Creative Commons-licensed photo on Wikipedia of Shaker Aamer, British prisoner at Guantanamo who has been detained over ten years without charge or trial

It has been almost twelve years since British citizen Shaker Aamer was brought to Guantanamo Bay and imprisoned. He has been held without charge or trial, cleared for release twice, suffered torture during his confinement and been subjected to isolation for leading prisoners in challenging conditions at the detention camps. He has been a prominent participant in hunger strikes at Guantanamo as well.

Last week, Aamer’s attorney and Reprieve director, Clive Stafford Smith, released a list of books (although incomplete) of books that have been banned by officers running the prison.

When Smith visits Aamer every three months, he brings him books. “When I am allowed to read,” Aamer wrote, “for a short while it lifts the heavily gloom that hangs over me.” And, “Clive amuses himself (and me) by testing what the censors will let through.”

“It is difficult to identify a consistent or logical basis for the censorship: in months gone by, I have been allowed to read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’sThe Gulag Archipelago did not make it through,” Aamer reported.

In October, Smith shared a list of books that had been banned by what Aamer calls the “Guantanamo Ministry of Information.” A book by comedian Russell Brand called Booky Wook 2 was on the list.

“I understand that Brand uses too many rude words,” Aamer acknowledged. “I suppose you have to be amused by that: the US military is solicitous of my sensitive nature and wants to protect me from swearing. These are the same people who say that all of us at Guantanamo are dedicated terrorists.”

Lord Bingham’s The Rule of Law was banned. “They have banned the rule of law in Guantanamo, so it wouldn’t make sense to permit a book on such a contraband concept.”

Aamer suggested a book by Alan Dershowitz titled, Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence, was banned because they would not want him to be equipped with the knowlege that “right-wing American people have interpreted their religion as mandating the elimination of universal rights.”

He figured Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was banned because the title wasn’t No Crime but We’ll Still Have Some Punishment.

Smith wrote about books banned at Guantanamo for The Guardian last week. The censors find poetry to pose a “special risk,” and Defense Department standards are to “not approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language. This is based on an analysis of risk of both content and format.” (Wilfred Owen’s Futility, set during the First World war, has been banned twice.)

The facility also has a policy that prisoners should not be given any materials that might help them learn English.

Both the Bible and a four-volume commentary on the Koran, Tafsir, has not made it passed the censors. The magazine Runner’s World was not allowed, but Swimming Times was permitted to be given to a prisoner, Bisher al-Rawi, who is an athlete.

Puss in BootsCinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Jack and the Beanstalk—each has been banned. “Perhaps after reading Jack and the Beanstalk, the military feared that prisoners would escape by planting magic seeds?” Smith suggested.

John Grisham’s book, The Innocent Man, was banned, but Grisham penned an article for The New York Times. It was no longer banned after that was published.  (Note to US government officials: Not allowing authors’ books into Guantanamo may provoke them to use their stature to condemn the systemic abuse and indefinite detention of prisoners.)

Even Smith’s own book on Guantanamo was not allowed to be read by Aamer. “It would clearly be a threat to national security if all the information I had got out of the prison should be allowed back in,” Smith jibed.

There is really no way to make sense of Guantanamo’s censors. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Franz Kafka’s The Trial have each been permitted while, as mentioned by Aamer, The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn has not.

Aamer has considered 1984 one of his favorites for some time. He declared in 2012, after being subjected to harsh conditions of isolation for several months:

“You must read this book because you need to understand what is happening here in Guantánamo. Torture is for torture, the system is for the system,” he told Smith. Also, “Please torture me the old way,” Aamer added. “Here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks.”

It’s also a favorite because Guantanamo has its own “Ministry of Truth” controlling information and “everything it says is the truth.”

“I understand that. Far be it from me to question the decision of the ministry when it comes to identifying authors whose ideas might be detrimental to my well-being,” Aamer concluded.


President Barack Obama’s administration is finally—nearly five years after signing an executive order to close Guantanamo—releasing and transferring prisoners back to home countries. Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg reported that two Saudi men were sent back home for “rehab” on December 14. But, the administration also is repatriating some prisoners against their will, an aspect of the administration’s efforts that have been disturbing to prisoners’ attorneys. Two Algerian prisoners, who feared going home, were sent to Algeria last week. Djamel Ameziane was just released from “secret detention,” however, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented him, said he is very ill.

Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who was the first commander of the facility, declared in a column for the Detroit Free Press last week, “The entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong,” from the beginning.

While advocating that a few prisoners in the facility should be brought to the continental United States for prosecution, he also argued:

In determining whether we should release detainees who have no charges brought against them, I would argue that our Constitution and the rule of law conclusively trump any additional risk that selective release of detainees may entail. It is time that the American people and our politicians accepted a level of risk in the defense of our constitutional values, just as our service men and women have gone into harm’s way time after time to defend our constitution. If we make a mockery of our values, it calls us to question what we are really fighting for.

There are 160 prisoners still being held in detention. The vast majority of them have been held without charge or trial. Most of them have been cleared for release by US military and intelligence agencies.

Finally, pretrial hearings in the case of defendants on trial for involvement in the 9/11 attacks continue. Defense attorneys for the 9/11 defendants won a victory on December 16 when a judge issued orders lifting a provision that had classified the thoughts and experiences of prisoners formerly held by the CIA—meaning the memories in their mind of torture or abuse were considered top secret and under the control of the US government.

I encourage you to follow these excellent journalists: Daphne Eviatar, John Knefel, Jason Leopold, and Carol Rosenberg for updates as pretrial proceedings continue throughout the remainder of the week. They are at Guantanamo and deserve praise for being there to cover what is happening.