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Twelve Years a Guantánamo Slave

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Well, not exactly a slave, but a slave of the Guantánamo system. I'm talking about Shaker Aamer, the former UK resident who is still - still - marooned at the notorious US detention centre in the Caribbean almost exactly 12 years after being taken there during the height of George W Bush's frenzied and law-breaking "war on terror" (Aamer was brought to the camp, manacled and blindfold, on 14 February 2002).

The deepening mystery of why Aamer is still being held at Guantánamo - uncharged, untried and now almost unspoken of in UK-US diplomatic circles - is profound indeed. Like a significant number of Guantánamo's remaining detainees, Aamer was judged by the camp authorities to be suitable for "transfer" out of Guantánamo as long ago as 2007. After this (entirely extra-legal adjudication) things were supposed to be largely procedural - sorting out the details with the receiving country, almost certainly the UK, his longstanding place of residence and home to his British wife and children.

However, that never happened. And the years crept by. In 2009 another - confirmatory - "approval for transfer" decision made by the Guantánamo Review Task Force came and went. Still no change. Since then an increasingly pessimistic Aamer has intermittently sent the world word of his half-forgotten plight via his lawyer, has taken part in miserably desperate hunger strikes, and has even shouted out to passing journalists (forbidden from talking to him) during their heavily-controlled media tours of the camp. Meanwhile his family in London (wife, four children, father-in-law) have pressed on with their efforts to get him released, and ... and what? And nothing. His lawyer writes open letters to the US president in the US media, Amnesty hands in letters to the US embassy in London, and indefatigable campaigners like Andy Worthington and the Save Shaker group plug away with their blogging and speeches at public rallies. But ... still nothing. Aamer stays put. Still detained, growing older, increasingly unwell, and more and more desperate. More despairing.

So, why is this happening? The truth is we don't know. We just don't know about the behind-the-scenes UK-US diplomatic machinations (WikiLeaks where are you when we need you ...?). In public, politicians like William Hague and Nick Clegg are pretty unequivocal, declaring - though only relatively recently and usually only when pressed - that they're willing to facilitate his passage back to Britain and are actively "negotiating" with the US for his release (the implied subtext apparently being that it's the USA that's actually holding things up). But there are also claims that the UK's intelligence services are privately lobbying for his continued captivity, worried that a newly-released Aamer will renew his past allegations of MI6 abuse and their involvement in his calamitous rendition to Cuba. Who knows? Yet all the while, the years creep by and Aamer - and another 154 men - remain firmly behind bars at Guantánamo.

Guantánamo has been one of the true scandals of our age (yes, I know there's a lot of competition and a lot that's infinitely worse in the world, but still, it's definitely a class-A scandal). It's truly scandalous that the place was ever established, was ever populated with hundreds of people flown there by the US military and CIA after being drugged and shackled, and scandalous that it was ever justified by politicians (on both sides of the Atlantic, both Republican and New Labour) as "necessary" in the fight against terrorism. In truth it was - and is - an insult to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. It's never served the interests of justice and any perpetrators still languishing at Guantánamo should rightly have been put on trial in a civilian court years ago.

Yet still the scandal goes on and on. Despite President Obama's now-infamously unfulfilled pledge to close Guantánamo by the beginning of 2010, it's still very much with us. Twelve years a slave of Guantánamo's unlawful system, Shaker Aamer's plight deserves to be the subject of far greater political urgency than it's currently receiving. Regarding Steve McQueen's much-garlanded slavery film, I was recently grumbling about the film's soapy melodramatics and its safe liberal subject matter, wishing instead that McQueen would take on a tougher, more contemporary topic. In fact, Steve, why not make a film about the tragic story of Shaker Aamer?

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