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Former Guantanamo prisoner demands Obama close a facility meant to ‘destroy’ people

A group of British former Guantanamo Bay detainees protest outside the U.S. Embassy in London on the 14th anniversary of the detention center's opening. (Video: Reuters)
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LONDON — Just over two months after Shaker Aamer was freed from the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay and flown by chartered aircraft back to his home in the United Kingdom, he used an appearance outside the U.S. Embassy here on Monday to demand that President Obama make good on a campaign promise and close the prison.

“They can do it. They can do it overnight,” said Aamer, a British resident whose wife and children also are British. “Just like they opened Guantanamo overnight.”

Aamer — wearing a white knit cap over his long, curly hair; a plaid shirt; and a black raincoat amid persistent London drizzle — spoke alongside four other British citizens or residents who were also former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

“Hostages,” Aamer said, using his preferred term.

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The appearance, coming on the 14th anniversary of the opening of the detention facility, was coordinated with a protest outside the White House at which campaigners planned to display a giant, inflatable version of Aamer.

The campaign to close the prison has taken on new urgency as Obama heads into his final year in office. Despite repeated pledges by the president to shutter the facility, more than 100 detainees continue to be held.

The jovial and loquacious Aamer said Obama should “contact the [Persian] Gulf countries” and ask that they take the remaining detainees.

Aamer was imprisoned at Guantanamo for more than 13 years, during which he gained a reputation as a leader among the detainees, encouraging hunger strikes and other forms of protest. On Monday, he called the prison “a dark hole.”

“The concept behind Guantanamo is to destroy a human being,” he said.

Before his release, Aamer’s case had become a cause celebre among human rights groups in Britain. He had first been cleared for release in 2007 but was not freed until last October. Since then, he has done several media interviews. But Monday was his first major public appearance.

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The former detainees at Monday’s protest in London included Moazzam Begg, who was released in 2005. Begg said he and Aamer had lived together in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion. Both men have said that they were doing humanitarian work in the country. The United States suspected both of ties of al-Qaeda, though they were never charged.

“It’s surreal to see Shaker,” Begg said. “He’s someone I always associate with Guantanamo. And now, it’s simply wonderful to see him back with his family, laughing and joking.”

Begg said he and the other former detainees had gathered Monday “to remind President Obama of his promise. And to show those left behind that they haven’t been forgotten.”