that, as part of its “war on terror,” the U.S. government has discarded the fundamental values it has historically espoused. In the name of national security, it has dispensed with the rights that bring real security. Like so many others, Shaker Aamer was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for more than 13 years without ever being charged with a crime or allowed to see and challenge any evidence the government may have had against him. Moreover, the U.S. continues to flout its obligation under domestic and international law to impartially investigate the credible allegations of torture in his case and to prosecute anyone found responsible for torture.
4. Why is he being released now?
We don’t know why it’s happening now. Amnesty members in the U.S. and around the world have campaigned for his return for years, as it became clear that he was not going to be charged with a crime and tried in a fair proceeding. Amnesty and its coalition partners, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K., played a very important role in pressing for this outcome. Yet to say it was long overdue is an enormous understatement. After all, he had been approved for transfer by the Bush administration as long ago as 2007 and again in 2009 after an interagency task force set up by the new Obama administration determined that he was not a threat to U.S. national security. Moreover, officials at the highest levels of the British government, including Prime Minister David Cameron, had repeatedly sought his return to the United Kingdom.
5. What happens next?
With all of this in mind, the end of Shaker Aamer’s Guantanamo ordeal brings many of us not elation, but relief. Of course, we are mindful that he will likely to continue to suffer the consequences of these policies after his transfer and will be in need of medical treatment and rehabilitation. Additionally, it is hard to feel celebratory in the midst of so much evidence of how the “war on terror” continues to distort our values as a society.
The “war on terror,” like the 9/11 terror attacks that spawned it, can be seen as a stark manifestation of human beings’ diminishing ability or willingness to see one another as distinct individuals endowed with basic human dignity. This “forever war,” boundless in time and space, has led many Americans to embrace an “ends justify the means” mentality. It has led many to believe that their physical survival can only be assured by trampling the rights of others. Consequently, it has become easier to dismiss, as inevitable “collateral damage,” instances in which individuals suffer unjustly from measures deemed necessary to protect national security. As this happens more and more, allegiance to the rule of law erodes. And as the rule of law erodes, the United States loses a little more of what many people cherish as making it worth defending. We need to embrace and nurture that spark that Peter Benenson lit 54 years ago. That is the spirit of Amnesty International, and the world needs its healing power more than ever.