EXCLUSIVE: Two Guantánamo Prisoners Released in Mauritania

1.6.13

Note: Please read the comments below for updates. As at 3pm GMT on June 1, there has been no confirmation of the releases. Sources in Mauritania are still saying the men have been freed, but are not yet reunited with their families, while the US authorities are denying it. Some reports claim that only the man from Bagram has been returned home.

Update June 2: It now appears clear that only the man in Bagram was returned, and that the human rights representative in Mauritania was mistaken about the releases from Guantánamo. This is very sad news, particularly for Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is one of the 86 prisoners still in Guantánamo who were cleared for release over three years ago by President Obama’s inter-agency task force, and who emphatically should have been freed. Further commentary to follow soon.

In news that has so far only been available in Arabic, and which I was informed about by a Mauritanian friend on Facebook, I can confirm that two prisoners from Guantánamo have been released, and returned to their home country of Mauritania. The links are here and here.

The two men are Ahmed Ould Abdul Aziz and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and they were accompanied by a third man, Hajj Ould Cheikh Hussein, who was apparently captured in Pakistan and held at Bagram in Afghanistan, which later became known as the Parwan Detention Facility.

According to one of the Arabic news sources, US officials handed the men to the Mauritanian security services who took them to an unknown destination. They have also reportedly met with their families.

I have no further information for now, but this appears to be confirmation that President Obama’s promise to resume the release of prisoners from Guantánamo was not as hollow as many of his promises have turned out to be. It also follows hints, in the Wall Street Journal (which I wrote about here), indicating that he would begin not with any of the 56 Yemeni prisoners out of the 86 prisoners cleared for release by the inter-agency task force that he established in 2009, but with some of the 30 others.

One of these 30 is Ahmed Ould Abdul Aziz, a teacher, and an educated and cultured man, who was seized in what appeared to be a random house raid in Pakistan in June 2002, but the other is a surprise. Mohamedou Ould Slahi was, notoriously, handed over by the Mauritanian authorities to the US in November 2001, He was then rendered to Jordan, where he was tortured, and was then subjected to a specific torture program in Guantánamo, where he arrived in August 2002, after which he became an allegedly helpful informant, although his torture was so severe that it prompted his assigned prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, to resign rather than continue with the case.

Although he had his habeas corpus petition granted in March 2010, this was then vacated by the court of appeals, after an outcry from numerous Republicans, who believed, as had been alleged, that he had been some sort of mentor to the 9/11 hijackers, while he was living in Germany, even though it seems clear that, although he had met them, he had not done anything to assist them in their plans, and nor did he have any knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

I wrote extensively about the injustice of Slahi’s case — including the self-defeating absurdity of indefinitely detaining someone who had allegedly become an important informant — following the publication of a revelatory article in the Washington Post in March 2010, and his case recently came to light again when Slate published excerpts from an astonishing autobiography that he wrote in Guantánamo.

I will write about further developments when I have them, but for now this appears to be very good news indeed, not just for Ahmed Ould Abdul Aziz and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, but also for the other cleared prisoners in Guantánamo.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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77 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Just to provide an update: it’s still unclear what’s actually happening. Southcom is now denying the releases, Jason Leopold reports, but sources in Mauritania are still saying that the men are back, but haven’t yet been reunited with their families.

  2. Brian Scott says...

    hey, even if the reports are premature, or ultimately untrue, we need to keep our heads in the fight.
    I just posted somewhere yesterday that I doubted that signing petitions was an exercise in futility. I’d love to be proved wrong.
    .
    But my larger point remains correct: activists can act directly to interfere with the abuse at Gitmo. Take the principals to court in whatever jurisdiction you live in.
    Start with John V. Bogdan, the Warden.

  3. Brian Scott says...

    regrettably, WaPo.com is reporting that their lawyers say it isn’t true.

  4. Brian Scott says...

    I just called SOUTHCOM myself.
    Their direct number is +1 (305) 437-4900.
    They have no news on this matter.

  5. Brian Scott says...

    @carolrosenberg of the Miami Herald tweeted 45 minutes ago:
    “#Guantanamo chief spokesman just rang in from Cuba: No transfers, releases. Prison pop stands at 166. Southcom chief Gen. Kelly visiting.”

    Check it out at http://www.miamiherald.com/guantanamo/.

    Major letdown.

  6. arcticredriver says...

    Andy I found some Turkish references that also report their repatriation, like this one: http://www.sondakika.com/haber/haber-guantanamo-daki-2-moritanyali-serbest-birakildi-4688463/

    I took a look at the documents from the annual status review board hearings from 2008. At page 9 in this big portable document file we get the five page allegation memo prepared for Ahmed Ould Abd al-Aziz. http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File%3AARB_4_Documents_for_ISNs_757_through_1461.pdf&page=9
    At page 22 we get Mohammed Ould Slahi’s four page memo. http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:ARB_4_Documents_for_ISNs_757_through_1461.pdf&page=22

    If we took every allegation in those memos at face value, they would be pretty damning. But the Slahi memo, in particular, contains confessions those of us who paid attention to the information in the public domain know can’t be true.

    Slahi is supposed to have confessed to have attending the al Farouq training camp in 1991. But, following the ouster for the Soviet occupiers didn’t Osama bin Laden, and al Qaeda, relocate to Sudan? If al Qaeda were running training camps in 1991, wouldn’t they have been in Sudan.

    This allegation captives attended al Farouq are disturbing because many captives stand accused of traveling to Afghanistan, to attend al Farouq AFTER the attacks on 9-11 — when many captives testified, and some of the memos acknowledge, that Osama bin Laden shut down the al-Qaeda camps the day before 9-11. OBL remembered that two camps al-Qaeda camps were hit by cruise missiles after the African embassy bombings in 1998. So, the many captives who faced the allegation they attended an al Qaeda camp were victims of false denunciations, or bad record-keeping.

    Similarly, I think we can discount this allegation against Slahi.

    The allegations have him active in Afghanistan, as an “al Qaida facilitator” the early 1990s — and they also have him earning a degree in Electrical Engineering in Germany. Earning a degree in EE is a full time job. It doesn’t leave time for being an al Qaida facilitator in Afghanistan.

    Anyhow, it is excellent that you had facebook contacts who gave you first crack at this news.

    Cheers!

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I noticed a change in the wording in the 2008 memos. The 2nd paragraph is more explicit that most releases were conditional. It said:

    (1) release you to your home state;
    (2) transfer you to your home state, with conditions agreed upon by the United States and your home state; or
    (3) continue your detention under United States control.

    I am concerned for Slahi, for both these men, because I suspect their repatriation was conditional. Slahi wanted to return to Canada, where he spent a few years. My recollection is that he didn’t want to return to Mauritania at all.

    It is possible that after further years of detention he changed his mind, but I am afraid he may have preferred to wait for a third country, maybe even Palau, Bermuda or Albania, offering him Asylum

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Here is the URL to a handwritten letter from Slahi from 2006 — which I manually trnscribed way back then as I find handwriting hard to read:
    http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/couch-slahiletter-03312007.pdf

    my transcription follows:

    9 Nov 2006

    Dear Everybody!

    I received both the letters from you Sylvy and the other from Nancy that contains the new DTA.
    I read the whole things and as you might have noticed I am not subject to a trial by the MC for I’ve done none of the mentioned crimes in the new law.

    You ask me to write you everything I told my interrogators. Are you out of your mind!
    How can I render uninterrupted interrogation that has been lasting the last 7 years.
    That’s like asking Charlie Sheen, how many women he dated.

    Yet I provided you everything (almost) in my book, which the gov’t denies you the access to. Furthermore I was going to go deeper in details, but I figured it was futile.

    To make a long story short you may divide my time in two big steps:

    (1) Pre-torture (I mean that I couldn’t resist) : I told them the truth about me having done nothing against your country. It lasted until May 22nd, 2003

    (2) Post-torture era: Where my brake [sic] broke loose. I yes-sed every accusation my interrogators made. I even wrote the infamous confession about me was planning to hit the CN-Tower in Toronto based on SSG ##### advise [sic]. I just wanted to get the monkeys off my back. I don’t care how long I stay in Jail. My believe [sic] comforts me.

    One of you have got to come visit me, or I am going loco!

    Nonetheless, I doubt that the gov’t would provide you the intels I provided them I mean a lot of it is true, though not incriminating. And the incriminating part are lies. Still, I persist that none of my statements in GTMO Bay or any other dictarship [sic] countries are binding. Only the honest statements I’d make in front of a Fed Judge and a Jury would be binding.

    Around the subject : I believe that your leader acts like a bad chess player patzer. He keeps doing the wrong moves, and if he is cornered, he cheats. Why just thinking before moving! Or resigning the game. Not everybody is meant to play chess or being a president 🙂

    Sylvy, what about the Canadian file?

    Do you remember the hook up story? Tell Nancy and Teri about it, and better be as quick as I get out.

    I pray for you almost everyday. May Allah guide and bless you!

    With Love

    Slahi

    So there it is — explicitly — he eventually said “yes” to every allegation, without regard to how incredible they were.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Brian, in particular for the encouragement for us to “keep our heads in the fight.”
    And arcticredriver, thanks for those reports, even though sadly, it seems, the stories of the men’s release were untrue. Your points about Slahi’s treatment remain of huge importance – and as for Ahmed Ould Abdul Aziz, I hope the question is raised publicly about why this educated, cultured man is still held. I plan to write something soon.

  10. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, as I write this, the DoD is claiming it hasn’t transferred any captives from Guantanamo since Omar Khadr

    Some articles are saying the Obama administration failed to advise Congress first — something Congress passed a law requiring it to do.

    How seriously should we take a DoD claim like this?

    Andy, can I repeat some of the earlier instances when the DoD claimed something, only to have that claim prove utterly unreliable?

    When the DoD first announced deaths in custody at Guantanamo, on June 10, 2006, they claimed none of those men had active habeas motions. In fact not only had two of the men had legal teams working on their behalf, but one of those teams have been engaged in a cruel Kafka-esque charade. Although his family had gone through the legal step of filing the habeas petition as his “his next friend” Guantanamo authorities wouldn’t let him meet with their client until they had a letter from him, agreeing to let them represent him. The Kafka-esque element was that when the lawyers on his legal team tried writing him, to tell him his family had hired them, and asking him to reply with the letter of permission, that letter was returned to them as “undeliverable” — as they didn’t have any captives by that name. The legal team sent further letters, using different transliterations of his name, all with the same result. This cruel charade had gone on for longer than a year.

    Andy, I am sorry to tell any of your American readers that it looked like those responsible for delivering this letter were arbitrarily changing the “official name” they used for captives, solely so they could return their mail as undeliverable.

    A second surprising claim that comes to mind was made by a public affairs officer two days after one of the less important captives who faced charges before a military commission told the Presiding Officer that he would like the lawyers assigned to him by the military to be assisted by a civilian lawyer from his country who he could speak to without requiring an interpreter. It turned out, when the Presiding Officer questioned him, the Guantanamo post office had (typically) never delivered him any mail from home. At this time phone calls home had been very rare — there had been barely more than two dozen.

    The Presiding Officer delayed further preliminary hearings until this suspect had been allowed a phone call to his relatives, so they could discuss hiring a local lawyer with him.

    Well, within 24 or 48 hours of this ruling a public affairs officer had announced that the phone call had been scheduled, and had already taken place. Carol Rosenberg, who knew the process usually required at least a month, so the Red Cross could find the family, and make sure they could provide a safe secure reliable phone line. The suspect’s military attorney was also caught off guard, as no one had contacted her to learn his family’s address.

    Of course these are only two of the unreliable claims the DoD made. At the risk of being overly suspicious, I am going to suggest that, over and above the unreliable claims the DoD had been caught making that had already been refuted, there are many other unreliable claims they made that haven’t yet been refuted.

    Personally I am extremely skeptical that the three men whose death was announced on June 10th, 2006 were the first men to die in the camp. The DoD had been forced to issue an official list of captive’s names less than a month prior to the announcement of those deaths. Before the DoD issued that official list they could get away with hiding the deaths of captives they had never acknowledged they were holding. In the early years of the camp it held many more captives. Some of them had arrived at the camp with serious wounds. The guard staff were more brutal then, just like the brutality that Colonel Bogdan has re-instituted. It is hard to believe that no captives died until a month after the official list was published.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for the reminders about why we shouldn’t take all the utterances of the Pentagon seriously!

  12. arcticredriver says...

    Yes, the DoD denial can’t be ignored.

    Is there any kind of chaotic condition where one part of the DoD wouldn’t know of a transfer done by some other portion of the DoD? Is there any kind of chaotic condition where some portion of the DoD would set in motion an emergency transfer without telling Congress, the White House, and some portion of the Department of Defense?

    Sadly, I am afraid I can think of one situation where this might happen. I am afraid that a captive who was on the brink of death might be repatriated, at the last moment, so that the DoD would not have to investigate and explain whatever circumstances led to his death.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    A horrible thought, arcticredriver, but one obviously inspired by some of the real-life horrors that have taken place at Guantanamo over the years.
    I initially thought it possible that denials would take place if the administration wanted to keep quiet about the releases for a certain amount of time – and I’m sure that would happen if they decided not to say anything for, say, 72 hours.
    In retrospect, however, I don’t suppose anyone can be released without the President using the waiver in the NDAA, which, I presume, might then be publicized – before any prisoner is released – as various old men in Congress (and perhaps the odd crazy woman too) queue up to get apoplectic.

  14. Tom says...

    If the Pentagon and US govt. are lying about these releases and detainee deaths (among other things), consider what happened to Pat Tillman. A NFL player decides to go into the military. He has the “nerve” to publically admit that he read Noam Chomsky and questioned Stateside foreign policy. Then he goes into the military and is killed by friendly fire. The govt. deliberately lied about and manipulated his death for propaganda.

    Why then would Obama and Hagel be any different?

  15. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I wonder about something you wrote:

    In retrospect, however, I don’t suppose anyone can be released without the President using the waiver in the NDAA, which, I presume, might then be publicized – before any prisoner is released – as various old men in Congress (and perhaps the odd crazy woman too) queue up to get apoplectic.

    During World War 2, the US military graduated a lot of officers, disparagingly called “90 day wonders” to fill the bottom rung of the officer ranks. They were advised to never order anything their sergeant, generally someone with years of service, didn’t think was a good idea. There was an aphorism that no senior officer could ever institute a policy that his sergeants were opposed to.

    I think what President Obama has found, with Colonel Bogdan and Colonel Pohl, the chief judge of the office of military commissions, is that he can’t get his policies faithfully followed when his colonels are opposed.

    Americans make a big deal of calling their President the “Commander in Chief”, and in Hollywood entertainments like “Air Force One”, or “Independence Day”, we see Presidents who, in an emergency, will strap on a gun, or get in a jet fighter, to go lead American fighters by example.

    But I think President Obama is finding just how theoretical that “Commander in Chief” authority is. He can’t reach down and issue orders directly to 2 stars or 1 star flag officers. He can’t order Colonels fired. At best he can set in motion an inquiry. But, unless Secretary of Defense Hagel succeeds in stripping the commanding officers who act as convening authorities of the vice-regal power to set aside verdicts without explanation, or to decline to charge guilty GIs, even when a high-level inquiry recommends charges, those inquiries risk being as toothless as all the earlier inquires we have seen.

    As to whether a rogue officer like Colonel Bogdan could think he could get away with flouting Congress. Sadly, I think the record shows the angry voices in Congress really only focus on transgressors when they think those transgressions embarrass bleeding heart liberals.

    Attorney General Holder and President Obama lacked the moral courage to prosecute CIA torturers — on the theory that their actions were taking the advice in the torture memos at face value.

    Lieutenant Ilario Pantano was able to escape any formal punishment for what was clearly not just murder and body desecration, but a premeditated act of murder. We know that camp authorities either clandestinely ordered, or at least tacitly allowed, the disgraceful use of sleep deprivation long after authorization for this technique had been removed.

    Senior CIA officials pondered, for years, whether to destroy its infamous torture “training” recordings. They had denied the existence of these recordings. There was widespread speculation and rumours that those denials were lies. And there was a court order to prevent the destruction of any recordings like those.

    Juan Rodriguez, Director of Operations, did order the destruction of the recordings — and he was never charged.

    Bradley Manning, John Kirikou, Commander Diaz, were all punished for leaking classified material — but Jeffrey Groharing, or members of his team, leaked video clips of 15 year old Omar Khadr. Those clips were also classified. No one was charged. There wasn’t even a inquiry.

    Colonel Baumgarner stuffed rags down the throats of four Guantanamo captives, killing three of them. He wasn’t authorized to do that. But he got away with it, with his reputation and pension intact.

    So, I am afraid that if rogue members of the military did send dying men home without following protocol, patriots will close ranks, on the grounds those responsible “acted in good faith”.

    If either of the Mauritanians were repatriated, because camp authorities thought they were on the brink of death, I hope they recover, either because they end their hunger strike, or contact with their family has a positive effect on their health.

  16. the talking dog says...

    According to the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/01/released-guantanamo-bay-detainees-mauritania , at least, Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s attorney, is denying his release. It would appear we are now in a “fog of war” scenario, and it might take a little while to sort out just what is actually happening.

    While welcome news to the world if true, releasing innocent men from GTMO is not something that generally sits well with the draconian sensibilities of most of my countrymen, and hence, is rarely done with much fanfare from this end.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    A sad story, Tom, that I hadn’t heard before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Tillman
    I also agree that there is no reason for necessarily believing what we are told by the spokespeople for a monstrous war machine or the leaders or senior officials of the country bankrupting itself in pursuit of endless war.
    It now seems clear that only the prisoner from Bagram was returned to Mauritania, but I have no time for Pentagon spokespeople smugly explaining how there are still 166 men in Guantanamo, and no one has been released since last October. There’s no reason for anyone to be even vaguely proud of that fact.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Very powerful commentary indeed, arcticredriver. As we are seeing, it now appears that neither of the Mauritanians in Guantanamo have been released, but I can’t think of a single reason why I should trust anything US military spokespeople say, given the track record that you’ve highlighted. I only spoke to the Pentagon once about Guantanamo. I rang up and asked why there were missing ISN numbers – ISN 001, ISN 180, ISN 212 etc., and was told that those numbers had never existed – which was, of course, a blatant lie, whether deliberate or not. It helped me to decide that the “objectivity” that liberals bleat on about being necessary in media reports is often horribly counter-productive, skewing the news in favour of the wrongdoers. It wasn’t the only example of that, of course. Dangerous right-wingers lie and issue black propaganda endlessly, while liberals hand-wring about the need to tell both sides of the story. It’s part of the reason why the world is such a mess.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    “Fog of war” indeed, TD. Good to hear from you. On reflection, the release of Slahi was highly unlikely, given your fellow countrymen and women’s sensibilities (although I agree with Judge Robertson, who granted his habeas petition, that he should be freed), although no one should be even remotely happy that Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz hasn’t been released. Cleared for release – sorry, “approved for transfer” – over three years ago, his ongoing detention is disgraceful, as it is for the other 85 men told in January 2010 that the US had no desire to deprive them of their liberty endlessly.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Abzter Ganjakur wrote:

    WHAT A SHAME. BUT LIKE SHAKER AAMER SAYS THEY WILL DEFO BE BACK SOON INSHALLAH. WE HAVE TO HELP WITH THEIR RELEASE AS MUCH AS WE CAN. AND IT SEEMS LIKE A PROMISING TIME NOW WHAT WITH THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA COVERING THE HUNGER STRIKES AND ABUSE IN THERE. KEEP GOIN ANDY IT WILL BE WORTH IT IN THE END.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Abzter. The struggle continues!

  22. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I think this appendix is from a report from the Guantanamo Joint Task Force. Page 7 has to references to interviews with 757, acknowledging he claimed recent wounds from the camp staff, and that he called it torture: http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:February_2009_report_of_Guantanamo_Joint_Task_Force_–_Appendix_4_–_Interviews.pdf&page=7

    Page 8 refers to interviews the GJTF staff conducted in the following days to confirm claims of abusive treatment from detainee 174 and ISN 757: http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:February_2009_report_of_Guantanamo_Joint_Task_Force_–_Appendix_4_–_Interviews.pdf&page=8

    The document says they reviewed recordings of al-Aziz’s forced cell extraction — presumably to form their own determination if excessive force was employed, and they interviewed the DIMS. Would this be short for the Detainee mumble Medical Service”?

  23. Ron Flanders says...

    There was nothing smug in the Pentagon spokesperson’s quote about the 166 detainees. He was asked a question by a reporter about the story online about two Mauritanians being released. He answered the question. It’s not his fault someone irresponsibly reported that two detainees had been released from Guantanamo without bothering to call and make a basic fact-check.
    I understand there’s a difference between an activist and a real journalist, but it’s not helpful to anyone when errors such as this are made. Please feel free to call us and double-check the next time you hear rumors about a Guantanamo detainee. You will get an honest answer, as Mr. Leopold and Ms. Rosenberg did this time.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Fascinating, arcticredriver. Thank you very much, as ever, for your research and your attention to detail.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Please see my published reply soon, Ron. I think your comments deserve a well-publicized response!

  26. Ron Flanders says...

    OK, thank you, I look forward to it. Understand that the spokespeople for JTF-GTMO and DOD are just doing their jobs. In the event of a transfer from Guantanamo, they will release the information as soon as possible, as it is not something the government wants to hide. As you know, the defense attorneys and the government will announce it posthaste.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    My response is here, Mr. Flanders: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/06/03/my-exchange-with-guantanamo-spokesperson-who-called-me-an-activist-and-not-a-real-journalist/
    I understand that people are “just doing their jobs,” but that doesn’t give you license to criticize me for a story that was also put out by AFP and the Associated Press, unless you can demonstrate that you have also referred to them as not being “real journalists” as well.
    It would also, I think, be wise to consider why many people – myself included – might have problems with the purported truthfulness of spokespeople for Guantanamo, looking back at the last eleven years.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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