This was my first visit to the House of Commons, and it was certainly one of the more unusual venues where I’ve performed my poetry. I joined fellow campaigners in the long queue for security checks at the visitors’ entrance.
Once our bags and coats had been screened, we were free to make our way up to the committee rooms. It was impossible, though, not to pause first in Westminster Hall and savour both its impressive architecture and the centuries of history played out under its roof.
The meeting took place in committee room nine and was packed out.
The main speakers sat at the front, on a low platform, with an orange Save Shaker Aamer banner attached to the table. I chose to sit at the side, in one of the rows of wooden desks, which felt a little like we were pupils in a Victorian school room.
We were there, in this rather antiquated setting, to discuss the increasingly urgent plight of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held in Guantanamo Bay.
The injustice is clear and shocking — he has been detained for over 12 years, never charged or put on trial, was cleared for release in 2007 and again in 2009, yet still languishes in appalling conditions.
The inhumanity of his treatment is scandalous — chained, subject to beatings and force-feeding, held in almost complete isolation and denied his most basic human rights.
The government’s assertion that it is doing everything possible to press for his release is frankly laughable.
There was a cautious note of hope as several speakers mentioned a sense of momentum, with seven men released from Guantanamo in recent weeks, and the need to build on this.
Journalist Victoria Brittain spoke passionately, starting with a quote from Emile Zola, and drawing powerful parallels between the miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus affair and the ongoing injustices at Guantanamo.
John McDonnell MP is setting up a cross-party parliamentary group to raise the profile of Shaker’s case and increase pressure on the government to finally secure Aamer’s return to his family in Battersea.
McDonnell stressed the urgency of the campaign, given Shaker Aamer’s deteriorating health, and the need to make his cause an election issue.
The journalist Andy Worthington told us about a new initiative he’s promoting, We Stand With Shaker, encouraging supporters to take photos of themselves with handmade “I stand with Shaker” signs and share these via social media.
The group launched their campaign opposite the Houses of Parliament on November 24, with high-profile figures such as musician John Waters and Green MP Caroline Lucas standing in front of a large inflatable model of Shaker Aamer to show solidarity.
Worthington emphasised the importance of taking the issue to Barack Obama and David Cameron and holding them to what they’ve promised — to close Guantanamo and to restore Shaker to his family.
Other inspiring speakers included Dr David Nicholl, a neurologist and human rights activist, who reminded us of the Suffragette slogan “Deeds not words.”
Dr Nicholl will be running the London marathon next April for Amnesty International and, if Aamer is still not free, will do so in an orange jumpsuit.
Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND, described Aamer as an innocent victim of the war on terror, and highlighted how the roots of the current conflicts in the Middle East go back to the first world war and imperialist notions of “spheres of influence.”
Midway through the meeting, chair Joy Hurcombe called on me to read my poem.
I gave a brief introduction, explaining that, like Aamer’s family, I live in Battersea, and over the years have attended several marches and rallies calling for his release.
Earlier this year, I met the activist Hamja Ahsan at a poetry event, and he suggested I think about writing something for Aamer.
It was an honour then to read Letter from Battersea in the House of Commons to such a receptive audience. McDonnell generously observed that we all bring different talents to the campaign — his being the booking of meeting rooms.
It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such a gross and continuing injustice as Shaker Aamer’s case. One thing I can do is write.
We need deeds and words. I think it’s time President Obama received a letter, and a poem.