As the stars and stripes fluttered in the breeze in the near distance, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Shaker Amer implored the United States government to rise above partisanship and close down the infamous prison. Monday marks its 14th anniversary as a detention camp.
A vigil outside the US Embassy in London today marked the first time Aamer, who was released last October after 13 years of confinement at Gitmo, had met in public with four fellow ex-detainees — or, as he put it, “ex-hostages.” Aamer became one of the most high-profile Guantanamo releases following an international campaign backed by politicians, celebrities, and activists around the world.
“We want everybody to know that today we are here not as brothers from Guantanamo, but as everybody, all of you, the media outlets, for one reason: it is truly to bring justice back, to close Guantanamo once and for all,” he said.
The event was one of many taking place around the world to mark the anniversary of the prison’s opening. Barack Obama promised immediately after becoming US president in 2009 that he would shut down the jail within a year. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told Fox News that Obama would make good on his pledge before leaving office, saying that the president will present a plan to Congress for the prison’s closure and then consider his options if it is voted down.
“We were told by Obama that Guantanamo would close, and we feel betrayed,” said former detainee Asif Iqbal, who was one of the Tipton Three — three British friends detained from 2002 to 2004 after traveling to Afghanistan who became the subject of the 2006 film The Road to Guantanamo. “And it’s not just us. The public has been betrayed.”
Referring to the transfer of prisoners cleared for release to places far removed from their homes — such as the two Yemenis sent to Ghana earlier this month after more than a decade’s internment — Iqbal said, “These are people, human beings. They can’t just be treated like cattle, prodded and moved about from one place to the next. They need to go home.”
In an effort to make good on Obama’s promise to shutter the prison, four detainees released since the start of the year, the most recent on Monday.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but I live the future, not the past,” he told VICE News. “An apology from the British government wouldn’t change anything. The only thing that would make a difference is if they help bring the others out of there.
“These 103 brothers [still in Guantanamo], they are sitting there for all these years,” he added. “They are not looking for anything but to go home. That’s all we ask — just let them go home to their families.”
Of the 103 men still detained at Guantanamo Bay, more than 40 have been cleared for release, many since 2009.
Aamer called on members of Congress to put their differences aside, beseeching them to”forget about whom to blame about Guantanamo” and just concentrate on shutting it down. Closing it down “is going to bring justice to the Americans themselves. It is going to bring hope to everybody in the world,” he said.
The 46-year-old Saudi national, who has a British wife and children, has pledged to spend the rest of his life fighting for justice for the other former detainees and victims of the American war on terror. The last detainee he spoke to before he left was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritian who has been held in Guantanamo Bay’s isolation unit since 2003 and who released a book about his experiences last year.
“I hope that I am strong,” he remarked, but stressed he would remember Guantanamo every day of his life. “Leaving Guantanamo does not mean Guantanamo left me. God knows I am still living Guantanamo even though I’m here.”
He and his family have regular sessions with a psychiatrist who is helping them deal with the trauma of his captivity, he said. His youngest son was born on the day that he entered Guantanamo, but Aamer said it was his middle son — Saif, now 15 years old — who was finding it particularly hard to open up to a father he had never known.
“He’s shy, like I was at that age, so it’s harder for him,” said Aamer, whose interviews ended when his youngest son Faris called to ask where he was supposed to go for an optician’s appointment that afternoon.
Shafiq Rahul, another one of the Tipton Three, said that the lives of detainees would never be normal again.
“When you’re alone, you remember the sounds of the brothers being beaten,” said Rahul, who was wearing a GAP sweatshirt. “More than the beatings they gave me, it’s the psychological stuff that stays with you.”
“We will always feel we are being watched,” he said.
It was up to the former detainees and the media to “tell the whole world” what is happening, said Aamer.
“Telling the whole story about Guantanamo truly is incomprehensible, no one can believe it. But little by little you guys can understand,” he remarked. “There is no such thing as Guantanamo in 2002 and Guantanamo in 2015. Nothing has changed. Closing down Guantanamo is now just about us — it’s about the whole world.”
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc