The lost Briton of Guantanamo: He’s been cleared – but had a devastating secret about MI6 and the Iraq invasion which means he can never be freed
The last UK prisoner at America’s infamous terror jail camp at Guantanamo Bay is guarding a devastating secret: he witnessed the torture of another detainee in an Afghan interrogation unit which led to the crucial, bogus ‘intelligence’ that sparked Britain and America’s invasion of Iraq.
Shaker Aamer, 44, a father of five from Battersea, South London, has been a prisoner for more than 11 years even though he has never been charged – and has twice been cleared for freedom by the US.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that America wants to silence him permanently by saying he can only leave Guantanamo for Saudi Arabia, the country he left at the age of 17. But his lawyers say if he goes there he would be forbidden from speaking in public or seeing his British wife and children – and would end up in another jail.
Aamer’s case is so explosive the Commons is set to hold an emergency debate on his case on Wednesday. A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed:
- Aamer has told his lawyer how British MI6 officers were present when he was brutally assaulted and interrogated at Bagram air base in Afghanistan – where he was known as ‘Prisoner No 5’.
- He said MI6 officers were also in attendance when similar treatment was meted out to Ibn Shaikh al-Libi – who was then ‘rendered’ to Egypt and tortured into claiming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was training Al Qaeda terrorists how to use chemical weapons. That was the vital confession used by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell to justify war – and which persuaded Tony Blair that Saddam had to be toppled. If Aamer’s allegation that British officials witnessed Al-Libi’s ill-treatment is true, it would imply MI6 either knew about or was directly involved in his rendition to Egypt – one of the darkest episodes of the so-called ‘war on terror’.
- The Guantanamo detention facility is close to meltdown. Last week dozens of soldiers in riot gear stormed its minimum-security section, Camp 6. They fired on inmates with rubber bullets because mutineers had blocked the lenses of CCTV cameras with towels, sprayed guards with urine, and refused to allow their cells to be searched. The inmates involved are now all in solitary confinement.
- A hunger strike started before the action has now spread through the entire jail. Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale said 63 of Guantanamo’s 166 prisoners are now refusing food, up from 45 on Tuesday.
Aamer joined the strike in early February and has already lost several stone. Fifteen men are being force- fed through tubes inserted into their stomachs via their nostrils and four have been hospitalised.
Aamer’s back story is similar to those of many of the other nine British citizens and eight British residents who ended up at Guantanamo. Like them, he was caught in the chaos which followed the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Like them, he has paid a heavy price.
But there is a difference. All the others were released years ago, the first batch in March 2004.
Born in Medina, Saudi Arabia, Aamer studied in America and worked as a US Army translator during the first Gulf War. He moved to London where he continued translating and met and married Zin Siddique, a British Muslim woman.
They had already had four children and Zin was pregnant with their fifth when they went to Afghanistan – where Aamer worked for a charity – in the summer of 2001.
Like other British Guantanamo detainees, he was captured by the Afghan Northern Alliance and handed over to the Americans – who were paying thousands of pounds in bounties for supposed Al Qaeda members.
After a short time at Bagram and Kandahar, he reached Guantanamo on February 14, 2002.
He has since become a high- profile figure – partly because of his fluent English – and he acts as a spokesman for the prisoners and led earlier protests and hunger strikes.
His lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, of human rights organisation Reprieve, says his actions as a figurehead cannot account for his failure to be released. Other such prisoners have been freed – including Ahmed Errachidi, a former chef in London. Errachidi was even dubbed ‘the General’ by his captors because of how he organised protests and resistance at the camp.
And the second of two tribunals which cleared Aamer was exhaustive. Established soon after Barack Obama became US President in 2009, its remit was to review all remaining Guantanamo cases. It involved not only extensive interviews between Aamer and officials from Washington, but input from all the US intelligence and security agencies as to whether he might be dangerous.
Mr Stafford Smith said their conclusion was unequivocal – he wasn’t a danger.
Yet neither Aamer nor his lawyers were told he had been cleared for release only to Saudi Arabia. Official disclosure of this critical fact emerged only six weeks ago when, after further talks with the Americans, Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote to Mr Stafford Smith.
‘We remain committed to securing Mr Aamer’s release and return to the UK,’ he said. ‘However, it is our understanding Mr Aamer has only ever been cleared for transfer to Saudi Arabia.’
Even before the current wave of hunger strikes and protests, Aamer’s situation was wretched. In the high-security wing known as Camp 5, inmates spend 23 hours a day in cells measuring 6 ft by 10 ft, containing nothing but a toilet with a small built-in sink, a metal shelf bed with a thin mattress, and a few possessions such as a Koran and toothbrush.
Their recreation takes place in isolation – in a small unroofed area in the middle of the block. There is no association between prisoners: the only way they can communicate is by yelling down the corridor.
Now, however, conditions are much worse, with 24-hour solitary confinement. When Aamer asks for anything – even a bottle of water – he becomes a victim of what is known as ‘the Forcible Cell Extraction team’.
The team of six soldiers shackle his feet and arms behind his back and then lift him ‘like a potato sack’ – so that he cannot cause any trouble. It is a process Aamer finds ‘excruciatingly painful’ because of a long-term back injury.
Jane Ellison – the Aamer family’s Conservative MP in Battersea who has been instrumental in securing this week’s Commons debate – said the US insistence on sending him to Saudi Arabia was ‘completely illogical’.
She said: ‘It would be disastrous for his family if he were sent to Saudi Arabia. Obama may not have been able to close Guantanamo, but I don’t understand why he can’t at least solve one small part of a very big problem by letting Shaker return to Britain.
‘It just doesn’t stack up. My feeling is they won’t let him go because he knows too much and if he spoke out it would just be too embarrassing – for some people in America, and perhaps also in Britain.’
So what does Aamer know that other prisoners don’t? Mr Stafford Smith believes it is linked to what was happening in Bagram in January 2002, just before Al-Libi was taken away by CIA agents from military custody and sent to Egypt. Aamer’s lawyer’s notes record he arrived in Bagram on Christmas Eve, 2001, and from the beginning, ‘British intelligence officers were complicit in my torture’.
There were, he has said, always at least two UK agents based there, and they witnessed the abuse he suffered: ‘I was walled – meaning that someone grabbed my head and slammed it into a wall. Further, they beat my head. I was also beaten with an axe handle. I was threatened with other kinds of abuse. People were shouting that they would kill me or I would die.’
Aamer told Mr Stafford Smith: ‘I was a witness to the torture of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi in Bagram. His case seems to me to be particularly important, and my witnessing of it particularly relevant to my ongoing detention . . . He was there being abused at the same time I was.
‘He was there being abused when the British came there. Indeed, I was taken into the room in the Bagram detention facility where he was being held. There were a number of interrogators in the room.’
GRIM REGIME OF US TERROR JAIL – AND KAFKAESQUE TIMELINE THAT DOOMED SHAKER AAMER
The Guantanamo prison in Cuba today bears little resemblance to the collection of open cages – known as Camp X-Ray – where prisoners were held when it opened in 2002.
Both they and their successor, Camp Delta, a collection of prefabricated sheds with hard roofs, have long been disused.
Instead, prisoners are held in three large, concrete two-storey buildings – each ringed by concentric security fences, along Recreation Road, which leads along the Cuban coast to a beach.
Camp 5 and Camp 6 are for ‘ordinary’ prisoners, guarded by the US military.
The super-secret Camp 7 is run by the CIA and reserved for prisoners formerly held in its ‘black site’ jails in countries such as Poland and Thailand. They include some of the world’s most notorious terrorists – including Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who face military trial as the alleged architects of 9/11.
Most of the remaining 166 detainees are said to be much less dangerous.
According to a survey by US lawyers, more than three-quarters of them were not captured ‘on the battlefield’ by Americans – but sold for huge bounty payments by the Afghan Northern Alliance or Pakistani tribesmen.
1996 – US-educated Saudi translator Shaker Aamer settles in London, marries Briton Zin Siddique.
Summer 2001 – Aamer takes family to Kabul and works for Saudi charity.
September 11, 2001 – Al Qaeda terrorists attack America.
November 2001 – Taliban regime falls.
December 18, 2001 – Ibn Shaikh al-Libi captured, taken to Bagram.
December 24, 2001 – Aamer handed to US troops by Northern Alliance; taken to Bagram.
Early January 2002 – Aamer allegedly abused with UK officials present and witnesses abuse of Al-Libi.
Mid January 2002 – Al-Libi sent by CIA to Egypt for torture.
February 14, 2002 – Aamer flown to Guantanamo.
October 2002-February 2003 – Bogus claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in WMD, based on Al-Libi’s tortured confessions, made by Bush and Powell.
2004–09 – All 17 other UK-based Guantanamo detainees freed – but Aamer kept at camp.
October 2006 – Al-Libi flown to Libya and jailed.
November 2008 – Obama pledges to close Guantanamo.
July 2009 – Al-Libi allegedly murdered in Libyan jail.
2007 and 2009 – Aamer cleared by US tribunals as safe to release but he is not freed.
February 2013 – Foreign Secretary reveals US will only allow Aamer’s transfer to Saudi Arabia, not UK.
April 2013 – Guantanamo close to meltdown with mass hunger strike and riot.
He told Mr Stafford Smith the interrogators included two MI6 men. Very soon afterwards Al-Libi was removed from Bagram and rendered. His false claims that Saddam trained Al Qaeda went straight into a crucial speech by President Bush in October 2002, and Colin Powell’s notorious presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003, just weeks before the invasion.
America’s deep embarrassment at the bogus claims Al-Libi made under torture has long been apparent. He was supposedly a ‘high value detainee’, the former head of a terrorist training camp, and after leaving Egypt spent years at a CIA ‘black site’ prison – a secret prison where enhanced interrogation techniques were used.
In 2006, other prisoners judged equally important were moved from the black sites to Guantanamo’s top-secret Camp 7. But Al-Libi was sent instead to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. He died in mysterious circumstances. The regime claimed he committed suicide. Its then- opponents, now Libya’s government, say he was murdered in his cell.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she could not discuss the links between Aamer and the Al-Libi case because ‘it is the long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment on intelligence matters’.
The Pentagon’s Lt Col Breasseale said: ‘We do not disclose the nature of our diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.’
Mr Stafford Smith said: ‘I’m sure William Hague is sincere. But other UK officials may have a strong interest in maintaining what amounts to a cover-up – either by keeping Aamer at Guantanamo, or having him sent to Saudi Arabia.’
Last night Aamer’s father-in-law Saeed Siddique said: ‘Shaker was cleared for release years ago. We all miss him desperately.
‘It is almost impossible to describe how terrible it is to go through this day after agonising day. Why isn’t he home – to his British family, and to London where he belongs.’