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.