News of yet another death in my former place of torment, Guantánamo Bay, comes with great sadness, but little surprise. When three young Muslim men detained in Guantanamo returned home in coffins last year - two Saudis and one Yemeni – the US commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris and assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy Colleen Graffy, the described the alleged suicides as acts of ‘asymmetric warfare’ and ‘a good PR move’. These tactless words proved embarrassing even for the usually hard-line President himself. Henceforth, the stated aim of Mr. Bush was that he ‘would like to see Guantánamo closed’. It’s almost a year to date since these men died, yet results of the autopsy have still not been released. Since attention regarding these cases tapered off into insignificance for the Bush administration conditions in Guantanamo have deteriorated according to visiting detainee lawyers, human rights organisations and the handful of released prisoners.
I’ve spoken with some of my former cell mates released this year who tell me conditions have worsened and are unbearably bleak and harsh in all sections of the camp. Concentrations of large numbers of prisoners in tiny cells, with no natural light, solitary confinement, constant glaring lights, no communication with the outside world and very little recreation have brought many more people to breaking point than the US administration would have us believe.
Instead of informing families directly, the US administration has deemed it more appropriate to simply release a terse press statement which mentions only the dead man’s nationality and time of death. When I called the Guantanamo public affairs office they were unable to confirm the name or the number of the deceased man. There are over 60 Saudi families with loved ones held in Guantanamo and I’ve been on the phone with a few of them already. They are undoubtedly distraught with anxiety, each one bracing itself for the worst. One of them is the family of my friend, Shaker Aamer, a Saudi national and South London resident, whose British family – including a son he’s never seen – have waited for him in anguish for five and a half years. He has been on hungers-strike for over six months, kept alive having liquid food forced through his nasal passage into his stomach. Shaker has spent a total of over three years in solitary confinement. When I received a letter from him last year he was in a state of paranoia - feeling he could trust no one. One of the last letters received by his family states:
“I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process [of dying] that is going to happen anyway.
“I would like to die quietly, by myself. I was once 250 lbs (17 stone 12 lbs). I dropped to 130 lbs (9 stone 4 lbs) in the first hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no ‘help’, no ‘intensive assisted feeding’. This is my legal right.
“The British government refuses to help me. What is the point of my wife being British? I thought Britain stood for justice, but they … abandoned us [British residents], people who have lived in Britain for years, and who have British wives and children. I hold the British government responsible for my death, as I do the Americans.”
The British government maintains that it cannot make representations on behalf of non-UK citizens held in Guantánamo, the way it did – after three years – for me. But only a few weeks ago Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi national and British resident, was returned to the UK and released after the UK government negotiated his repatriation due to ‘special interests’. We – including Bisher - are all agreed that the UK government’s stance is now untenable. They must call for Shaker’s return home – if it isn’t already too late. Some of the last words Shaker related to his (and my) lawyer in Guantanamo, Clive Stafford Smith, was the US military response to his protest against treatment and imprisonment without charge or trial:
“Do you think the world will ever learn of your hunger strike? We will never let them know…We care nothing if [any] one of you dies.”
I used to escape from Guantánamo every night in my sleep – praying that I’d never awake. Waking up the next day was part of a slow death which I was finally delivered from. Many Guantánamo prisoners I believe now make the same prayer, and if they are not released, more of them will be escaping: in coffins.
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