Last UK detainee arrives in Britain from Guantanamo

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Posted: Oct 30, 2015 1:37 PM
Last UK detainee arrives in Britain from Guantanamo

LONDON (AP) — The last U.K. resident imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay returned home to Britain on Friday after almost 14 years in which he became a defiant spokesman for his fellow prisoners.

Shaker Aamer, who was never charged with a crime, arrived aboard a private plane after being released from the U.S. military prison in Cuba on Thursday evening.

"My thanks go to Allah first, second to my wife, my family, to my kids and then to my lawyers who did everything they could to carry the word to the world," he said in a statement. "I feel obliged to every individual who fought for justice, not just for me, but to bring an end to Guantanamo."

Aamer's release came after celebrities and members of Parliament joined a publicity campaign demanding he be freed and Prime Minister David Cameron urged U.S. President Barack Obama to resolve the case.

His release, the 15th from Guantanamo this year, brings the detainee population there to 112, and comes as part of a renewed push by Obama to close the facility opened by his predecessor after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Aamer, 48, a Saudi citizen who married a British woman and moved to London in the mid-1990s, had told his lawyers that he would seek a medical exam in Britain because of concerns about his health stemming in part from repeated hunger strikes he staged to protest his detention.

He has received more media attention over the years than any other prisoner except the five who face trial by military commission for their alleged roles in planning and providing support to the 9/11 attacks.

In a piece published in the Independent on Feb. 14, 2014, the anniversary of his detention at Guantanamo, Aamer said he was seeking basic human rights and a fair trial through his then ongoing hunger strike.

"Of course I understand the impact of 9/11," he wrote in the British newspaper. "Killing civilians is an offense against Islam. But Guantanamo Bay is no solution for the victims of 9/11. Instead, the hypocrisy of the place recruits people to an anti-American banner."

Aamer was born in Saudi Arabia and remains a Saudi citizen, but wanted to return to London, where he has four children, including a son he has never seen. His wife is the daughter of a prominent retired imam.

Clive Stafford Smith, one of Aamer's lawyers, told the BBC that Aamer faces no charges in Britain and will not be questioned by authorities. Scotland Yard detectives questioned him for three days during his Guantanamo Bay detention.

Aamer has said he went to Afghanistan to help run a school for girls, and fled during the chaos following the U.S. invasion in late 2001. He was captured by the Northern Alliance and turned over to U.S. forces who took him to Guantanamo in February 2002.

The U.S. Defense Department has disclosed that Aamer was accused of significant links to terrorism. They said he shared an apartment in the late 1990s with Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted of taking part in the Sept. 11 conspiracy; had met with Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger jet with explosives in his shoes; had undergone al-Qaida training in the use of explosives and missiles; and received a stipend from Osama bin Laden.

A detainee assessment later obtained and published by Wikileaks included those allegations and more, including describing Aamer as a member of al-Qaida and a "close associate" of bin Laden.

Aamer and his supporters have denied the allegations, and the United States never charged him with a crime. He was freed after a task force appointed by Obama conducted a "comprehensive review" of his case, the Pentagon said in a statement.

He had been cleared for release by President George W. Bush's administration in June 2007 and human rights advocates asked why — despite a so-called special relationship with the United States — Britain was unable to secure his release earlier.

"Shaker Aamer's release will bring huge relief to his family but serious questions remain," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty. "Why did it take us so many years to persuade our closest ally to behave decently?"

Aamer spent much of his time at Guantanamo in the disciplinary units of Camp 5, a section of the detention center where prisoners are held alone in solid-walled cells of steel and concrete.

He helped organize a hunger strike that involved more than 100 prisoners and often served as an unofficial spokesman, providing detailed insider accounts of life inside Guantanamo through his lawyers.

Aamer was one of several men picked to serve on a short-lived prisoner council formed in the summer of 2005 in an attempt to address detainee complaints. His supporters long maintained that he was not released because of his activism and fears that he would publicize information about the mistreatment he and others endured.

Aamer's biggest challenge will be re-integrating into society after a long absence, said Moazzam Begg, who was held at Guantanamo for three years.

"In Shaker's case, I can't even begin to imagine. The last time he saw his daughter, for example ... she was 4 years old. She's now 17. I don't know how that's going to happen, how that process is going to happen," Begg told the BBC last month. "No amount of therapy and so forth will be able to replace those years, so I think this will be a harder struggle for Shaker to deal with than the actual imprisonment."

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Fox contributed from Miami.

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This story has been corrected to show that Begg's comments were made to the BBC, not Sky.