After Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer’s BBC Interview

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On Monday, after an exclusive interview with the Mail on Sunday, published the day before (which I wrote about here and here), both the BBC and ITV News ran interviews with Shaker Aamer, who, until October 30, was the last British resident in the prison.

I am delighted to have played a part in securing Shaker’s release through ten years of writing about Guantánamo, and campaigning to get the prison closed, and, for the last eleven months of Shaker’s imprisonment, through the We Stand With Shaker campaign that I launched with the activist Joanne MacInnes last November.

I have also had the pleasure of meeting Shaker since his release, and was delighted to find that everything I had worked out about him from the reports that have emerged from Guantánamo and from those who know him — his eloquence, his intelligence and his implacable devotion to tackling injustice — was accurate, and this was also evident in his interview with Victoria Derbyshire for her morning show on BBC2, which I’m posting below via YouTube where it has already received over 55,000 views.

Note: Please be aware there are a few glitches in the video, where the sound and images are lost for a few seconds and there is only disturbing white noise.

Much of Shaker’s testimony is, of course, very harrowing — aspects of his capture, imprisonment in brutal conditions in Afghanistan, and, of course, his 13 years and eight months in Guantánamo — but I’m glad to note there are also opportunities to see his dancing eyes and his winning smile, when discussing happier things, or when dark humour provides an opportunity for his extraordinary energy to express itself.

So please, if you have the time, watch the video and share it with your friends and family. Watch Shaker talk about being reunited with his family, and the joys and difficulties that brings, about why he went to Afghanistan in July 2001, how he was seized — along with so many others, fleeing the death and destruction that followed the US-led invasion after 9/11, in search only of safety but instead finding betrayal, as anyone who could be sold to the US as a member of al-Qaeda or the Taliban was sold by the US’s Afghan and Pakistani allies.

Watch Shaker talk about the brutality of his treatment in US custody in Bagram, in Afghanistan, and how a British agent was present while he was being violently abused by his US captors, watch as he talks about how an interrogator in Kandahar threatened to rape his five-year old daughter, and watch also how — for legal reasons, presumably — he is not yet able to speak freely about what happened to Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the training camp director who he encountered after his capture, and who was then flown to Egypt where he was tortured and told lies about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that were used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Libi later recanted his lies, but was returned to Col. Gaddafi in Libya, where he died in prison in May 2009, allegedly by committing suicide, although that explanation has always seemed extremely unlikely.

Asked if Tony Blair and Jack Straw should be prosecuted for their involvement in his treatment, Shaker responds that he is only interested in them telling the truth, and what particularly motivates him is a desire to see Guantánamo closed (this is from 35:50 to 36:50).

He then speaks about the brutality in Kandahar, which was even worse than in Bagram, and then responds to the allegations against him, which can be found in the classified military file released by WikiLeaks in 2011. He responded to Victoria Derbyshire’s questions about these allegations by, quite accurately, denying them all, because they are all profoundly untrustworthy, as I touched upon in my article from early October, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Truth, Lies and Distortions in the Coverage of Shaker Aamer, Soon to be Freed from Guantánamo.”

The interview then deals with Shaker’s time at Guantánamo. Asked how to describe it, he compares it to Azkaban from the Harry Potter books, which sucks out all the happiness from life — and later calls it a world of mental and physical destruction engineered by psychologists, who “know how to manipulate you and to make you get scared.” He also speaks about the specific torture program that took place in the early years, when prisoners were held in isolation, subjected to extreme cold, loud music and noise, short-shackled in painful positions, and more — and see below for his confirmation that, for some prisoners, this kind of abuse has never stopped.

Shaker also speaks about the Extreme Reaction Force (ERF), the teams of armed guards who punish any perceived infringement of the rules with brutality. Shaker was subjected to ERF attacks on hundreds of occasions, and, asked why he resisted — in connection with an apple stem, for example, which he used as a toothpick — he explained that it was important for him not to be broken, something that was made abundantly clear throughout his imprisonment.

Shaker also speaks about the three deaths at the prison on June 9, 2006 — evidently not believing the official story that it was a triple suicide — which he mentions in the preamble to discussing how he became friends with ants during a horrendously long period of isolation. He also speaks about how important the cats that roamed the grounds were to the prisoners, and he also discusses the birds he befriended.

Asked more about the night of the three deaths, Shaker explains, as he has before, that he was tortured that night, adding — as was not known before — that it was because the guards wanted to take a retina scan and a photo, which he wouldn’t allow. He was then held in isolation for a month, without being told what had happened, but when asked to speak more about the deaths he said he was not able to talk about it right now, but will when he can — again, presumably, for legal reasons.

Asked how he coped with being approved for release but not freed — for eight years in total, from 2007 until his release two months ago — he says he blames himself for not going to Saudi Arabia, as the authorities wanted in 2007, and again in 2009, when, in addition, he thought Guantánamo would soon be closed, because of President Obama’s promise to close it within a year of taking office. He also, however, explains why he was extremely wary of returning to Saudi Arabia.

Shaker also speaks, with powerful indignation, about how torture is still used at Guantánamo on prisoners regarded as uncooperative — hunger strikers, for example, who are still held in Camp Five Echo, which I wrote about here and here (in the latter case, via Shaker himself).

Shaker also thanks those who campaigned to free him, and who kept his spirits up when he found it difficult to maintain his extraordinary resilience, and he specifically mentions Joy Hurcombe, the chair of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, and Jo and myself from We Stand With Shaker.

When he is asked, “Will Guantánamo ever close?” Shaker says yes, and when asked when that will be, he says, “When the world knows the truth about it.”

For my part, I hope to be able to help Shaker to tell the truth about Guantánamo and to get the prison closed.

Towards the end of the interview, Shaker gets to speak about a song that meant a lot to him as a young person, when he was working in the US — “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake — and repeats the chorus:

Here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone
An’ I’ve made up my mind, I ain’t wasting no more time

I hope, one day, that Shaker will join me on stage with my band The Four Fathers — to sing “Here I Go Again” if he wants — but primarily to take part in my “Song for Shaker Aamer,” which was used in the campaign video for We Stand With Shaker, and which features Shaker shouting from his cell in Guantánamo during a visit by a US TV crew in 2013.

At the very end of the interview, Shaker points out that rethinking what has happened since 9/11 — including the existence of Guantánamo — is necessary for the US and its allies. As he says, “Justice will bring justice and injustice will bring injustice.”

I am with you, Shaker!

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