The British government announced that it will pay millions of pounds in compensation to a number of former Guantánamo prisoners, including Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil El-Banna, Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga, who, since last year, have been involved in a civil claim for damages against the intelligence agencies and goverment ministers in the high court, claiming that they were complicit in their unlawful detention, and in some cases, their “extraordinary rendition,” and in the torture and abuse they received while in custody.
The amounts to be paid will not be disclosed, but it has already been suggested that one payout will be more than a million pounds – related, no doubt, to the most horrific of all the cases: that of Binyam Mohamed, seized in Pakistan in April 2002, who was subjected to torture for two years in Pakistan, in Morocco and in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul. In February this year, the Court of Appeal ordered the government to release documents — whose disclosure had been resisted for 18 months by foreign secretary David Miliband — demonstrating that British agents knew that their US counterparts were subjecting Mohamed to torture in Pakistan, and, with the Metropolitan Police also investigating MI5’s role in Mohamed’s torture, and the existence of other information that has never been disclosed in court, it is understandable, frankly, that the government would seek to prevent any more dangerous disclosures in Mohamed’s case.
The announcement of the payments will no doubt cause a tsunami of outrage from the right-wing press, who will not be placated by the government’s argument that the continuation of the court case already initiated by these men, which has involved the government hiring at least 80 lawyers to examine half a million documents, would cost many times this amount (possibly as much as 50 million pounds). These critics will also, presumably, not even be swayed by the government’s national securtity argument: that. as the Guardian explained, “it is in the national interest that the cases are not brought to court so as to protect the security services methods from scrutiny.”
It is certainly true that even the limited disclosure of documents in summer, as a result of the court case, was troubling for the establishment. There was, for example, an FCO document from January 10, 2002, the day before Guantánamo opened, entitled, “Afghanistan UK Detainees,” which described the government’s “preferred options” in dealing with British prisoners. “Transfer of United Kingdom nationals held to a United States base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives, to ensure they are securely held,” the document explained, adding that the “only alternative” was to either hold these men in British custody in Afghanistan, or to return them to the UK.
However, the most shocking revelations in the documents had more to do with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had personally intervened to prevent Martin Mubanga, a British citizen seized in Zambia, from having consular access, and foreign secretary Jack Straw, who, in mid-January 2002, sent a telegram to several British diplomatic missions around the world in which he “signaled his agreement” with the Guantánamo policy, “but made clear that he did not wish to see the British nationals moved from Afghanistan before they could be interrogated.” In the telegram, he wrote:
A specialist team is currently in Afghanistan seeking to interview any detainees with a UK connection to obtain information on their terrorist activities and connections. We therefore hope that all those detainees they wish to interview will remain in Afghanistan and will not be among the first groups to be transferred to Guantánamo. A week’s delay should suffice. UK nationals should be transferred as soon as possible thereafter.
Nevertheless, the fear that the security services’ activities would be opened up to unparalleled scrutiny — when added to the fear of futher disclosures about government ministers and civil servants — ought to silence the critics, as these revelations are not merely embarrassing, but also suggest involvement with war crimes, for which those found to be complicit could face prosecution. For those wishing to avoid such an outcome, the most sensible approach is the one favoured by David Cameron — proceeding with the judicial inquiry into British complicity in the torture of prisoners abroad, which he announced in July, and whose intention, clearly, is to slap a few wrists, hide any damning evidence, and declare that a line can now be drawn under the whole affair.
As I know many of the released prisoners, and have witnessed the pain — and sometimes the horrors — that still haunt them, and that may never leave them, I cannot argue with their right to be compensated, having never received a penny either from the US government or from the British government, despite the involvement of both countries in their detention without charge or trial, their rendition, and their torture and abuse.
However, what particularly concerns me, in the run-up to the government’s official announcement, is what has been decided about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was being ignored until some of the former prisoners — or perhaps all of them — suggested that they were not prepared to enter negotiations until his return from Guantánamo was guaranteed.
Although he was was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, Shaker, who has a British wife and four British children, is still held, with both the British and the American governments blaming the other for his continued detention. The Americans claim to have “security issues,” which, if grounded in any reality at all (and this is itself doubtful), could easily be addressed by the British government, and the Americans occasionally point out, off the record, that the British could have him back easily if they were prepared to make enough of a fuss.
The shameful abandonment of Shaker Aamer is presumably because, as an intelligent, articulate and charismatic man who has been the foremost advocate of the rights of the prisoners in Guantánamo, he knows more than is comfortable about the dark workings of the prison (including the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006). However, holding onto Shaker has never been more than unjustly delaying the inevitable, and, in addition, his claims that he was abused in US custody in Afghanistan while British agents were present (which was the subject of a UK court case last year, leading to the launch of an investigation by the Metropolitan Police) means that it is unthinkable that any kind of inquiry can take place without him.
Most of all, however, the former prisoners look out for one another, and are bonded by their experience in a way that no one who has not been in Guantánamo can quite understand. Everyone who leaves the prison tells those left behind that he will do what he can for them, and while the fate of most of the remaining 174 prisoners is outside anyone’s control — even President Obama’s, either for sinister reasons, or because his critics, and supporters of Guantánamo in the US, are disturbingly infuential — the fate of Shaker Aamer is not, and I hope that today’s announcement will swiftly be followed by the arrival of a plane from Guantánamo bringing Shaker Aamer home.
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 andyworthington.co.uk.