The U.S. military on Friday released a British resident who had been held as a war-on-terror captive at Guantánamo for more than 13 years but was never charged with a crime.
Shaker Aamer, 48, was one of Guantánamo’s best known prisoners because some Britons, including his wife and four children living in London, turned his case into a cause célèbre. In May, a bipartisan delegation of British members of parliament stumped for his release in meetings with Obama administration officials as well as members of Congress.
The transfer, the second release from the prison in 42 hours, left the detention center population at 112 captives. Of them, 52 are like Aamer was on the eve of his flight off this remote U.S. Navy base: approved for release with security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
In the U.S. Aamer has been heard on a 60 Minutes segment hollering, “Tell the world the truth” at a CBS camera crew in a rare scrap of prison camp audio to survive the U.S. military censor’s delete button.
Aamer had been cleared for transfer from Guantánamo since 2007 although behind-the-scenes negotiations never sealed a deal until Carter notified Congress last month that he’d approved Aamer’s repatriation to the United Kingdom.
In part he confounded U.S. efforts to send him to his native Saudi Arabia by both refusing to agree to go through the Saudi rehabilitation program, a prerequisite imposed by the Saudis on repatriation, and by renouncing his citizenship.
In his departure, however, Aamer left like more than 100 Saudis held in the detention center: in a private aircraft, not shackled and bound inside a U.S. military cargo plane secured by American soldiers. The small executive jet took off from remote Guantánamo at 12:03 a.m.
The Pentagon waited until midmorning to confirm the downsizing at the detention center, leaving it to British officials to make the announcement. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond did it, while Aamer was still en route to a small executive airport in South East London.
Upon arrival, The Associated Press reported, Aamer was taken away by ambulance and made no public comments.
In Britain, activists highlighted Aamer’s captivity at Guantánamo as a special case because he was the last captive awaiting reunification with family in in the U.K.
But another long-held prisoner here has kin there, too: Lawyers for 13-year Guantánamo captive Raviv Mingazov, 47, wrote to the British Foreign Office in September seeking family reunification for Mingazov with his 15-year-old son Yusef and ex-wife Dilyara, in Nottingham, England. The Muslim family got there last year from Russia, and has asylum, said attorney Gary Thompson.
Mingazov’s story is less well known. A former ballet dancer with the Red Army, he argues through his lawyers that he fled anti-Muslim persecution in his homeland in 2000 to Tajikistan, then on to Afghanistan and finally Pakistan, where he was captured by security forces in a raid on a suspected al-Qaida safehouse — and handed over to the United States.
Although he was never charged with a crime at Guantánamo, a 2009 Obama Task Force recommended his case be considered for prosecution. Then in May 2010, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled for his release — finding no evidence to justify detaining him — a decision the Obama administration contested.
But, unlike Aamer, Mingazov is not approved for release. He’s entitled to present his case to a periodic parole board but has yet to get a hearing date, Thompson said.
For a time, Mingazov’s story gained sympathy in left-wing circles, and his story was highlighted at an Amherst, Massachusetts, town meeting that voted to offer asylum to two cleared Guantánamo captives — something that became impossible once Congress imposed an embargo on U.S. transfers.
Aamer aspires to set up a “Peace and Philanthropy Center” at a London university, said his British-American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith of the nonprofit legal defense group Reprieve. The goal is to “share his experience — in the spirit of reconciliation, not persecution, to ensure that in the future nobody has to go through what he had gone through.”
Aamer has three teenaged children, including son, Faris, 13, whom he’s never met. The boy was born Feb. 14, 2002, a day after Aamer was brought to Guantánamo for initial custody at the crude open-air compound called Camp X-Ray.
“Shaker is an indomitable spirit,” Smith said, calling him “a friend as well as a client” and future partner on the peace and reconciliation enterprise.
A 2007 military intelligence profile considered Aamer a “close associate of” Osama bin Laden with a history of “jihadist combat” — as well as a disruptive detainee who spent years on disciplinary status for inciting disturbances and refusing to do what the guards told him.
“Shaker is not and never has been a terrorist, and has been cleared by the Americans themselves for eight years,” Smith said in a statement following disclosure of the release order.
Stafford Smith called the announcement “great news, albeit about 13 years too late.”
He had urged the British government to pressure Obama to ignore the statutory 30-day notice period and put the prisoner “on a plane tomorrow” so he could be reunited with his family and “start rebuilding his life.” Neither side budged, and Aamer left five days after the period expired.