Britain’s relationship with American black sites

“If I was the fire to be lit to tell the truth, it was the people who protected the fire from the wind”. These are the words of Shaker Aamer, an innocent man, and the last of the 16 British nationals to be released from Guantanamo Bay, the notorious North American black site, where he was held captive for 14 years without a trial. During this time, Aamer was subjected to torture and solitary confinement. He has a wife and children; his youngest, Saris, is only fourteen years old, meaning that his father has been detained for his entire life and has only just met him. He has not only lost these precious years, but has suffered a deterioration of his physical and mental health. Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer involved in the case, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “He suffers from a number of conditions, both physical and psychological, including post-traumatic stress disorder on the severe end of the spectrum”. Given the abuse he has been systematically subjected to, this is hardly surprising.

The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has said the UK had nothing to do with the incident, but questions need to be asked about whether or not this is the case. It’s difficult to know where to begin when it comes to the symbiotic relationship between the British government and cases such as Aamer’s. You could start with The US and Britains’ ‘war on terror’, during which British Special Forces had a policy of handing over captives to the US Marines. There was even a telegram sent to British embassies saying there would be “no objection to Americans plans to transfer UK detainees from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay”. The detainees were then subjected to extraordinary rendition, and taken to US black sites in Bagram, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Poland and Diego Garcia.

Diego Garcia is where Hammond’s claims can least bear scrutiny. It’s a small island in the Indian Ocean; a colonial outpost which is technically owned by Britain, but leased to the US as a landing strip for their fighter jets. In 2003, the Washington Post discovered America had been using it as a refuelling point for rendition flights on their way to Guantanamo. However, the then Foreign Office minister Baroness Amos denied allegations that the island had been used for this purpose, stating that “the United States government would need our permission to bring any suspects to Diego Garcia. It has not done so”.

In 2008, David Miliband publically retracted Amos’s statement, because the US had made a “mistake” and forgotten to tell the British government about the rendition landings. Does this not count as compliance with the Guantanamo programme? After all, that is where the flights were headed. Worse still, in 2004, Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star American general, made this statement: “We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, in Bagram airfield, Diego Garcia, Guantanamo, 16 camps throughout Afghanistan”. If this is the case, then it suggests there was or is a black site detention centre on British soil.

It’s worth noting that Binyam Mohammed, another British national who was detained and tortured at Guantanamo, took his case to the high court, where the jury described Britain’s involvement in his rendition and detention as being “far beyond that of a bystander”. It has been suggested that Aamer may have been forced to sign an official act of silence in order to gain his freedom. Whether or not this is the case, clearly, further investigation needs to be carried out. Aamer, it seems, was not held at Diego Garcia; he was tortured at Bagram airfield, and then sent to Guantanamo. If you want to be pedantic about it, then it could be argued that Shaker wasn’t actually imprisoned on British sovereign territory. Nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll agree that this hardly counts as a victory for our modern ‘liberal democracy’.


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November 2021
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