“The Mauritanian” Perfectly Captures the Horrors of Guantánamo and the US Torture Program

11.2.21

The goody bag for the online screening of “The Mauritanian” that I was invited to attend last Friday, February 5, 2021.

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UPDATE MAR. 3, 2021: “The Mauritanian” is now available for streaming in the US, although UK viewers will have to wait until April 1.

Last Friday I was privileged to be invited to an online pre-release screening of “The Mauritanian,” the new feature film about former Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Mohamedou Ould Slahi (aka Salahi), based on his best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

French actor Tahar Rahim shines as Mohamedou, capturing his nimble mind, and also capturing something of his gentle charisma, admirably supported by his attorneys Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (actually a composite of two attorneys, played by Shailene Woodley), and with Benedict Cumberbatch appearing as Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, Mohamedou’s military prosecutor, who resigned after discovering his torture, and how the only evidence against him consisted of statements that he made as a result of his torture.

The screenplay was written by Michael Bronner (as M. B. Traven), working with the writing duo of Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, and the director was Kevin Macdonald, and all involved are to be commended for creating a film that does justice to Mohamedou’s story — and I’m grateful to Nancy Hollander for having specifically included a photo of herself holding up a “Close Guantánamo” poster in the end credits, which I took of her in April 2016 at a Parliamentary meeting for Mohamedou in London.

The trailer is below, via YouTube:

Ever since Guantánamo Diary was published, in January 2015, it was obvious that it was a prime candidate for a feature film that would expose the horror of Guantánamo and the US’s post-9/11 torture program. In common with other Guantánamo prisoners who had written memoirs, Mohamedou was intelligent and articulate, but he also had a sharp sense of humor, and, most remarkably, an extraordinary lack of bitterness about how he had been treated.

His story also touched on key elements of the “war on terror”: how the US authorities kidnapped and tortured individuals based merely on suspicion, and often as a result of dubious confessions made by other individuals detained and subjected to torture; and how, at Guantánamo, the law was largely, if not entirely out of reach, and the authorities’ default position was to hold people indefinitely without charge or trial.

In Mohamedou’s case, he came under suspicion because, as a young man, in the early ’90s, he had traveled to Afghanistan and had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, and also because his cousin Mafouz Ould al-Walid (aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani) had been a spiritual advisor to al-Qaeda, and had called him from a satellite phone traced to Osama bin Laden (what no one on the US side ever mentioned was that Abu Hafs had opposed the 9/11 attacks, and had left al-Qaeda in protest). In addition, while living in Germany, Mohamedou had, on one occasion, met some of the 9/11 hijackers, and later, while living in Canada, had attended a mosque that was also attended by Ahmed Ressam, who was later arrested and imprisoned for having allegedly been involved in a ‘Millennium Plot’ to  bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

Suspicion, however, is not the same as proof, although disgracefully, in the “war on terror,” Mohamedou’s refusal to confess to his invented crimes led the authorities to subject him to a horrendous program of torture, specifically approved by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, from May to August 2003, when he was subjected to prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation, the use of extreme heat and cold, physical violence and sexual humiliation.

Towards the end of this period, the authorities told hm that his mother was being brought to Guantánamo, where she would be raped, and he was also blindfolded, taken out to sea in a boat, and subjected to a mock execution. Eventually, broken by the torture, Mohamedou signed a false confession, became an informant, and was rewarded by being held with another informant in a facility separate from the rest of the prison’s population, where they were allowed to maintain a small garden, and where, ironically, Mohamedou was allowed to write the account of his experiences that eventually — after years of wrangling with the authorities — became Guantánamo Diary.

And yet, as was explained to Slahi’s editor Larry Siems in an interview in 2013 by Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the military commission trial system (who also resigned in protest at the use of torture), the supposed case against Slahi was never backed up by anything resembling evidence. “He reminded me of Forrest Gump,” Col. Davis explained, “in the sense that there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of al-Qaida and terrorism, and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background. He was in Germany, Canada, different places that look suspicious, and that caused them to believe that he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it, that’s not where they came out.”

In March 2010, in the District Court in Washington, D.C., Judge James Robertson was also unconvinced by the government’s claims, granting Mohamedou’s habeas corpus petition, and stating in his opinion, “Associations alone are not enough … to make detention lawful.”

As I explained at the time:

Although he accepted, as Salahi himself admitted, that “he traveled to Afghanistan in early 1990 to fight jihad against communists and that there he swore bayat to al-Qaeda,” he also, essentially, accepted Salahi’s assertion that “his association with al-Qaeda ended after 1992, and that, even though he remained in contact thereafter with people he knew to be al-Qaeda members, he did nothing for al-Qaeda after that time.” This was in marked contrast to the government’s claim that he “was so connected to al-Qaeda for a decade beginning in 1990 that he must have been ‘part of’ al-Qaeda at the time of his capture.”

As I also explained, the ruling contained important concessions by the government:

The first is that, although Salahi was originally seized in connection with Ahmed Ressam’s thwarted “Millennium Plot,” the government now “does not allege that Salahi participated in the Millennium Plot.” The second — even more extraordinarily, given how Salahi has been sold to the public over the years — is that the government now “acknowledg[es] that Salahi probably did not even know about the 9/11 attacks.”

Despite Mohamedou’s court victory, however, the Obama administration appealed, and his successful habeas petition was vacated in November 2010, and sent back to the lower court to reconsider — although that never happened. 

Instead, he had to wait until June 2016 to be given a chance to persuade a panel of military and intelligence officials — in a parole-type process, the Periodic Review Boards, established by President Obama — that he no longer posed a threat to the US, and that it was safe to release him. In October 2016, almost 14 years after he was first abducted, after voluntarily handing himself in to the Mauritanian authorities, Mohamedou was released to Mauritania, a free man — although he has since struggled to secure a passport, and finds that foreign travel remains a problem.

“The Mauritanian” has a limited theatrical release tomorrow in the US, and will then be released online. I do hope you will be able to watch it, because — to reiterate — it shines a light on the US’s shameful post-9/11 flight from justice, and, crucially, the ways in which kidnapping and torture were based on nothing more than suspicion or hearsay, or on statements made by other tortured individuals (which were, of course, inherently unreliable), and how, at Guantánamo in particular, this evidence-free worldview continues to involve the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial of the majority of the 40 men still held. I can only hope that the release of “The Mauritanian” will contribute to the prison’s closure.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

32 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a review of “The Mauritanian,” the film, released in some US cinemas tomorrow, which is based on the best-selling memoir “Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Based on nothing more than suspicion, Mohamedou was subjected to a horrendous torture program at Guantanamo in 2003, and, despite the case against him collapsing, wasn’t released until 2016.

    Congratulations to the cast — Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou, Jodie Foster as his attorney Nancy Hollander, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, his military prosecutor — and to director Kevin MacDonald and the scriptwriters for bringing to life this compelling story that strikes to the heart of Guantanamo and the “war on terror.”

    In the “war on terror,” as I describe it in my article, “kidnapping and torture were based on nothing more than suspicion or hearsay, or on statements made by other tortured individuals (which were, of course, inherently unreliable),” and “at Guantanamo in particular, this evidence-free worldview continues to involve the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial of the majority of the 40 men still held.”

  2. Mark Erickson says...

    Hi Andy! Great work as usual! Lucky you to get a sneak preview of the movie, I can’t wait to see it online. Take care!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mark. Great to hear from you. I was just thinking about you, as I’d been looking through some old articles about Mohamedou, and had seen some comments from you – probably from 2010. I hope you’re staying well in these unprecedented times.

    I hope you appreciate the film as much as I did. There are some indifferent reviews out there, but I thought everyone involved came up with something very powerful. I just hope people who still don’t know much about Guantanamo and the torture program get to see it.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Can’t wait to see it!!!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I think you will like it, Natalia – if ‘like’ is the right word. I hope it reaches a wide audience.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    “Honour bound to defend freedom” – Oh the irony

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, David. I’ve always found that particular phrase, and the way the first part is said by one soldier, and completed by a second, to be both ridiculous and disturbing at the same time.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Ed Charles wrote:

    You are honour bound to defend the freedom to blindly follow orders and to do exactly what we tell you to do, how we tell you to do it and when we tell you to do it.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    It would tear me apart to have to be in that situation, Ed. I’m unequipped to deal with unquestioning obedience. The funny thing, however, is that, despite the brainwashing of the military, hundreds of former guards have made contact with former prisoners to apologize for what they did.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Have they, Andy?? Our family haven’t had a single sorry from anyone at all.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Maybe they don’t know how to make contact, Asiya. From what I’ve heard, most of them don’t want to be identified, but they wanted to make it clear that they weren’t happy with what they were required to do.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Andy, I think more important than sorry, is justice and freedom. Very few from those who survived these horrors have any real freedom despite being exonerated as innocent men and that is a seemingly deliberate and continuing torture.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I absolutely agree, Asiya, and I remain very interested in setting up an organization to deal with the precarious non-existence and lack of rights of former “enemy combatants.”

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Andy, “former” “enemy combatants ” is a term that literally sends chills, and reduces people to tears, it’s like some Orwellian nightmare.

    Innocent people who were kidnapped and tortured and are still denied their freedom is the reality that needs normalising, instead of those kind of catch phrases that allowed these horrors and still allow them to continue 😑

    I hope one day we can be rid of them, it’s so dehumanising.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s my point, Asiya. I’m not condoning the use of the phrase at all, but there are two types of human beings on the planet as a result of the US’s response to 9/11 – “enemy combatants”, who are fundamentally without rights, and everyone else. I don’t mean that there aren’t people subjected to horrendous collective abuse elsewhere – Palestinians, for example, or the Uighurs – but at some level they have fundamental rights that can be acted on by people representing them, whereas the “enemy combatants” of Guantanamo – “former” or not – have no recognized rights whatsoever as human beings. The US must eventually be made to recognize that this is an intolerable situation, and that it needs addressing.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Thanks for your work Andy! Here is a Russian trailer, I will watch it and recommend it to my friends. https://youtu.be/UNQ_W8m-nCk

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Aleksey!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    Thank you for this fine review of what is surely a fine movie.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Geraldine. Details of when it will be available online haven’t been released yet, but I think the director said at the screening last week that it will be by the start of March, with the UK following at the start of April.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    I will promote it for sure. But I think I’ve reached a saturation point regarding human brutality. Yesterday I was reading excerpts from a slave owner’s diary and I truly thought about how long and how vile human history is. And then that moment arrived when I could not absorb one more word or image. I see how people hate. And then act on the hate. Then accuse the one they hate of putting their throat right up to the knife. There must come a point when that happens to everyone, I hope. But I so doubt that is possible.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m sorry to hear about your encounter with the saturation of human horror, Deborah, but I fully understand. I learned the importance of distancing myself when I got ill back in 2011 after living and breathing Guantanamo for five years straight.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    I appreciate your dedication to the suffering of innocent people. Most of the people I know don’t want to make the sacrifice of feeling the empathetical pain that comes with caring & working toward relieving the suffering of others, such as the hostages in Guantanamo.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    And there’s the heart of our problem, Susan. Really we have three options – hostility, indifference or empathy – and people are encouraged to be hostile to “others”, and tend to think that there’s safety in indifference, when, really, the only way to truly feel is to empathize with what other people are going through.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    I agree Andy.

  25. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, so glad that the film passed your viewing with flying colours. As you have contact with it and I rather doubt that Poland will be interested in buying it, I will be more than happy to prepare a Polish language copy and if innoculations do manage to reopen cinema’s, tour it around the country, like in good old times. If by some miracle Mohamedou could come that would be great, if not I’ll settle for only you 🙂 one more time.

    As for sub point 13, I’m all for it as you know, so count me in when something in that field will start.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna, and I love your idea. A Polish film tour – again – would be great! I have the feeling that li

    Also glad to hear of your interest in the post-Guantanamo accountability plan. I’ve been mooting it for years, but no concrete proposal has materialised yet.

  27. Anna says...

    As for the post-Guantanamo idea becoming more specific, here’s your retired development cooperationist speaking :-).
    Nothing beats asking its intended beneficiaries – the ex-prisoners – themselves for ideas of what they think would be most useful, or already has proven to be most useful. Whatever it would be, always including the local population among which they now live. It should feel that it also benefits from the support, to avoid envy and increase integration.
    And for starters your old idea to compile their post-Guantanamo stories in a book. That in itself would shed light on what is most urgently missing in their present lives and needs mending.
    I by the way, would appreciate it if you could share here all the – English/French language – internet blogs/twitters and whatever else they have in internet, as I understand that there are several ones who do ?

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    I think the problem with talking to prisoners settled in third countries, Anna, is exactly the reason that we need an organization to demand that the US removes the stigma of having been at Guantanamo in the first place – they have no rights, and if they’re perceived as being critical of their host countries in any way, life can be made very difficult for them.

    As for your request for links, I’m not sure I can help, really. I google ‘Guantanamo’ for news, and tend to follow what’s there, although I would say that ‘Just Security’ is a good site for all things US and legal, including Guantanamo.

    Do I get some sort of suggestion that you might be thinking of dipping your toes into the world of social media?

  29. Close Guantanamo then "Tangled Up in Blue" on Peace & Justice, Wednesday Feb 24 at 9am - WSLR+Fogartyville says...

    […] Wednesday, the prison at Guantanamo Bay will have been open 6,985 days. Read Andy’s Review of The Mauritanian, the film based on the best-selling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who, […]

  30. Anna says...

    No, I’m not planning to dip even one single toe in social media 🙂 I just thought that some freed prisoners might have blogs or twitters which would shed some light on their present situation.

    For instance those who were basically quite lucky to end up in Mujica’s Uruguay but then got quite frustrated anyway. I suppose that we who never experienced anything even vaguely close to their horror, no matter our empathy, cannot comprehend what dreadful life-long baggage they were loaded with. Which means that simply being out of that hellhole does not mean sudden bliss.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Former prisoners are definitely on Facebook and Twitter, Anna, although I don’t think they’re generally discussing their experiences at Guantanamo. I’d say that Mansoor, Mohamedou and Moazzam are the busiest – although I do know that one of the men sent to Uruguay, who I believe, is happily settled and married, is also around. There are also former prisoners whose accounts are in Arabic, but that world remains impenetrable to me – as to most of US intelligence, still, I imagine!

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version on the World Can’t Wait’s website, see ‘“The Mauritanian” captura perfectamente los horrores de Guantánamo y del programa estadounidense de tortura’: http://worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-the-mauritanian-captura-perfectament-los-horrores-gitmo-y-del-programa-eeuu-de-tortura.htm

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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