Tuesday, February 28, 2017

London Guantánamo Campaign statement on recent British media reports concerning former prisoners

On 21 February, media sources reported that British former Guantánamo prisoner Jamal Al-Harith (born Ronald Fiddler), 50, died in the Iraqi city of Mosul in a suicide bombing in which he had detonated a car bomb. He was alleged to be a member of the militant Islamic State group. British state media reported that it “understands” this to be the case based on a photograph of Mr Al-Harith which has been confirmed by his family. The claim has generated a polemic in the media concerning the out-of-court settlement the government reached with former Guantánamo prisoners in 2010, the alleged radicalisation of former prisoners, and surveillance. 

All such reports and the media furore remain purely speculative. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has yet to confirm that a British citizen died in Mosul on 19 February or identify them. While former Prime Minister Tony Blair has waded into the storm, there has been no comment by either Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson or the police. The comment offered by the Foreign Office to the media is general advice for all UK citizens: “The UK has advised for some time against all travel to Syria, and against all travel to large parts of Iraq.

"As all UK consular services are suspended in Syria and greatly limited in Iraq, it is extremely difficult to confirm the whereabouts and status of British nationals in these areas."” 

Mr Al-Harith’s death, and even presence in Iraq, is unconfirmed and the LGC shall consider all such news stories to be speculation until official confirmation is provided. 

It is important nonetheless to provide clarification on some of the fiction reported as news:

  •  British nationals and residents formerly held at Guantánamo have returned to ordinary civilian lives and remain under heavy surveillance by the authorities, as released prisoners are elsewhere. None have been tried at Guantánamo or since their release to the UK in relation to their imprisonment at Guantánamo Bay.
  •  Eighty six percent of all Guantánamo prisoners were sold to the US military by the Pakistani and Afghan military, intelligence and warlords. Only one of the remaining 41 prisoners – an Afghan cleared for release – was captured by the US military. Mr Al-Harith ended up in the hands of the US military after being sold by the Northern Alliance. He arrived at Guantánamo in February 2002 and was initially cleared for release by September that year. Further allegations about alleged militant links did not surface until more than one year later in late 2003. He was released months later in 2004.

  • With heavy surveillance of former prisoners it is very unlikely that any wrongdoing would not have been noticed by the police or intelligence services. Since claims that Mr Al-Harith has joined the Islamic State group emerged two years ago, the police have not issued any statements in this regard, nor has the media used the police as a source of information, even though this is the job of the police.

  • Former prisoners reached an out-of-court settlement with the British government in 2010 to prevent a court case that would likely disclose evidence of British state involvement in crimes against humanity committed against British nationals and residents. Compensation would involve an admission of guilt by the government and its breach of its international obligations on human rights. At the time, then “Foreign Secretary William Hague denied the deal was an admission that security agencies colluded in any mistreatment. In response to questions, he said the settlement reflected the desire to "move on" and be able to conduct an inquiry.” The money paid to prevent the prisoners from pursuing claims that would be embarrassing to the government was effectively hush money, once more denying the former prisoners their day in court.
  • Although Tony Blair’s government negotiated the return of all British nationals held at Guantánamo Bay by 2005, it was complicit in them ending up at Guantánamo in the first place and aware of the torture they faced even before they arrived there. It should further be noted that Tony Blair’s government were the architects of a Guantánamo-style regime of indefinite arbitrary detention without charge or trial of foreign nationals at HMP Belmarsh months before Guantánamo Bay opened under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. This was ruled unlawful by the House of Lords in 2004.
These claims were followed by a news story in The Sunday Times on 26 February (free access to article reprinted here) that claims a second British former Guantánamo prisoner has travelled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. This report follows a story to this effect by the ultra-right-wing Henry Jackson Society. Only bearing the moniker Abu Mugheera al-Britani, reports of this individual do not match any of the British prisoners held at Guantánamo and after more than two years of reports, his existence has not been confirmed by the police or Foreign Office and no information other than the nickname above has been given.

Furthermore, this individual – who may exist but does not appear to have been held at Guantánamo – has been linked, along with Jamal Al-Harith, to a former Russian prisoner, Airat Vakhitov. Although subject to UN, European and US sanctions since 2016 due to alleged links to militant groups, there is no evidence that Mr Vakhitov has any stage been a fighter anywhere. He is currently facing trial in Turkey: arrested around the same time as the 2016 Istanbul Airport bombing, the media falsely reported he was linked to the attack. He is facing charges of alleged membership of a terrorist organisation and visa irregularities. A Russian dissident who used his journalistic writing to raise awareness of the abuse of minorities and Muslims in the Russian Federation, the Russian government is actively seeking his return to the country.

As a human rights campaign, the LGC maintains that the only legitimate forum to decide on the innocence or guilt of any individual is a court of law. The current media narrative is central to the myth of the “recidivism” of former prisoners. Recidivism involves having offended in the first place. Neither Mr Al-Harith nor Mr Vakhitov, actual Guantánamo prisoners, were charged or tried. In addition, while ignoring the humanitarian civilian catastrophe unfolding in Mosul as Iraqi forces and the Islamic State do battle, such stories help to push for greater involvement by the US and British militaries in Iraq. A similar pattern over the past 15 years, the truth has never mattered where Guantánamo is concerned.

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