Yesterday, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident being held at the United States’ detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was released from custody. Aamer was held on trumped-up accusations that he led a unit of fighters in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, against the U.S. and its allies. Though these allegations were proved false — even George W. Bush’s administration later admitted it had no evidence against Aamer — he was imprisoned at Guantánamo for 14 years without being charged with a crime. His release is undoubtedly a joyous day for him, his family and the tens of thousands of people around the world who advocated for his release. Like other former British detainees released from Guantánamo, however, he will face many challenges in his new life as a free man.
Though he was never charged with a crime, he will be treated like all the other British citizens who were captured in the United States’ global “war on terrorism.” He will always be labeled as an enemy combatant by the United States government. His travel will be restricted, his life will be closely monitored and scrutinized by the U.S. and British governments, and his reputation will always be called into question and otherwise denigrated.
We have seen this happen to Ruhal Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal — three British citizens who traveled to Afghanistan to attend a friend’s wedding in October of 2001. They happened to visit Afghanistan amid the chaos of the U.S. invasion and were mistakenly identified as enemy combatants and subsequently captured by U.S. forces. They were held in Guantánamo for two years before finally being released, without charge. In 2006 the three men made a movie, “The Road to Guantánamo,” detailing their experiences at the prison facility. After the movie was released in the U.K., the United States labeled all three men enemy combatants who had returned to the battlefield.
Another British citizen, Mozzam Begg, was also released without charge in 2005, after having spent nearly two years at Guantánamo. Since his release, he has been closely monitored by British authorities. In February 2014, he was arrested and detained for traveling to Syria. At first, the British government claimed he was providing training and funding for terrorist groups overseas. In truth, his visit to Syria was to help the citizens of that country defend themselves against war crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Eight months after his arrest, British authorities conceded the charges were “unrealistic,” dropped them and released him from custody.
Records show it has been difficult for most former Guantánamo detainees to adjust to society after their release. Even though most of them have been released without charge — in some cases the U.S. government even admitted it had the wrong person — they are still officially labeled terrorists, tainting their names and reputations. This seems especially true of British former detainees.
As for all the people who advocated for Aamer’s release, their work should not stop now that he is home. As the past cases of freed detainees show, he needs their support now more than ever.