Torture in Afghanistan and Guantanamo: Shaker Aamer’s Lawyers Speak

Shaker Aamer photographed with his two children

In December, lawyers for Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, won an important court case in which judges ordered the British government to release information in its possession regarding claims that MI5 agents were present in the US prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when Shaker Aamer was subjected to torture, prior to his transfer to Guantánamo.

Paul Cahalan of the Wandsworth Guardian, covering the borough that Shaker Aamer once called home (and where his British wife and four children live), wrote about this story at the time, and on Thursday he provided important updates, speaking to Shaker’s US lawyer, Brent Mickum and his London-based lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal action charity Reprieve.

Speaking about the recently released files, Brent Mickum told Cahalan that “nothing in those documents has changed my mind” about the torture to which Shaker was subjected in Afghanistan, and the false confessions that he made as a result. In fact, he said, the information “reinforced” Shaker’s claims.

Mickum also made reference to an extraordinary article by the US law professor Scott Horton, published in this month’s Harper’s Magazine, which thoroughly undermines the official narrative regarding the deaths of three prisoners in Guantánamo on June 9, 2006, who reportedly committed suicide. Following up on a report by the Seton Hall Law School, which revealed that the official report was, literally, incredible, and full of glaring omissions and a plethora of contradictions, Horton drew on accounts given by several US military personnel stationed in the guard towers that night, who were able to see into the cell block where the men reportedly hanged themselves, and who all stated that they saw no one hanging, and saw no bodies being moved from the cell block to the clinic, where they were pronounced dead. Instead, one of the men, Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, reported the movements of a vehicle that traveled from the prison to a secret facility outside the perimeter fence — known to the Guantánamo personnel as “Camp No” — which returned shortly before the men’s deaths were announced.

Shaker Aamer’s role in this story — which appears to involve a chilling and far-reaching cover-up — concerns statements he made to his lawyers, describing how, on the night that the three men died with gags stuffed in their mouths, he too was gagged and beaten so mercilessly that he was lucky to survive.

Brent Mickum told Cahalan that Shaker Aamer was, effectively, being silenced to cover up “wrongdoing,” and referred to the Harper’s article, which, as Cahalan put it, said that “US government officials may have conspired to conceal evidence three Guantánamo detainees could have been murdered during interrogation,” by being suffocated. Cahalan also noted that the Harper’s article indicated that this “may explain why the US is reluctant to release Mr. Aamer, who has claimed he was part-suffocated while being tortured the same evening,” an explanation that I have also proposed.

Mickum also told Cahalan that “he had been denied basic access his client, who, after years of solitary confinement, has failing health,” and added that the recent release of the documents relating to Shaker’s torture in Afghanistan “compelled the UK Government to act” to secure his immediate release. He also said:

Before I saw these documents I stated unequivocally that the British Government is complicit in so far as it was present during his torture. Nothing that I have seen in those documents changes my mind. Generally speaking, and without revealing any detail from the documents, my overall impression of the documents is that they are exculpatory in nature, period [in other words, that they prove Shaker’s innocence]. The documents are helpful to Shaker’s defense, in so far as they describe the general allegations against Shaker, which we are in a position to refute almost unequivocally, and they show that he was tortured. What I have seen confirms my position that there is no legitimate evidence against him and confirms my continuing belief that he is being held by the Americans to cover up my government’s wrongdoing.

He added:

And unfortunately I have to, at this point, believe the British are not really advocating strongly enough for their return. As long as he is in Guantánamo he can’t talk and I can’t talk. He is still being tortured down there. And if he ends up dying down there I have to say there is blood on the British hands. The British can only sit back for so long and say, “We did everything we could.” He never posed a threat and he doesn’t pose one now. What this is, is a PR problem for both of them. The British need to do the right thing.

Turning to the Harper’s article, Mickum said, “I have no reason to doubt the information provided by the sergeant [Joe Hickman] is true and what we know is that my client was subjected to being tortured by maybe seven individuals at the same time as three people were alleged to have committed suicide.” He added that he thought that it was “likely” that Shaker was also subjected to torture in “Camp No,” like the three men who died. “That account appears to square with what happened to my client,” he said. “They choked his airway and put a mask over him.”

Despite representing Shaker, Mickum explained that he had not been allowed to see him since May 2009, and expressed concerns about his health. “Anyone who has been kept in the conditions he has been maintained in has to be suffering and laboring highly,” he said, adding, “My client wants to meet with me and he wants to talk to me, he is not being allowed to meet me or not being allowed to talk to me.”

Just last month, Mickum tried to call Shaker, but was told that Shaker didn’t want to speak to him. “Based on my conversations with him when I was able to talk to him, I just know he wants to meet with me and wants to talk to me,” he said, adding, “This is a convenient way to keep this story from coming out, that’s all it is.”

Clive Stafford Smith gave a similar appraisal, explaining, as Cahalan described it, that the Harper’s article “added to his belief the US government was afraid of what Mr. Aamer may reveal.”

Stafford Smith added:

This is merely confirmation, fairly stark confirmation, that the reason they wanted not to send him home to his family in England, but rather to send him to [his native] Saudi Arabia was simply to gag him. I have known Shaker for some time, and because he is so eloquent and outspoken about the injustices of Guantánamo he is very definitely viewed as a threat by the US. Not in the sense of being an extremist but in the sense of being someone who can rather eloquently criticize the nightmare that happened there.

With reference to the particular nightmare that took place in June 2006, it may be that the authorities at Guantánamo have refused to allow Shaker to meet with Brent Mickum or even to speak with him since May 2009 because that was when they first got wind that a former insider — Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, a man with a faultless 17-year record in the military, and experience in military intelligence — had decided to come forward to explain why the official suicide story was a cover-up.

To date, the US media has paid little attention to these startling and profoundly troubling allegations, and it is clear, from a Justice Department investigation that was started, and then abruptly halted, that the desire to maintain the official line extends far beyond Guantánamo itself.

As it is, frankly, beyond rational dispute that, whatever occurred on the night on June 9. 2006, the official story is fatally flawed, and an independent investigation should be opened, it therefore remains deeply troubling, as those scrutinizing Shaker’s case recognize, that he has been held incommunicado for the last nine months, and that there is still no sign of when he will be freed, even though a military review board under the Bush administration approved his release in 2007.

Take action for Shaker Aamer

Shaker Aamer features prominently in the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington. The film is showing at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre on Tuesday February 16, and the National Film Theatre on Saturday February 27, and is then touring the UK. To book tickets for the Amnesty screening, see here, for the NFT see here, and see this page for details of the UK tour.

At the screenings, the speakers (including released prisoners Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg, plus Andy, Polly and other guests) will discuss what steps we can all take to put pressure on the British government to demand the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, to be reunited with his family. To get involved now, please visit this Amnesty International action page, to find details of how you can write to David Miliband and Gordon Brown, asking them to demand Shaker’s return. Please also visit this page for a video of Shaker’s daughter Johina handing in a letter to Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 11, 2010.

The Wandsworth Guardian is also pressing for Shaker Aamer’s release. In another article in the paper on Thursday, readers were requested to join the Facebook group Save Shaker Aamer, to write to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, demanding that he meets the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign to discuss a way forward (write to: David Miliband, Foreign Office, King Charles Street, SW1A 2AH), and to write to their MPs asking them to sign the Early Day Motion (EDM) put forward in Parliament by Martin Linton MP, Shaker’s local MP. Readers can contact their MPs via WriteToThem.

Linton’s EDM (EDM 547) is available here, and currently has 57 MP’s signatures, which, as Mr. Linton told the Wandsworth Guardian, “needed to be 100 to send out a strong message.” He also said that he and the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign were not only pressing for a meeting with the Foreign Office, but planned to take Shaker’s case to Washington D.C., in a visit with Amnesty International, that is planned for March.

Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at

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