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Gitmo’s last Briton freed, but questions remain

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During Shaker Aamer’s near decade-and-a-half of incarceration at Guantanamo Bay — which has finally ended, some eight years after he was originally recommended for release — the British resident was never put on trial for any crime, nor was he ever charged.

As such, the 46-year-old — who arrived in the U.K. on Friday after being flown from the controversial detention center — should not feel compelled to clear his name; no evidence has even been presented against him in any court and experts Al Jazeera spoke to believe no such evidence ever existed to warrant his lengthy detention.

Instead, the daunting task in front of him will be to rebuild a life snatched away from him in 2001, and re-familiarize himself with his wife, and children who have had to grow up without him — including one he has never met.

But his release is unlikely to provide a final full stop to his case. Serious questions remain over the circumstances of his detention and why he was for so long denied repatriation to the U.K. despite — if taken at face value — the long protestations of the British government of his imprisonment.

Supporters of Aamer want an inquiry into his case and his release may throw a fresh spotlight on conditions at Guantanamo and CIA torture, in particular claims by Aamer that its use against a Libyan national — in the presence of U.K. secret service agents — resulted in the since discredited information linking Saddam Hussein with Al-Qaeda, used as justification for the Iraq war.

The U.K.’s Metropolitan Police told Al Jazeera that an investigation into allegations of torture is still open, but declined to give details. “There are ongoing inquiries,” a Scotland Yard spokesperson said, adding: “We are not going to confirm who we may or may not be speaking to as part of those inquiries.”

Lawyers for Aamer told Al Jazeera that police officers had visited Guantanamo and met with their client prior to his release. “He complied with a Met [Metropolitan Police] inquiry in Guantanamo and talked about British complicity in torture and he thinks that those involved were low down the chain — Shaker very much doesn’t want to see people go to jail,” said Clive Stafford Smith, Aamer’s lawyer and director of legal rights charity Reprieve.

“He does, however, want a truth and reconciliation inquiry and will push for that,” Stafford Smith added.

To date, successive British governments have appeared reluctant to see such public scrutiny of the role of its intelligence services in Guantanamo detentions. An inquiry launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 to investigate claims that the British MI5 and MI6 intelligence agencies aided CIA renditions was shelved two years later amid criticism that it lacked transparency. The previous government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried unsuccessfully to censor claims of British complicity in torture made by former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammad.

When asked about Aamer’s situation, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Office said that they could not comment on “any individual case of repatriation.” Procedures involving former Guantanamo detainees are made on a case-by-case basis, and it isn’t known if the U.K. authorities will hold Aamer on his return.

But a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Friday that there was no plans to further detain the Saudi-born U.K. resident on his return.

For Aamer, his immediate concerns will include adapting to life outside a cell after so long.

“When I do get back the first thing I want is a cup of coffee,” he recently told the BBC in a letter sent from Guantanamo.

But for many of Aamer’s supporters the first priority will be getting him much-needed medical care. His years behind bars and involvement in lengthy periods of hunger striking have left him physically and mentally frail. “Shaker really isn’t very well. We have set up a private clinic to check him out. He fears he has prostate cancer and has mental health issues he would like to deal with,” Stafford Smith said.

Then will come the challenge of rebuilding relationships with family members he has had no contact with for 14 years. “It is going to be hard on him. We are talking about four children the youngest of which wasn’t born until after he was incarcerated. He hasn’t had anyone call him ‘daddy’ for 14 years,” Stafford Smith said.

Moazzam Begg understands some of what Aamer will have to go through, having himself been held at Guantanamo for three years before being repatriated to the U.K. in 2005.

“The challenges he faces are going to be very difficult and very different from my own experiences. I was there for three years, he has been there for 14,” said Begg. “He will need immediate medical care and lots and lots of time to rebuild his life. It will be almost impossible for him.”

Aamer was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in early 2002 after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, having been picked up months earlier by the Afghan Northern Alliance and handed over to the U.S.

Supporters have always maintained that he was volunteering for a charity at the time of his abduction. But leaked files show that the U.S., initially at least and based on testimony by tortured prisoners, believed that he was a “close associate” of Osama bin Laden, with “connections to several other senior extremist members” of Al-Qaeda.

Aamer’s supporters say the alleged confession came after he was tortured at the Bagram air base by U.S. agents and in the presence of British intelligence.

“He has so much to say that will rock governments and make accountable both the American and British government,” said Begg.

Potentially the most damaging of Aamer’s claims is that he was present during the interrogation of Libyan Ibn Al Sheikh Al-Libi in late 2001. Libi gave testimony linking the Iraq government of Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda. He was later rendered to Egypt and tortured into giving a fuller account of how Iraq had been training Al-Qaeda to use chemical weapons. It was those details that went on to form part of the justification of the war in Iraq and if true, Aamer’s account could be deeply embarrassing for the U.S. and British intelligence services.

Stafford Smith described Libi as the “elephant in the room” when talking about Aamer’s 14-year detention. “If that was the reason why he wasn’t released for so ling, then that is a big deal.”

Some experts have even suggested that members of the U.K. intelligence services lobbied against Aamer’s release, possibly for this reason. The British government denies this claim.

But even so, the official line from Downing Street – that it has long demanded Aamer’s repatriation and raised the issue at regular intervals with high-level U.S officials – has been questioned.

In 2013, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall inquired into Aamer’s status with the U.S. Department of Defense. An email seen by Al Jazeera sent from Udall’s chief of staff Michael Collins to Medea Benjamin – co-founder of the advocacy group Code Pink – stated that Pentagon officials told the senator that the “U.K. is not exactly in a rush to get him.”

Richard Barrett, who led the U.N.’s Al-Qaeda monitoring team and is a former British secret service officer, said the hold-up seemed to be from the U.S. side.

“If you look at the U.K. government’s position, it has been consistent throughout: they want him home.”

Barrett said he did not believe that British intelligence officers were involved in torture, but that Aamer’s allegations should nonetheless be investigated.

He added that there appeared to be “no evidence” on Aamer to warrant his detention, especially for so long.

Instead, he attributed Aamer’s years at Guantanamo to “extremely bad luck.”

“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Barrett. Al Jazeera


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