Shaker Aamer has spent nearly 14 years in a bleak steel and concrete jail cell, leading hunger strikes and acting as the voice for Guantánamo Bay’s detainee population, all while never being charged with a crime. Now, it’s all over.
After an intense publicity campaign pressed for his release and British Prime Minister David Cameron requested President Obama expedite the process, Mr. Aamer will now join his family in London as a free man. He was the only Guantánamo prisoner left with notable connections to Britain, where his family currently lives, including a son he has never met and a wife whose father is a retired imam. Aamer is originally from Saudi Arabia.
"He needs, first, to be in a hospital, and then to be with his family," Clive Stafford Smith, one of his lawyers, told The Associated Press.
Aamer told his lawyers he needed to see a doctor in Britain because of health concerns partly originating from repeated hunger strikes while in confinement. He organized one hunger strike that more than 100 prisoner participated in, and often served as a de-facto spokesmen for his fellow detainees through communications with his lawyers.
His release, the 15th this year, brings Guantánamo’s detainee population down to 112. According to CNN, more than 750 detainees have been held at Guantánamo, and at least seven have died while in custody. Last year, the US Defense Department spent nearly $400 million on the base, about $100 million less than in 2010.
Over the course of his detainment, Aamer has received more media attention than any other prisoner, with the exception of five others who are facing trial by military commission for their alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration cleared his release back in June 2007, but bureaucracy stifled his complete exoneration.
Aamer says he went to Afghanistan to assist in running a girls school, but fled when chaos broke out after the US invasion. He was captured by the Northern Alliance, an Afghan military front friendly to the US, and later placed in American custody for a bounty. In February 2002 he began detention at Guantánamo.
But the Defense Department had serious doubts about Aamer’s innocence, and accused the Saudi of having damning ties to terrorists. Among the accusations: sharing an apartment with Zacarias Moussaoui, who would later be convicted for his involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks; meeting with Richard Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber; and undergoing Al Qaeda training and receiving payment from Osama bin Laden.
These allegations and others were discovered in a 2007 detainee assessment acquired and published by Wikileaks. Despite never being charged with a crime, the assessment described him as being a member of Al Qaeda and one of Mr. bin Laden’s “close associates."
Aamer and his advocates have vehemently rejected these accusations. On the 5,000th day of his confinement at Guantánamo, Joy Hurcombe, chair of Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, wrote a letter to the Guardian pleading for Aamer’s release:
Let this be the end of the gross injustice to a man imprisoned without charge or trial. Shaker has borne these years with amazing dignity and fortitude. He bears no anger. He wants no reprisals. His only wish is to be with his loved ones at last. For the future, when his health is restored, he plans to find a way to help to make the world a better place.
One of Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign promises was to permanently close Guantánamo in his first year in office. The Christian Science Monitor reported this past July that the White House released a new plan to bypass opposition from congressional Republicans. Lawmakers would revisit a defense policy bill passed by the Senate to see if constraints that snarl prisoner releases could be eased.
This report contains material from The Associated Press.