A week’s delay should suffice: is the UK still dragging its feet on Guantánamo?
A week is a long time in politics. It means, as Westminster watchers never tire of telling us, that things can change dramatically in the volatile political ecosphere.
On the other hand, I reckon a week can also confirm a political trend. Here’s an example. On 10 January 2002 an internal Foreign Office memo suggested that the “transfer of UK nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to the US base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objective by ensuring that they are securely held”. A week later a telegram to British embassies signed by the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the following:
… we accept that the transfer of UK nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to the US base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objective by ensuring that they are securely held. However, a specialist team is currently in Afghanistan seeking to interview any detainees with a UK connection to obtain information on their terrorist activities and connections. We therefore hope that all those detainees they wish to interview will remain in Afghanistan and will not be among the first groups to be transferred to Guantánamo. A week’s delay should suffice. UK nationals should be transferred as possible thereafter.
No change there then. Straw’s words on 17 January (“best way … securely held”) are identical to those of the memo seven days earlier. A “week’s delay” should suffice to allow for “interviews” of UK detainees, but after that … Guantánamo.
By the way - Straw’s reference to “interviews”, we’ve later learnt, was in reality a euphemism for visits by MI5 officers who reportedly themselves witnessed the mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or had every reason to suspect that the hooded, shaky person in front of them was suffering abuse before and after their visits.
But back to the week of 10-17 January 2002. As the UK’s policy on Guantánamo was being firmed up behind the scenes, the issue went public. On 11 January we had the first news reports of detainees being held at the naval base in Cuba (clearly the UK had been given advance knowledge of the plan). A few weeks later an interdepartmental government meeting apparently agreed that the “UK should not be in any hurry to take back the detainees”.
Hmm. No hurry. What’s a few weeks, a month, a year? A fleshed out account of shifting UK policy over Guantánamo would make interesting reading. For instance, Account Rendered, Andrew Tyrie, Roger Gough and Stuart McCracken’s book-length investigation into the UK’s involvement in rendition (from where I’ve taken these quotes), shows some of the contortions of this policy.
There seems to have been top-level disagreement over the degree to which the UK should be publicly requesting access to British detainees at Guantánamo, and policy swerves over whether to put in requests for repatriation of Britons to the US authorities. Later - much later - the UK would, under pressure from NGOs and lawyers, entirely change its policy over refusing to make representations for UK residents (those not born in the UK) like Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer. Fast-forward to the present, and now, numerous policy shifts, high-profile campaigns, court cases and ministerial announcements later, all the former residents are out of Guantánamo, except … except of course for Shaker Aamer.
And this is where time comes back to haunt us. If a week is a long time in politics, how long is 11 years of a man’s life if those 11 years are spent behind the wire fences and security towers of Guantánamo Bay? Eleven years, it should be added, without a trial, without seeing your family, and without any knowledge of when - or even if - you are ever going to leave that place. This is the predicament for Shaker Aamer and most of the other 165 Guantánamo detainees.
Not surprisingly, the marooned, time-locked detainees are trying to break this nightmarish deadlock by one of the few means left to them. Tomorrow the camp’s mass hunger strike will reach its 100-day point. It’s a high-risk strategy apparently borne out of sheer desperation. Here’s what one of the detainees, the Yemeni national Musa’ab Al Madhwani, has said:
"Both of my parents have died during the time that I have been in prison in Guantánamo Bay. They were waiting for me to come home and now they are gone. I am afraid that my entire family will be dead before I am released from this prison. I, and other men here at the prison, feel utterly hopeless … I have no reason to believe that I will ever leave this prison alive."
Time is literally running out for many of the detainees. So surely the UK’s early reluctance to get people like Shaker Aamer out of Guantánamo must surely be a thing of the past, mustn’t it? Disturbingly enough, there was a news report last weekend that behind the scenes the UK is still in “no rush” to see Aamer released. Just another week in the murky and increasingly terrible story of Guantánamo …
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