A Tale of Two Guantánamos: Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s World of Torture vs. the Senate’s Terrorist Fantasies

19.2.15

The cover of "Guantanamo Diary" by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, published in January 2015.

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

When it comes to Guantánamo, there are, sadly, two worlds of opinion, and the 122 men still held are, for the most part, caught in the struggle between the two.

In the first world, it is recognized that Guantánamo is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, a place where the prisoners held — 779 in total — were subjected to a series of ghastly experiments involving imprisonment without charge or trial, torture, and various forms of medical and psychological experimentation.

One man who endured particularly brutal torture at Guantánamo is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of Guantánamo Diary, published last month and serialized in the Guardian, which has become a New York Times bestseller, even though Slahi is still held at Guantánamo. He wrote it in the prison as a hand-written manuscript in 2005, but it took until 2012 for it to be approved for release by the US authorities — albeit with over 2,500 redactions.

A Mauritanian, born in 1970, Slahi was singled out for a specific torture program, approved by Donald Rumsfeld, in 2003. He had aroused US suspicions because he was related to Abu Hafs, the spiritual advisor to Al-Qaeda (who, lest we forget, opposed the 9/11 attacks), and because, while living in Germany in 1999, three would-be jihadists, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an alleged facilitator of the 9/11 attacks, had stayed for a night at his house.

However, although Slahi had trained and fought in Afghanistan in 1991-2, when, apparently, he had sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda, that was the extent of his involvement with terrorism or militant activity, as Judge James Robertson, a District Court judge, concluded in March 2010, when he granted Slahi’s habeas corpus petition.

The Obama administration appealed Judge Robertson’s ruling, and in November 2010 the court of appeals — the D.C. Circuit Court — backed the government, vacating Judge Robertson’s ruling, and sending it back to the lower court to reconsider.

That never happened, and Slahi ended up abandoned. The high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009 had recommended him for prosecution in its final report two months before his habeas corpus petition was granted, and this stood until April 2013, when he was determined to be eligible for a new review process, the Periodic Review Boards, along with 24 other men who had initially been recommended for prosecution by the task force, and 46 others who had been recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the profoundly dubious basis that they were too dangerous to release, but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

It is to be hoped that the many readers of Slahi’s engaging but harrowing memoir will add necessary weight to the campaign to close Guantánamo. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra noted in a recent review of the book in the Guardian, touching on much of its power:

Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s extraordinary account of rendition, captivity and torture reveals, more vividly than any book in the previous decade of shock-and-awe ferocity, how he and countless other men became victims of a profound sense of individual and collective emasculation. His captors tried to re-establish their full-spectrum dominance in a variety of ways. There is among them the permissive libertarian who announces, “Today, we’re gonna teach you about great American sex”, as two topless women rub themselves against Slahi’s shackled body, and play with his penis. “William the Torturer” threatens to have Slahi’s entire family sexually assaulted and to send him to an American prison where “terrorists like you get raped by multiple men at the same time”. A more thoughtful supremacist believes that “there are two kinds of people in the world: white Americans and the rest of the world. White Americans are smart and better than anybody.” Slahi’s casual use of the phrase “If I were you” incites a blistering reproof: “Don’t you ever dare to compare me with you, or compare any American with you.” There is the cultural nationalist who informs Slahi, “We don’t like you to speak English. We want you to die slowly.” […]

His torture in Guantánamo — periodic beatings, sleep deprivation, isolation, diet manipulations — yielded no information of any value. The CIA, the FBI and military intelligence failed to link him to the many acts of terrorism they accused him of. Nevertheless, for more than 13 years, Slahi’s frail physical self seems to have offered his captors the satisfaction of ritually humiliating a religious and political “other” and then finding in his degradation the much-needed proof of his moral and physical inferiority. As one interrogator put it to Slahi, “in the eyes of the Americans, you’re doomed. Just looking at you in an orange suit, chains, and being Muslim and Arabic is enough to convict you.”

In contrast to Slahi — and the growing body of readers in the US who have understood, through reading his book, the extraordinary depravity of America’s behaviour post-9/11 — some lawmakers in Congress continue to live in a world of hysteria in which everyone at Guantánamo is a dangerous terrorist, even though there has never been any evidence whatsoever to indicate that this kind of claim is credible. Reliable sources within the US establishment have always pointed out that no more than a few dozen of the men held at Guantánamo have ever genuinely been accused of involvement with any form of terrorism.

The dangerous absurdity of the “Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act of 2015”

Last week, while Slahi’s account continued to appal all decent people, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed, by 14 votes to 12, legislation proposed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte and supported by other Republican lawmakers including John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Richard Burr, which, with outrageous hyperbole, is called the “Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act of 2015.”

The bill reinforces existing legislation (the annual National Defense Authorization Act) prohibiting the transfer of prisoners to the US mainland for any reason, and preventing the administration from buying any facility to be used as a prison, and it also prohibits the release of any prisoners to Yemen. Of the 122 men still held, 54 have been approved for release (50 by Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force and four in the last year by Periodic Review Boards), and all but seven of these men are Yemenis. There has been a long-standing reluctance, across the US establishment, to repatriate Yemenis because of security fears about Yemen, but in recent months the Obama administration has overcome this problem, finding third countries to offer new homes to Yemenis approved for release — 12 to date. In November, Georgia took three men and Slovakia took one, in December three men were resettled in Kazakhstan, and in January four men were sent to Oman, and one was rehoused in Estonia.

Where the bill enters new and entirely unacceptable territory, however, is in its two-year suspension on the transfer of any prisoners “who have ever been designated or assessed by Joint Task Force Guantánamo to be a high or medium risk to the U.S., our interests, or our allies.”

As the Washington Post explained, “While the Pentagon no longer uses such designations, all remaining detainees at Guantánamo were at one time categorized as either ‘high risk’ or ‘medium risk,'” according to the classified military files that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011. It’s also hugely important to recognize that the risk assessments were routinely exaggerated, and were, in any case, based on generally unreliable information — for the most part, statements made by the prisoners themselves, or their fellow prisoners, under the use of torture and other forms of abuse, as well as bribery.

If the bill is passed by the Senate — which, distressingly, seems likely, although a vote is not imminent — President Obama will be forced to veto it if he is to continue releasing prisoners as he has over the last three months, with the release of 26 men long approved for release.

I hope that the Senate will not pass this wretched bill, and that lawmakers will, instead, read Slahi’s book, and reflect on how and why Sen. Ayotte and her colleagues want to keep holding him, even though he clearly has no connection with terrorism and does not pose a threat to the US.

Slahi is not the only man who should no longer continue to be held, of course. Sen. Ayotte and her colleagues also want to keep holding the 54 men approved for release through high-level government review processes, and have also failed to realize that Slahi is not the only one of the other 68 men who should not be regarded as a threat. 13 years after Guantánamo opened, and with just ten men facing trials, or having been tried, it is, in fact, irresponsible of lawmakers to suggest that there is a case for holding the majority of these men, many of whom, like Slahi, can realistically be regarded as more sinned against than sinning.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “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, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Apologies for posting this at an unusual time (1pm GMT), but I now have to write an article about David Hicks for Al-Jazeera and then head out to Earls Court to speak at what should be a very interesting event, ‘The Banned Books of Guantanamo’: http://mosaicrooms.org/event/banned-books-guantanamo/
    I would have posted this yesterday, but my website was entirely disabled due to technical problems, which, I am delighted to report, have now been resolved!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Please, if you’re in the US, sign the ACLU’s petition to the Secretary of Defense, “Tell the US government to free Slahi,” which currently has over 46,000 signatures: https://www.aclu.org/secure/free-slahi

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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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