After years of imprisonment, victims of America’s ‘icon of lawlessness’ were released without charge, but their lives have been shattered
They call each other “brother” and the warmth between them is tangible. Not close friends as such, they come from different walks of life, cultures and backgrounds, but have been thrown together by a shared experience. They are Britain’s survivors of Guantánamo, the detention centre that has been called the “gulag of our times”.
All were imprisoned, interrogated and held without charge or trial; some allege that they were tortured; all have suffered lasting effects to their mental and physical health.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the first detainees arriving at Guantánamo Bay detention camps, where the open-mesh and barbed-wire cells became synonymous with the abuse of human rights and the scandal of illegal rendition. The camp was called an “icon of lawlessness” by Amnesty International because inside its high-security fences all conventions of international justice, from the Geneva Convention to access to legal representation, were ignored.
Still in operation despite Barack Obama‘s pre- and post-election pledges to close it, Guantánamo now houses 171 prisoners, including the last remaining British resident, Shaker Aamer. In total nine British citizens and six British residents were among the 774 adults and children imprisoned in Guantánamo camps, built on a US naval outpost on the southeastern tip of Cuba to house the “enemy combatants” of George Bush‘s war on terror.
All bar Aamer were released back to the UK without charge. All were interviewed by the British authorities on their return and allowed to go back to whatever remained salvageable of their lives and were later awarded out-of-court compensation for their extrajudicial ordeal. Four have had their travel outside the UK restricted.
Any involvement the men may or may not have had with the fighting in Afghanistan or with any terror plots has never been proved. Most, says Guantánamo expert and author Andy Worthington, were “a bunch of nobodies”.
“One tries to stay very objective in taking an overview of Guantánamo, but at the end of the day it’s pretty evident that all but a handful of the people caught up in the trawling approach the Americans took post-9/11 in Afghanistan were not terrorists,” he said.
“Some were hanging out in Afghanistan because it was a cheap place to live or study, some young idealistic men might have gone to training camps to get involved in fighting against the Northern Alliance but, not to be too flippant, it was a bunch of boy scouts with AK47s. A combination of drifters and footsoldiers. The Americans were so busy cranking up the significance of what they were doing and hanging on to people they should have let go, it became a colossal waste of resources.”
On 14 February, 43-year-old Aamer will have spent 10 years in Guantánamo, without charge or trial, and two years after he was cleared for release by the US authorities. The day will be the 10th birthday of the youngest of his four children, Faris, who has never met his father. The family, who live in Battersea, south London, have had a difficult time coping. Aamer’s wife, Zin, suffers from depression and the children have been badly bullied because of who their dad is. Faris is struggling at school.
In a recent letter to the outside world from Aamer and six other prisoners, he wrote: “After these years of hardship that we have spent here, we want you to consider our cases as soon as possible and give us the right to a just and a public trial or set us free without restriction.”
Aamer, who worked for an Islamic relief organisation in Bosnia and Afghanistan, claims he was told by MI5 officers he could either spy on jihadists in the UK or stay in American custody. The US has accused Aamer of being Osama bin Laden’s personal interpreter, although he denies ever meeting him. In 2007 he was cleared for release.
His continuing detention is causing great concern among human rights campaigners, MPs and the British government, which has petitioned the US for his immediate release. His lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, who visited Aamer in November, has expressed deep concern about his declining health, made worse by several hunger strikes.
As part of the detainees’ financial agreement with the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, a sum is believed to have been set aside for Aamer, Britain’s last link to the discredited detention camp.
“We are all worried about Shaker,” said Asif Iqbal, 40, one of the “Tipton Three” who were among the first wave of British men to be released from Guantánamo in 2004 after two years in custody. All three were accused of visiting training camps for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and handling weapons. “We know what it is like to be there and there is only so long a man can survive. He was a figure of support to everyone in Guantánamo, he really looked out for people and fought for prisoners’ rights. That is probably why they won’t let him go now.”
“Coming back to Britain, you are branded, you live like a guilty man. You assume they are listening to every call, every conversation,” said Feroz Ali Abbasi, 31, from Croydon, who was imprisoned in Guantánamo in 2002 after being picked up in Afghanistan.
The US authorities say he fought alongside al-Qaida and the Taliban and attended training camps. His lawyers argue that Abbasi is one of a small group of idealistic young Muslim men who found themselves caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was released in 2005.
“When 7/7 happened I waited for them to kick down my door. I want to go to university and I’ve to think really carefully about what course I take. Can it be misconstrued, can it be linked to terrorism? When the authorities have behaved without logic, with such stupidness, you still believe they are after us, just waiting for an opportune moment,” he said.
“It’s hard when Britain didn’t look after you. I don’t think we [ex-detainees] are wanted in this country, we’re made not to feel wanted. But they took liberties in Guantánamo Bay, and if we do not speak out they will take liberties with someone else, Muslim or not.”
The experiences of being inside the camps have not left any of the detainees. Several who came to the Observer photoshoot still find it difficult to talk about what happened, including Tarek Dergoul, 34, from east London, who lost an arm and his toes in an US airstrike in Afghanistan where he said he was on a business trip to buy property. He has talked about his torture before, but today says he cannot and politely refused to be photographed. “Sometimes you can talk and sometimes it sticks in your throat,” he said.
Abbasi recognised how Dergoul is feeling: “For me, speaking English broke a lot of barriers, because if you speak to the guards you become a person. I had two years in isolation, so you had to talk to soldiers.
“I spent a lot of time analysing them and realised that for Americans they have to believe they are right. You have to be a terrorist. They assume you are both Taliban and al-Qaida, there is no doubt in their minds, and in their view they have a right to treat you badly, seeking their retribution.
“I remember looking through my cage at another man who had a wife and child and thought how lucky I was to be a single man so I could concentrate on myself surviving. You are on edge 24/7, your senses are tuned to what they will do to you next, a footstep, a bolt opening, the creak of a door. Once I’d left, my mind did strange things. I’d be walking down the street and see buildings on fire, cars on fire. I had this impulse to hit out at people, even my mother. It was very troubling. Over time I’m becoming myself, but I did forget who I was. You are in one consciousness all the time, one survival mode.”
The bonds created between the survivors are strong and all the men are here in order to support the campaign for the release of Shaker Aamer.
“The pain of Guantánamo is made much worse by the pain of people left there,” said Bisher Al-Rawi, 44, an Iraqi living in Derby, who was released in 2007 after almost five years. “When Guantánamo started I was living in London and watching all about it on TV. Back then I truly believed that the people in Guantánamo were terrorists. It’s funny, but I did.”
Bisher said he was on a business trip to Gambia with his business partner, Jamil al-Banna, when he was arrested by the Gambian National Intelligence Agency in November 2002. They were later handed on to US authorities, who sent them to Bagram airbase and from there to Guantánamo Bay. US files show they were believed to have been in possession of bomb-making devices
“It is like being thrown into a very dark grave. The level of fear it is possible to experience and survive is something terrible. I tried very hard to preserve my body and my mind and thought I had done a good job until I was released. The emotions involved are still very personal and overwhelming, there is a real deep pain. I try not to remember the faces of the people who hurt me, so I can concentrate on those who are left behind.”
Al-Rawi said he too was glad he did not have a family. “I’d been really hoping to get married and it didn’t work out; that was something I was very thankful for when I was in Guantánamo. The families suffered so much, I was glad that was not my family.”
The “no smoke without fire” approach has dogged all the survivors back in the UK. Omar Deghayes had to have CCTV fitted at his home by police because of months of racist attacks by local youths.
For Deghayes, 42, six years’ imprisonment in Guantánamo also destroyed his marriage. His wife in East Sussex wrote to him in prison, but her letters were never delivered and neither were his to her. Both believed they had been abandoned and she returned to her family in Afghanistan. It was, he has said, one of the cruellest things that happened to him during his detention.
The other was the loss of sight in one eye after a guard allegedly tried to gouge out his eyeballs with his fingers. Deghayes, a law graduate, fled Libya for the UK as a child after his father was executed by the Gaddafi regime. He had been living in Pakistan with his wife and child when he was picked up by the Americans.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Deghayes now lives in Brighton and works with human rights group Reprieve and other survivors of Guantánamo on the ongoing court cases against the UK government’s alleged complicity in human rights abuses at Guantánamo and other detention centres around the world.
An inquiry into the involvement of British intelligence services in torture and rendition has opened but is not due to begin calling witnesses until all those cases have concluded. All the British detainees, and charities including Amnesty International, have announced they will boycott the Detainee Inquiry, headed by Sir Peter Gibson, because of concerns that it will not be open and transparent.
“We may never get a public inquiry and examination of what happened at Guantánamo,” said Worthington. “But we do know it has left a toxic legacy. Guantánamo was an aberration.”
Abbasi’s verdict was simple and damning: “Guantánamo was an excuse to take away the rights of ordinary people. It must not happen again.”
The men America freed
Asif Iqbal, 40, of Tipton, West Midlands
Released in March 2004 after two years. On arrival at Guantánamo, a soldier told him: “You killed my family in the towers and now it’s time to get you back.”
Jamil el Banna, 59, a Palestinian from Jordan
Has UK refugee status. He has five children, the last one born while he was in captivity. Released in 2007.
Jamal al-Harith, 45, from Manchester
A backpacker arrested by the Taliban who ended up in US detention. The web designer was freed in 2004 after two years.
Feroz ali Abbasi, 31, from Croydon, south London
UK citizen born in Uganda. In 2002 the British Court of Appeal found his detention “legally objectionable”. Freed in 2005.
Bisher al-Rawi, 44, Iraqi-born
British resident living in Derby with wife and two young children. Picked up in Gambia in 2002 and freed in 2007.
Shafiq Rasul, 44, of Tipton, West Midlands
Released March 2004. US supreme court case Rasul vs Bush established detainees could challenge whether their detention is constitutional.
Rhuhel Ahmed, 40, of Tipton, West Midlands
Held without trial or charge for more than two years. One of the Tipton Three who released a report detailing abuse and torture.
Martin Mubanga, 38, from Wembley, north London
Victim of extraordinary rendition, held for 33 months accused of al-Qaida links after his passport was found in a Pakistan base.
Moazzam Begg, 43, from Birmingham
After three years in US custody, he is now director of the London-based prisoners’ rights charity Cageprisoners Ltd and an outspoken critic of anti-terror legislation.
Tarek Dergoul, 34, from London
Claims to have gone to Afghanistan to buy up properties from fleeing refugees. Lost an arm and toes in an allied bombing raid. Although he attended the photoshoot to support his fellow detainees, he is deeply shy and politely refused to be photographed.
Omar Deghayes, 42, from Brighton
The Libyan-born British citizen was blinded, beaten and sexually assaulted between 2002 and 2007, despite having never been charged with an offence.
Richard Dean Belmar, 32, from London
Returned to the UK in 2005 after three years imprisonment, first in Pakistan, then Bagram and finally Guantánamo. Converted from Catholicism to Islam and had enrolled in a religious school in Afghanistan.
Binyam Mohamed, 33
An Ethiopian national who moved to the UK in 1994, he spent seven years in custody, four at Guantánamo. He was released in 2009. He is taking the government to court over British alleged complicity in his torture.
Sameur Abdenour, 38, from London
Fled persecution from the military dictatorship in his native Algeria and was granted asylum in this country in 2000. He was detained in Guantánamo from 2002 to 2007.
… and one they still hold
Shaker Aamer, 43, Saudi-born
Next month Aamer will mark the 10th anniversary of his detention in Guantánamo. He worked as a legal translator in the UK and married a British woman in 1994. He claims to have been in Afghanistan working for a Saudi charity when he was picked up in 2002 and handed over to the Americans. He is thought to have angered the prison authorities by going on hunger-strike protests. He was cleared for release by the US in 2007 but remains in isolation.
By Tracy McVeigh