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Shaker Aamer Is Released From Guantánamo Prison After 13 Years

Shaker Aamer, whose detention at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba attracted the attention of human rights lawyers, political leaders and rock stars, was freed on Friday after more than 13 years in captivity, British officials announced. Mr. Aamer, a Saudi citizen and British resident, was flown to London.

Mr. Aamer's transfer, which was confirmed by the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, ends one of the best-known cases at the American prison.

At its center was a charismatic English-speaking detainee who has been the subject of intense dispute. Military officials have portrayed Mr. Aamer, 46, as a dangerous Islamist leader, while human rights advocates see him as a victim falsely accused of ties to terrorism. Now Mr. Aamer will be free to speak his mind in public.

In a statement issued through his lawyers after arriving at London Biggin Hill Airport, Mr. Aamer said he thanked everyone who worked for his release and wanted to "bring an end to Guantánamo."

"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. "I am overwhelmed by what people have done by their actions, their thoughts and their prayers, and without their devotion to justice I would not be here in Britain now."

The release had been expected, after the Pentagon announced last month that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter had approved a proposal to transfer Mr. Aamer.

Mr. Aamer was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in late 2001 and turned over to the United States, which took him to its new wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay in February 2002. The United States government believed that he was involved with Al Qaeda; it accused him of doing recruitment and finance work for the terrorist network while based in Britain, and of working for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

In 2007, American officials said that he had shared an apartment in London in the late 1990s with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person in the United States convicted in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that he lived on a stipend from Bin Laden.

At Guantánamo, Mr. Aamer became a leader of detainees engaged in a mass hunger strike, negotiating with the prison camp authorities. But after the protest escalated and three detainees apparently committed suicide simultaneously in June 2006, military officials isolated Mr. Aamer from the main inmate population.

In 2007, the government of the British prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, asked for Mr. Aamer and four other British residents to be transferred. The United States sent four of them to Britain but held on to Mr. Aamer, who, although cleared for release, was considered a more serious threat.

When the Obama administration took office in 2009, it convened a six-agency task force to review the remaining detainees. It unanimously recommended Mr. Aamer's transfer.

Security officials wanted to repatriate him to Saudi Arabia, where he would be subject to greater government control, but his lawyers wanted him to go to Britain, where his family lives.

In 2014, with assistance from lawyers in the United States and Britain, Mr. Aamer filed a habeas corpus lawsuit seeking his release on health grounds, saying he had post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and physical ailments. A judge rejected that case.

Mr. Aamer was also among a group of detainees who filed a challenge to the military's practice of force-feeding hunger strikers, which resulted in an appeals court ruling in 2014 that the judiciary could oversee conditions of confinement at the prison.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and the rock stars Sting, Peter Gabriel and Roger Waters were among those who pushed for Mr. Aamer's release. His transfer came one day after the military repatriated a Mauritanian man, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz.

The British government and various lawmakers had pressed for Mr. Aamer's release, and Mr. Cameron raised the issue with President Obama in January and June.

Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader of the Labour Party in September, visited Washington in May as part of a parliamentary delegation to lobby for Mr. Aamer's release. In June, Mr. Corbyn and three other British politicians wrote an Op-Ed article for The New York Times about the case. On Friday, Mr. Corbyn said he was "very pleased" about the news, which he called "a hugely important development."

In September, in a parliamentary motion, Mr. Corbyn joined forces with Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative Party cabinet minister, and Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general, to call for Mr. Aamer's release.

Mr. Corbyn also praised "the steadfastness of his family and the commitment of all those who campaigned for his release."

Andy Worthington, co-director of the We Stand With Shaker campaign, said Mr. Aamer, who is reported to have health problems, was likely to require "psychological and medical care."

In letters sent to the BBC by his lawyers this month, Mr. Aamer described himself as "an old car that has not been to the garage for years," and added that the first thing he wanted, once he was free, was a cup of coffee.

"I have known nothing about the real world for more than 13 years," he wrote.

Mr. Obama still wants to close the Guantánamo prison, a 2008 campaign promise and one of his earliest policy goals. But his plan to do so -- by transferring the 52 remaining prisoners who are recommended for it if security conditions can be met, and bringing the other 60 detainees to a prison on domestic soil for trial or continued wartime detention -- has been impeded by Congress.

Transfer restrictions imposed by lawmakers ban bringing any detainee onto domestic soil and require the defense secretary to tell Congress that he has decided a proposed transfer elsewhere is in the national security interest of the United States. Secretaries have proved reluctant to take that step, which effectively makes them personally responsible if a former detainee causes problems.

Mr. Carter, who took office in February, was initially slow to approve newly proposed transfers. He came under pressure from the White House, in a meeting that included extensive discussion of Mr. Aamer's case, to make decisions more quickly. This fall, a trickle of transfers has resumed, now including Mr. Aamer. But the hardest of the detainees recommended for transfer -- several dozen who are from Yemen, which is in chaos -- remain.

[Source: By Charlie Savage and Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, Washington, 30Oct15]

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