Imagine being imprisoned, year after year, despite having been told that your captors had undertaken a high-level review process and no longer wanted to hold you?
At the United States’ detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, is facing just that situation. More than seven years ago, the George W. Bush administration approved Aamer for release from the detention facility. Five years ago, the high-level interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, appointed by President Barack Obama when he took office, also approved him for release (PDF) and told him he would be freed, along with 125 others, once the necessary arrangements were made. Thirty others, all Yemenis, were told they were being held in “conditional” detention, to be freed if concerns about the security situation in Yemen were met.
Since then, 85 of these men have been released — either to their home countries, or elsewhere if their home countries are regarded as unsafe. Yet Shaker Aamer and 39 others approved by the task force, plus the 30 Yemenis in “conditional” detention, are still being held. Three others were slated for discharge this year by a new review process, the Periodic Review Boards.
The endless detention at Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial has attracted international outrage. After all, most prisoners there haven’t been charged with a crime, nor are they considered soldiers in wartime — a status that would grant them special protections under the Geneva Conventions. The George W. Bush administration, in its “war on terror,” argued that none of these protections applied, but the Supreme Court countered that Geneva’s ban against cruel and inhumane treatment applied to all prisoners.
At Guantánamo men held for nearly 13 years — for the most part without charge or trial — do not know when, if ever, they will be released. No official mechanism exists — neither a sentence delivered by a judge nor the conclusion of a war — to mark the end of their imprisonment.
Of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since the prison opened on January 11, 2002, 626 have been freed, 532 of them under President Bush. Those men were released because of diplomatic pressure, or because of military review processes established as a cynical affront to a Supreme Court ruling, in June 2004, which affirmed that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights — the right to ask an impartial judge on what basis they were being held.
That ruling was overturned by Congress, but it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in June 2008, and over the next two years several dozen prisoners had their releases ordered by federal court judges — until fearful appeals court judges rewrote the rules, gutting habeas corpus of all meaning for the Guantánamo inmates.
Through the habeas decisions and the task force’s deliberations, 66 men were released by President Obama from his inauguration in January 2009 until September 2010. After that, Congress imposed restrictions on the release of prisoners, requiring the administration to notify Congress prior to any planned release, and to certify that it was safe to release them.
For the next two and half years, just five men were released, and it took a prison-wide hunger strike last year, and widespread criticism of the administration's inaction, to prompt President Obama to promise, last May, to resume releasing prisoners.
Since then, 24 men have been released, including, in the last few days, three Yemenis to Georgia, a Yemeni and a Tunisian to Slovakia, and a Saudi to his home country. In addition, a government official told the New York Times that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has notified Congress that he has approved 11 other men for release, including six to be resettled in Uruguay.
Why, then, is Shaker Aamer still waiting? The United States has approved his release and the United Kingdom has been calling for his return since August 2007, under both Labour and Tory governments.
We know that Aamer has been an eloquent defender of prisoners’ rights from the moment he was handed over to the U.S. by bounty hunters in Afghanistan, where he had traveled with his family to provide humanitarian aid. We know that he has been a leader in the prison, because of his outspoken criticism of conditions at Guantánamo, and has tales of torture and abuse to share with the world.
Perhaps this fear of embarrassment is the only thing preventing the United States from ending Aamer’s 13-year imprisonment and allowing him to rejoin his wife and children in Britain. Governments must be forced to respect higher standards of justice and transparency than that. They must be forced to release Shaker Aamer and the thousands of prisoners just like him.