Tell President Obama to release Shaker Aamer

A former prisoner of conscience speaks out on Guantanamo detainee

December 7, 2013 7:00AM ET
Shaker Aamer

On Nov. 19, the U.S. Senate took a big step forward in the struggle to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility by voting to roll back problematic restrictions on the transfer of detainees from the facility. The Senate detainee transfer provisions must now be reconciled with the versions that already passed in the House in June. Once this happens, the president can sign the provisions, which are part of the National Defense Authorization Act, into law for 2014. But President Barack Obama doesn't have to wait on Congress to begin transferring prisoners like Shaker Aamer who were cleared for transfer years ago.

Aamer is a Saudi national and has been imprisoned without charge — the last British resident to be so held — since Nov. 24, 2001. He was moved to Guantánamo on Feb. 14, 2002 and has since been cleared twice by U.S. authorities, once at the personal plea of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Following a recent "60 Minutes" report, Aamer's case has once again caught the attention of the U.S. media. In the CBS broadcast, Aamer can be heard in the background shouting at the journalist from inside his prison cell: "Leave us to die in peace or tell the world the truth!"

Aamer's case is particularly troubling because officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations have said that he should be allowed to leave Guantánamo. In fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama's closest ally in the so-called war on terror, said that the United Kingdom wants Aamer to be released.

Indefinite detention without charge or trial is a violation of human rights, no matter who is being held. As we look forward to International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, there is no better time to call attention to Aamer's unlawful detention and the ongoing violation of human rights at Guantánamo.

This year's Human Rights Day marks the 12th year Aamer will have spent in a prison cell without being told why. But he is far from alone. From Aamer's fellow detainees at Guantánamo to Russian free expression activists and Chinese dissidents, all arbitrarily detained prisoners need the advocacy of global citizens dedicated to impartial justice and universal human rights. 

No one in a position of authority is willing to say why Shaker Aamer is still in custody.

I am painfully familiar with the realities of being held without charge. When I began to speak out against discrimination and segregation under the apartheid policies of my native South Africa in the early 1980s, I was targeted by my own government. I was first held in solitary confinement in local police cells and later transferred to the North End Prison in Port Elizabeth, where I spent three and a half months. It was upon leaving prison that I understood the power of international advocacy: My release was secured in part with the help of a worldwide letter writing campaign spearheaded by Amnesty International.

Commitments like this from complete strangers to fight for everyone's rights reassure detainees that they are not forgotten and remind human rights violators that their actions are not hidden. They also bring public pressure on officials who would rather keep human rights abuses quiet, and frequently lead to action that would have been impossible in the absence of such attention.

Aamer's case deserves that kind of spotlight. Unlike many other detainees at Guantánamo, no one in a position of authority is willing to say why he's still in custody. Aggravated by the conditions of his confinement and alleged torture, his health has deteriorated over the years. He suffers from diabetes, extreme kidney pain and arthritis.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we all seek justice as well as security from future violence. But justice and security come from upholding human rights and the rule of law. Under the certification process for transfers of detainees and the national security waiver to that process that exists in current U.S. law, Aamer could and should be on his way home today. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter to the White House explaining that the national security waiver was intended to provide "a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries in appropriate cases, i.e., to make sure the certification requirements do not constitute an effective prohibition" on transfers.

Every year on Human Rights Day, hundreds of thousands of people take action on behalf of someone they have never met by writing to government officials and individuals at risk and demanding that human rights be respected. It might be hard to believe that in 2013 something as modest as writing a letter can change a life, but sometimes just a glimmer of hope, or the hint of a spotlight, can make a world of difference. My own experience and work has led me to understand the immense power of such simple acts.

As the Board Chair of Amnesty International USA, I, too, will be sitting down this month with pen and paper to engage in an act of letter-writing, as part of our annual Write for Rights campaign. I will be writing to tell the world the truth about Aamer. I remember my own struggle, the impact those letters had on my case and how meaningful they were for me.

It is absolutely vital that we let the world's governments know that we will not stand by idly and, more importantly, that we let Aamer and other unlawfully held prisoners around the world know that we care. This December, join activists from around the world to make your voice is heard, and tell President Obama to return Shaker Aamer to the UK.

Ann Burroughs is the Board Chair for Amnesty International USA and the Executive Director of the Taproot Foundation, Los Angeles.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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