Finally! Torture Victim and Best-Selling Author Mohamedou Ould Slahi Approved for Release from Guantánamo

22.7.16

Mauritanian prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, photographed before he was handed over to US authorities in Mauritania, and sent for torture in Jordan and Guantanamo, where he is still held. On July 14, 2016, a Periodic Review Board approved him for release.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the 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.

Great news from Guantánamo, as the torture victim and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, as has an Afghan prisoner, Abdul Zahir, who was charged in the first version of Guantánamo’s military commissions in January 2006 — although those charges were then dropped and never revived. The PRBs were set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release or facing trials, and, with these two decisions, 29 men have been approved for release and 13 for ongoing imprisonment, a success rate of 69%. See our definitive Periodic Review Board list here.

This is remarkable — and an indictment of the Obama administration’s caution — when it is recognized that, back in 2009, when President Obama set up a high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force to assess these men’s cases, these 42 men and 22 others either awaiting reviews or awaiting the results of reviews, were described as “too dangerous to release,” although the task force acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, or were put forward for prosecution, until the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed under judicial scrutiny in 2012-13.

Slahi (ISN 760), a 45-year old Mauritanian, was one of those initially — and incomprehensibly — recommended for prosecution by the task force. As I explained at the time of his PRB on June 2, he “was subjected to a specially tailored torture program in Guantánamo, approved by Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and, though still imprisoned, is a best-selling author. While imprisoned, he wrote a memoir that, after a long struggle with the US government, was published in redacted form. Nevertheless, the power of Slahi’s account of his life, his rendition, his torture and his long years in Guantánamo, is such that the book, Guantánamo Diary, has become a best-seller.”

As I also explained, “Although the Bush administration attempted to make a case that Slahi was a member of Al-Qaeda, which was why they put pressure on the Mauritanian government to hand him over to them in November 2001, and why he was subsequently tortured in Jordan (on behalf of the US) and in Guantánamo by US operatives, the case evaporated under scrutiny. In April 2010, Judge James Robertson, a US District Court judge, after scrutinizing his habeas corpus petition, ordered his release, finding that the government had failed to establish that what looked suspicious in his case — primarily, the fact that he was related to senior Al-Qaeda member Abu Hafs, and, while living in Germany, had met some of the 9/11 hijackers and had helped them to visit Afghanistan for military training — was actually evidence of involvement with Al-Qaeda. Slahi has admitted that he had joined Al-Qaeda, but that was in 1992, when he had visited Afghanistan during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and he insisted that he had not maintained any contact with the organization after that time.”

The government, however, refused to accept Judge Robertson’s ruling, and appealed, and in November 2010 the D.C. Circuit Court vacated that ruling, sending it back to the lower court to be reconsidered, where, as I described it in an article about Slahi’s case in April, “it has languished ever since, mocking all notions of justice every day it has remained unaddressed.”

In their final determination, dated July 14, the review board’s members determined, by consensus, that Slahi’s “continued law of war detention” is “no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The board members added that they had considered Slahi’s “highly compliant behavior in detention,” and also noted his “candid responses to the Board’s questions, to include recognition of his past activities, [and] clear indications of a change in [his] mindset.” The board members also “considered the extensive support network available to [him] from multiple sources, including strong family connections, and [his] robust and realistic plan for the future.”

In a press release, the ACLU, which helped to represent him, noted that “[t]he government of his native Mauritania has said that it would welcome him home.”

Nancy Hollander, one of his attorneys, said, “We are thrilled that the PRB has cleared our client. We will now work toward his quick release and return to the waiting arms of his loving family. This is long overdue.”

Hina Shamsi, another of his attorneys, and the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said, “We’re delighted for Mohamedou and his family, but the new chapter in his life won’t start until the Pentagon actually transfers him, and it should begin that process immediately.” She added, in an important reminder of the other men still held, “There are still dozens of other men trapped in the misery that is indefinite detention at Guantánamo. Time is running out for President Obama to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo and prevent its injustice from tarnishing his legacy.”

In the Guardian, Mark Fallon, the deputy commander of the former Criminal Investigative Task Force at Guantánamo, called Shahi’s torture “a shameful chapter for the Department of Defense and those who served in uniform,” adding, “It was a command-sanctioned torture of a prisoner in custody. It was unwarranted, unnecessary, and obviously totally ineffective.”

The Guardian described how, in his book, Slahi “recalled being so broken by the torture that he would tell his tormentors whatever they wished to hear.” He wrote that he told his interrogators, “I don’t care, as long as you are pleased. So if you want to buy, I am selling.” He was then moved into housing reserved for cooperative prisoners, where “he was permitted to watch TV and maintain a modest garden,” and where he wrote his memoirs.

As Fallon described it, accurately, Slahi’s torture “left us with a detainee [who] continued to be held for years, not based on what he did to us, but based on what we did to him.”

76 men are still held at Guantánamo, and, with the decisions taken about Slahi and Abdul Zahir, 31 of those men have now been approved for release.

In its press release, the ACLU also noted that one piece of evidence reviewed by the PRB, which was not made publicly available at the time, was a letter of support submitted by a former military guard at Guantánamo who was assigned to Slahi for 10 months. The guard described Slahi as “polite, friendly, and respectful,” and also stated, “I did not see or hear support for violence of fundamentalist Islam from him.” Many years ago, I was contacted by a former guard who wanted to explain how positive his experiences of Slahi had been while he was guarding him, although he did not want to be publicly identified. It may be that this guard is the same man — although it is almost certain, of course, that Slahi would similarly have impressed other guards.

A campaign to free Slahi, initiated by the ACLU, secured international support. As the ACLU noted in its press release, “The ACLU and Change.org have collected more than 100,000 signatures calling for his release. The petitions have gathered high-profile supporters, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Roger Waters. In the UK, several members of Parliament signed a letter urging the British government to call on the US to release Slahi.”

Afghan prisoner Abdul Zahir, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.The other man to be approved for release, Abdul Zahir (ISN 753), who is 43- or 44-years old, had initially been accused of a grenade attack on a vehicle carrying Toronto Star journalist Kathleen Kenna, her husband Hadi Dadashian, photographer Bernard Weil, and an Afghan driver in Zormat on March 4, 2002, but by the time of his PRB the attack, which he had always denied being involved in, was not mentioned. The summary for his PRB also noted that he was “probably misidentified” as an individual “who had ties to al-Qa’ida weapons facilitation activities.”

In their final determination, the board members considered Zahir’s “candor in discussing his time in Afghanistan and involvement with the Taliban, [his] limited role in Taliban structure and activities, and the assessment that [he] was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation.”

The board members also noted that he “has not expressed any intent to reengage in extremist activity or espoused any anti-US sentiment that would Indicate he views the US as an enemy,” and also “considered [his] efforts to pursue educational and treatment opportunities while at Guantánamo, and [his] available support network and job skills to assist with reintegration.”

At the same time that the Periodic Review Secretariat released the final determinations for Slahi and Zahir, they also announced seven forthcoming reviews, all for prisoners initially regarded as “high-value detainees” — Muhammad Rahim (ISN 10029), an Afghan, on August 2, Guleed Hassan Ahmed (ISN 10023), a Somali, on August 4, Mohd Farik bin Amin aka Zubair (ISN 10021), a Malaysian, on August 9, Bashir bin Lap aka Lillie (ISN 10022), another Malaysian, on August 11, Mustafa Faraj Muhammad Masud al-Jadid al-Uzaybi aka Abu Faraj al-Libi (ISN 10017), a Libyan, on August 16, Encep Nurjaman aka Hambali (ISN 10019), an Indonesian, on August 18, and Zayn al-Ibidin Muhammed Husayn aka Abu Zubaydah (ISN 10016) on August 23.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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.

26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    My latest article, cross-posted from http://www.closeguantanamo.org, celebrating the fact that torture victim and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been approved for release from ‪Guantanamo‬, as has an Afghan, Abdul Zahir. A judge ordered Slahi’s release over six years ago, but the government appealed, and his case ended up in an unforgivable limbo for all this time. 31 of the remaining 76 prisoners have now been approved for release.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Great news!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, indeed, Javier!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    “Approved for release” and “released” don’t seem to be quite the same thing in the Alice Through the Looking Glass World of GTMO but encouraging never-the-less. It seems, to qualify for being considered suitable to be considered for release, you first have to write 50 times on your cell wall “I love America and especially the Pentagon,” or is that unfair?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly right, David. Nothing in Guantanamo is as it is anywhere else. Throughout its history, people have been told the US no longer wants to hold them, and yet some have waited ten years to finally be freed. Shaker Aamer, of course, waited eight years after he was first told the US no longer wanted to hold him. I think Slahi is so high-profile that the arrangements will be made as soon as possible, but in the meantime let’s recall that several Yemeni men approved for release at the start of the PRB process, in early 2014, are still held, as the authorities fish around for countries willing to offer them new homes. With Slahi it should be easier, if the authorities decide to repatriate him, but that’s not been made clear yet.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Please feel free to like the Close Guantanamo page on Facebook, and to follow us on Twitter:
    https://www.facebook.com/CloseGuantanamo/
    https://twitter.com/closegitmo
    Also feel free to join us – just an email address is required to be counted as an opponent of Guantanamo and to receive two email newsletters every month: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Join-Us

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    Thank you for this good news. Let the releases begin!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Geraldine. Good to hear from you.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Annie Christine wrote:

    Congrats Andy Worthington the ordeal of this man is about to end.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Annie. I’m glad to have played a very small part, but many people worked very hard to get his book published, and the book’s success must have exerted a significant amount of pressure on the Obama administration.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone taking an interest in this story. Just updated – the definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website, providing all the latest information: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    All I have to say is…. W00T!!!!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. Now let us hope it doesn’t take too long to actually arrange his transfer out of the prison.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Exactly…can you imagine what would happen under any next president? I suspect Hillary would slow it down if not stop it and Trump….Geez. I don’t even want to imagine that.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    I think Hillary’s on record as wanting to see it closed, Jan, and was actually more willing than Obama to act in the early months of his presidency, so that suggests it would depend, as with Obama, on political will, and especially control of Congress. As for Trump, yikes! It’s like a bad dream watching him accepting the GOP nomination. Scary.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    This is terrific – come on Obama you can’t fulfill your promise before leaving office in November? – to CLOSE GUANTANAMO HELL HOLE.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    He’s getting closer, Lindis. Just 45 men will be left when all those approved for release are freed – and I expect some more of those who have had PRBs, but whose outcomes have not yet been decided, will also be approved for release.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Jakub Barat wrote:

    Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of a life-changing book Guantánamo Diary and the real Josef K. figure of today’s world will finally be released.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jakub. Good to hear from you.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Great article here about Abdul Zahir’s civilian lawyers, David Sleigh and Robert Ginsburg, and military lawyer, Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, in a Vermont newspaper:
    http://www.timesargus.com/article/20160724/THISJUSTIN/307249999

    Excerpts:

    “After 14 years, it was as if you got arrested, served your sentence without any preliminaries or trial and then found yourself at a parole hearing arguing why you should get out,” Sleigh said of a hearing last month that led to the decision that Zahir could be freed. “I think that’s right out of ‘Alice in Wonderland’: sentence first, trial later.”

    Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, a former military prosecutor who has represented Zahir along with Sleigh and Ginsburg … compares the legal system at Guantanamo to being on a mountain and given a box of airplane parts, then being pushed off and told to build the plane while falling.

    Gensburg, who has practiced law in St. Johnsbury for 49 years and now focuses on civil cases, [said,] “David and I have been trying for 10 years to get the government to charge him with something so that we could have a trial — that’s how we do things in this country — and have a neutral person say whether he’s guilty or not guilty.”

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael S. Kearns wrote:

    Great news Andy! Bravo…

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Michael. Yes, it’s shameful to have held him so long, still trying to pretend that he was somehow significant or that he meant harm to the US. He should have been freed when a judge granted his habeas corpus petition back in April 2010.

  23. Martin says...

    More good news. Ravil Mingazov has been APPROVED for transfer. The board had some problems with his candor but approved him anyway because he has not made anti-U.S. statements. Hopefully Musab and Hail are next.

    http://www.prs.mil/Portals/60/Documents/ISN702/160721_U_ISN702_FINAL_DETERMINATION_PUBLIC_v1.pdf

  24. Martin says...

    One more thing. I always found it strange that he was recommended for prosecution but not Jamil Nassir. Noticeably the allegations of Ravil being part of Zubaydah’s Martyr’s Brigade was absent from the unclassified summary. Personally, I believe only the people captured in Zubaydah’s house were part of that Brigade. Not the guest house.

  25. Martin says...

    Anyway, 30 out of 64 have been approved for transfer. As I predicted, the Task Force recommendations have been cut in half and hopefully at least two more indefinite recommendations will be cut.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Martin. Yes, I had just heard from Ravil’s attorney. It’s very good news.
    As for the Issa House, I agree that those there were not in any way connected significantly with Abu Zubaydah’s house, although I have a problem with the Martyr’s Brigade story, as the reports of Zubaydah’s so-called militia show a fractious group of people who barely managed to get on with each other, and certainly had serious doubts about Zubaydah’s so-called leadership.
    Also, as you know, I had hoped that those approved for release would be more than half of the 64, although I agree it now looks unlikely.

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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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