On January 23, 2015, Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, DC, hosted an event entitled Guantánamo Diary. The event derived its title from a memoir written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi who is currently imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp (GTMO) in Cuba. Two of Mr. Slahi’s lawyers, Nancy Hollander, a well- known criminal defense attorney, and Hina Shamsi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, were present at the event to give him a voice, and to explain the legal concerns surrounding his imprisonment. The memoir, which provides personal in-depth insight about what goes on behind the mysterious walls of GTMO, is the first of its kind.
The unfortunate tale of Mr. Slahi is one that underlines the commonality of unusual proceedings administered to GTMO detainees. As Ms. Hollander explained, Mr. Slahi’s story began at his mother’s home in the city of Nouakchott, Mauritania (North Africa) on November 20, 2001. Mr. Slahi was informed that the local law enforcement officials wished to interview him, and he voluntarily decided to comply with their request. He did not realize this would be the last time he would bid farewell to his mother. Over the next few days he was detained and sent to a prison in Jordan. After seven months of interrogation, Mr. Slahi was stripped of his clothes, blindfolded, shackled and transported to a United States airbase in Afghanistan. In August of 2002, he was shipped to GTMO where he is still currently being held. Throughout this entire ordeal his family was never informed of his whereabouts. In October 2002, Mr. Slahi’s younger brother, who lives in Germany, read an article about him being imprisoned in GTMO and this was how the family discovered where he was.
Three years after Mr. Slahi’s arrival to GTMO he began to keep a journal in a notebook that was provided to him by the guards. Ms. Hollader explained that every form of expression, verbal or written, of a GTMO detainee is deemed classified. In order for his manuscript to be released, Slahi’s lawyers had to send the manuscript to a privilege team who read the documents and decided what statements could be unclassified. It took six years for the final version of the manuscript to be cleared for release. When it was returned for publishing, it was layered with over 2,500 redactions, which were indicated by thick black-block lines censoring the classified portions of the text. In one portion of the memoir there are seven straight pages of redactions. Though Mr. Slahi’s editor, Larry Siems, tried to use litigation and reports to fill in redactions wherever possible, there are still many details of the book that will remain a mystery to the public. Mr. Siems has never met Mr. Slahi. When he requested a meeting to ensure Mr. Slahi approved of his edits it was denied. In the denial, the Pentagon quoted the Geneva Conventions stating, “Prisoners must at all times be protected… against public curiosity.” Ironically, this is the same article that forbids inhumane treatment, violence, and intimidation.
Ms. Shamsi explained that torture guarantees two things: pain and false information. For the fourteen years Mr. Slahi has been in GTMO, he has not been charged with a single crime. In fact, a federal judge ordered his release in 2010 after determining that he could not have been involved in any of the alleged violations against the U.S. The only claim that the judge found to be true was that Mr. Slahi did join Al-Qaeda in the early 1990’s. This was not persuasive enough for the judge since many young men had gone to Afghanistan to join the fight against the communist regime, which controlled Kabul at the time. To join, you had to train at an Al-Qaeda camp, which Mr. Slahi did; but after the communist government collapsed he severed ties with Al-Qaeda due to the outbreak radicalization and civil unrest. In the 1990’s the U.S. also supported Al-Qaeda in its fight against communism, though many U.S. government officials argue that the U.S. supported only the “indigenous Afghan mujahideen.” Nevertheless, the U.S. government appealed Mr. Slahi’s release, and the case has been stuck in legal limbo for almost five years.
Ms. Shamsi emphasized that Mr. Slahi is “guilty by long ago association,” not an actual wrongdoing. She stressed that the government was desperate to find someone to charge and was determined to do so by whatever means necessary. She explained further that the U.S. was experimenting with torture tactics, and trying to gauge how much it took to break a person into submission. Mr. Slahi has been tortured in a number of ways mentally, physically, and sexually; but one of the worst methods that they used on him involved his mother. The guards brought him a fake letter from the U.S. government stating that they were authorized to bring his mother from Mauritania to GTMO to detain her. One of the guards indicated that she would be the only woman there, and asked Mr. Slahi what he thought would come of that. At this point he began to confess to whatever charges were being brought against him, even when they factual could not have occurred, in order to spare his mother from the pain he was going through.
The government has admitted to torturing Mr. Slahi, and has described this torture on 11 of the 526 unclassified pages of the U.S. Senate’s Committee Study on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. The report is 6,700 pages long and over 90% of the report remains classified. Ms. Shamsi concluded that the government clearly does not want us to know the full extent of its actions, and affirmed that there needs to be accountability for a government that violates human rights treaties, as well as for “military that is instructed to break the minds of fellow human beings.”
Slahi looked forward to seeing his mother when or if he was released, but unfortunately, she died in 2013. He dedicated his book to her, and all of the proceeds will go towards sending his younger family members to college. Though there does not appear to be any movement in Mr. Slahi’s case, his lawyers remain hopeful that they will one day see him freed.