The campaign to free a British man held in Guantanamo Bay for nearly 13 years is boosted today by the publication of an extraordinary letter from one of the Guildford Four.
Lawyers for Gerry Conlon, wrongly imprisoned for an IRA bomb attack in Guildford in 1974, have disclosed that he made a personal plea to Barack Obama for the release of Shaker Aamer shortly before his own death earlier this year.
In the letter, made public for the first time today, Conlon compares his own experiences in the British justice system to those of Mr Aamer, a 46-year-old father of four from south London. He was arrested by the US in 2001 and allegedly tortured at a prison in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Mr Aamer remains a prisoner despite the US clearing him of any charges and repeated calls from the British Government for his return to the UK. He is the last remaining British inmate at Guantanamo.
Gerry Conlon’s letter adds to the growing appeals from celebrities, civil rights leaders and politicians campaigning for Mr Aamer’s release. A petition signed by the musician Roger Waters and singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor among others calls on President Obama to use his executive powers to free Mr Aamer before leaving office.
Gerry Conlon spent 15 years in prison after being handed a life sentence in 1975 by a judge who told him: “If hanging were still an option you would have been executed.” But in October 1989 he and three other members of the “Guildford Four” were cleared when the Court of Appeal ruled that police may have fabricated the interrogation notes used in the conviction. Crucial evidence proving Conlon could not have carried out the bombings had not been presented at the original trial.
Mr Aamer’s lawyer Gareth Peirce also represented Conlon, who wrote in his personal letter to President Obama last year: “During the past several years I have come to know the British family of Shaker Aamer.” He says that, like Mr Aamer, he too was “tortured” as part of a “war on terror” but acknowledges that he was at least able to disprove the case against him. Mr Aamer, says Conlon, cannot even do that, as he has not been charged with any crime and is in a legal black hole where he has been “cleared for release” but not freed. Conlon died in June, aged 60, suffering from lung cancer. Last night Ms Peirce said that Conlon had planned to carry on his campaign.
Ms Peirce said: “He had visited Shaker’s wife and children in Battersea to inform himself about his case and their circumstances. As his letter says, he began to realise Shaker might never emerge from Guantanamo alive but instead, like his own father Guiseppe Conlon, might die before his release.”
She added: “He wrote the letter to President Obama in May 2013 – to which, shamefully, he had no reply.”
Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who recently visited Mr Aamer, maintains that he is still imprisoned because he witnessed US and UK agents torturing men while he was in US detention.
Dear President Obama,
Nearly 40 years ago, I was hooded, shackled, and without any just cause flown from the north of Ireland to the south of England to be tortured, threatened at gunpoint, and beaten into confessing to terrorist crimes that my interrogators were determined that I had committed. I and three friends were the first to be arrested under new laws rushed through Parliament, all in the name of a war on terrorism; the same then happened to my aunts, uncles, cousins and father, and in turn to more and more men and women, all entirely innocent.
Fifteen years later the four of us were freed from prison after concrete documentary proof was finally discovered that we had been entirely falsely accused and imprisoned. Much of that time I had spent in solitary confinement, punished in prison for protesting my innocence. From being the worst of the worst, we were suddenly welcomed everywhere in the world.
During the past several years I have come to know the British family of Shaker Aamer; he has been wrongly imprisoned outside any legal process, in Guantanamo Bay since early 2002. His English lawyer is my lawyer too. When we visit his children, his wife asks how is it for someone who has been tortured, arbitrarily detained, and for most of that time in solitary confinement, when he is released? What will he need to help him recover?
When I came out of prison I was pitch-forked into difficulties which Shaker, a responsible man with a strong family, will never find himself in. But my fear is not that he could return like me to a world with which he would find it hard to cope, but that he will never return. I am haunted by the realisation that the close comparison for Shaker is not, as I believed until now, with me, but instead with my father who was never released. Shaker’s wife I realise is now most likely facing what my mother Sarah faced, the death of her husband Giuseppe in prison, a decade before it was acknowledged that he too was an innocent man.
The daily news of a growing hunger strike amongst despairing prisoners in Guantanamo who have been, like Shaker, “cleared for release” but are still there is enough to chill the bones of any Irishman or woman. The spectre of an inexorable march towards death of the person you love most but whom you cannot reach or help inside his prison is agonising.
My greatest allies when I was in the endless limbo of imprisonment without end were Americans – in the Senate and Congress, church dignitaries and thousands of ordinary men and women. I knew they were bravely speaking out about what had been done to us by a country which was their closest ally and which many did not wish to criticise. I cannot, in turn, avoid any longer speaking out now about Shaker and his family. When I was in prison, I knew at least there was an ongoing search to disprove the evidence that convicted me. For Shaker there is no such chance – there is no such evidence nor has he been told of any, and he has been cleared for release.
I do not need to be an expert on security to understand the reality of what will happen if Shaker comes home. This man will be coming back to a strong family, amazing kids hungry to have him centrally in their lives, an entire community of every faith and background to support him, a Conservative member of Parliament whose first call after her election was to his wife, lawyers who helped me back into the world committed to helping him too and, in whatever way would reassure you, so would I.
Since I re-entered the world in 1989, I have many times been told how important was our release; it generated a view, for the first time, that however appallingly wrong the state’s actions had been in respect of the north of Ireland, there was nevertheless a possibility that injustice could be acknowledged. That meant there was a possibility other conflicts could be brought to an end too. I believe it is essential bravely to cut the knot in this case too.
I write to ask that you, as President, use the authority you have to take whatever steps are necessary to bring about the immediate release of Shaker Aamer.