‘This is Azkaban’: After 14 yrs in Gitmo, Shaker Aamer recounts brutal torture allegations

A protestor holds up a sign calling for the release of Shaker Aamer from the Guantanamo prison during a demonstration in central London. © Leon Neal
“It was worse than the beating,” Shaker Aamer told the BBC about alleged threats of rape by interrogators against his then five-year-old daughter. Free after 14 years of uncharged detention in Guantanamo, Aamer has the US and UK addressing torture again.

“‘If you don’t start talking, we will rape your daughter and you will hear her crying daddy, daddy.’ That was completely inhumane. It was worse than the beating as well, worse than everything, just thinking of my daughter, and I just sat there silent completely,” Aamer told the BBC on Monday, describing an event at Bagram Air Base, where he was temporarily held before being transferred to the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sometimes referred to as Gitmo. He relayed the same story to ITV News and other outlets as well.

When asked about the claim at a press briefing, State Department spokesman John Kirby gave a standard response, saying, “We don’t torture. The United States does not torture.”

Noting that he hadn’t seen Aamer’s comments, Kirby continued, “I don’t know what he’s referring to, but I can tell you that we meet our obligations under international law for the humane treatment of detainees.”

In a follow-up, Kirby was challenged to put his words in the past tense.

“Well, I think it’s been a long discussion, when you go back to waterboarding, but…,” Kirby trailed off before restarting.

“The United States military, the ones that are holding these detainees, or have held these detainees, does not torture. I’m not a historian. I don’t think it’s valuable to relive every incident in the past. I think it’s a matter of public record that we haven’t always lived up to that standard. But I can tell you that without knowing his particular claims, or what particular timeframe, I can assure you, as I said. Again, the United States military, who was holding these detainees, follows the law and does not torture,” Kirby said.

Aamer’s torture claim also involves UK authorities. He asserts that a British intelligence officer was present during the beatings. Furthermore, Aamer says the man’s name was “John” and he arrived at the Bagram base alongside then-Prime Minister Tony Blair aboard the same flight in January of 2002.

“The UK government stands firmly against torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment,” the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement Sunday in reaction to these claims.

“We do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone it for any purpose. Neither does the UK make use of any so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. We have consistently made clear our absolute opposition to such behaviour and our determination to combat it wherever and whenever it occurs.”

Captured by bounty hunters in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001, Aamer was accused by his captors of being an associate of Osama Bin Laden. After being held at Bagram Air Base, where he claims to have had his head slammed against a wall, he was moved to Kandahar Airfield, where he says he was deprived of sleep for nine days, denied food, doused with freezing cold water, and made to stand for 16 hours straight on concrete in the winter. This was all before he was moved to Gitmo in 2002.

Aamer, now 48, claims he was doing charity work in Afghanistan to open up schools for girls when he was captured. He was never charged with any crime by the US. In the BBC interview, however, Aamer acknowledged he had attended talks by radical cleric Abu Qatada in London.

That detail wasn’t part of the profile drawn up for him at Gitmo, where he was considered a “recruiter, financier and facilitator with a history of participating in jihadist combat,” according New York Times-published military files.

Upon arrival at Guantanamo Bay, Aamer received a “welcoming party,” which he recounted for the BBC, saying, “they really beat you up so that while you are still on the concrete, on the airport, before even they move you to check you and process your case.”

“They did it for two, three hours and truly, truly, that’s one of the times where I felt like I’m not going to live that night,” he said.

The physical abuse became indistinguishable from mental or spiritual abuse for Aamer. Getting pinched, having his eye poked and being made to listen to loud music or white noise were some examples he shared. Court documents from September 2006 say he was held in solitary confinement for 360 days, and previous reports – as well as the recent BBC interview – say he claims to have been held in isolation for up to two years.

When Aamer was able to read, he chose books eerily reminiscent of his ongoing experience. More so than reading George Orwell’s 1984, Aamer found the Harry Potter series offered an apt analogy.

“They’ve got an island in Harry Potter, it says Azkaban, where there’s no happiness,” he told the BBC. “They just suck all your feelings out of you, and you don’t have no feelings any more. And truly that’s how I felt all the time. This is Azkaban. This is not from this world because that’s what they tried.”

In 2007, Aamer was cleared for release, but the process of going home was a long one, taking more than eight years to conclude. By the time President Barack Obama was sworn in in 2009, a promise to close Gitmo had already been made, and Aamer was waiting.

“If he really wants to establish justice, if he really wants to live by his word, he’s not going to need to wait for the whole United States of America to support him,” Aamer told the BBC, pressuring Obama to close Gitmo.

Guantanamo Bay has been identified as a primary recruiting tool used by Islamist terrorists, even in the UK where Aamer now lives. Aamer’s message to would-be extremist Muslims, however, is as direct as his message to Obama.

“Even if there is a war you cannot kill just anybody, you cannot kill kids, you cannot kill chaplains, you cannot just go in the street and get a knife and start stabbing people,” Aamer told the Daily Mail on Sunday. “If you are that angry about this country, you can get the hell out.”

That may seem like strong language in defense of a country whose government he is actively accusing of covering up acts of torture. However, he description Aamer gave to the BBC of his reunion with his wife makes clearer why he so appreciates in his new home in the UK.

“At last that moment I’d dreamt of came and she came through the door,” he said. “That instant washed away the pain of 14 years. It washed away the tiredness, the agony, the stress. It was like it no longer existed. I hugged her, she hugged me, and we just wept.”