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Release all the Guantánamo prisoners now

SACC Press Release
11 January 2011

On the 10th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay's inauguration as an illegal prison camp, human rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) is calling for the immediate release of all the prisoners still held there. SACC is also calling for a comprehensive and open inquiry into the role of the British Government and British authorities in torture and illegal detention at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

779 prisoners have been held at Guantánamo over the past decade. One of President Obama's first actions on taking office in January 2009 was to order the camp to be shut down. The order was ignored by the military authorities and them abandoned by the President. 171 prisoners are still being illegally held at Guantanamo Bay.

89 of these prisoners have "cleared" for release. The review process that cleared the men lacks any legitimacy in international law. Men kidnapped and held illegally don't need clearance from their kidnappers before they can exercise their right to liberty. But the review process means that, at least for these 89 men, there is nothing but US institutional obstinacy blocking their release.

SACC has been campaigning for most of the last decade for all the Guantánamo prisoners to either be released to a safe country or to be given a fair and open trial. Today we are saying that ten years is enough. It's time to let the prisoners go.

The prisoners have been held illegally for many years under abusive conditions and at least some of them have been tortured. Their capacity to conduct an effective defence has been fatally undermined. Because of this, any just court presented with a case against any of the prisoners would inevitably have to dismiss the charges.

Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, said:

"The US has had almost a decade to construct viable cases against the men it kidnapped and has failed to do so. It has no other option left than to release the men."

The last British citizens held at Guantánamo Bay returned home in January 2005, thanks to a public campaign for their release. But two men with connections to Britain are still being held at Guantánamo, despite having been cleared for release. They are Shaker Aamer, a Saudi-born British resident, Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian refugee who lived in England for two and a half years.

The British Government refuses to accept any responsibility for Ahmed Belbacha, saying he is not a British resident because he didn't attend an asylum appeal. In fact, he was being held illegally by the US on the date of his appeal. The Government must stop ducking its responsibilities. It must offer Ahmed Belbacha a home in Britain and forcefully urge the US Government to release him.

British Government approved illegal rendition and detention of British citizens

The British Government accepts Shaker Aamer's right of residence in the UK and claims to have pressed the US for his release. But there are serious doubts about the sincerity of Britain's efforts on Shaker Aamer's behalf. The doubts were reinforced by the evidence released in 2010 during a civil case brought against the British Government by a number of former Guantánamo prisoners. Foreign Office files revealed that the Government had expressly sanctioned the illegal rendition and detention of British citizens.

For example, a telegram from the FCO, dated January 10, 2002, said:

"we accept that the transfer of UK nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to the US base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objective by ensuring that they are securely held."

The British Government placed almost insurmountable obstacles in the path of the former prisoners attempting to obtain truth and justice. In the end, the case was brought to a halt in November 2010 when the former prisoners, having little choice, accepted an offer of compensation from the Government. The terms of settlement are secret, but probably place some limitations on matters that the former prisoners can discuss in public.

The ex-prisoners made it clear to the Government they were more interested in securing the release of Shaker Aamer than in obtaining financial compensation. The Government's response is unknown. But it is now clear that David Cameron and William Hague have betrayed the hopes that were placed in them.

The "Detainee Inquiry" subsequently set up to investigate British involvement in abuse is hopelessly secretive and allows no meaningful participation by former and current detainees. It has rightly been rejected by human rights organisations.

The Government must set up a fresh inquiry, to be conducted openly, able to take evidence from all torture victims and stakeholders who wish to provide it and to compel evidence from officials and ministers who do not wish to provide it. There is no other way to begin the process of protecting people from torture.

Richard Haley Chair of SACC, said:

"The civil case brought against the Government by former Guantanamo prisoners offered the best chance we have had to learn about the British Government's involvement in torture and rendition. It's no surprise that the Government made it virtually impossible for the case to proceed, and then made the men an offer they couldn’t refuse. The 'Detainee Inquiry' set up after the case was halted is secretive, toothless and discredited.

"We are all indebted to the former prisoners and their lawyers for pursuing their case as far as they did. Working with minimal resources, they have given us a few pages of a chapter of British history that cries out to be written.

"We now know enough to to say that we can't take on face value the Government's claim that it is trying to secure the release of Shaker Aamer. We need to see the evidence. Given the history of the case, the only evidence that counts will be the appearance of Shaker Aamer in the UK as a free man."

Shaker Aamer is still being held in solitary confinement and is now in very poor health. He is suffering from arthritis, serious asthma, heartburn, acid reflux, prostate pain, problem with his ears, dizziness and problems with balance, neck and shoulder pain, ringworm, hemorrhoids, kidney pain and untreated serious and painful infection of his finger nails. These conditions have been caused by years of physical attacks by the guards, by the harshness of the prison regime and by neglect. He is "falling apart at the seams," according to lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith.

If the British Government is serious about bringing Shaker Aamer home, it needs to tell the US not to expect "business as usual " with the UK until that happens.

Demo in Edinburgh

Scottish campaigners will be holding a demonstration calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay on Saturday 14 January in Edinburgh. The protest will be held from 12 noon to 4pm at the East end of Princes St (in front of Register House, where North Bridge meets Waterloo Place and Princes Street). It is being organised by Edinburgh University Amnesty International and is supported by SACC and Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition.