The Dark Night of Mohamedou Ould Slahi – posted 8/22/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/25/2016
In a little noticed story on July 14, the Periodic Review Board of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp approved the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen and author. The Periodic Review Board, which must assess the threat posed by the remaining 61 Guantanamo detainees found that Slahi represented “no continuing significant threat to the security of the United States”.
The Board noted Slahi’s “highly compliant behavior in detention” and also felt there were “clear indications of a change in the detainee’s mind-set”.
What is unique about Slahi is that he is a best-selling author. In his book, Guantanamo Diary, he described his ordeal. Slahi spent nearly 14 years at Guantanamo. He was never charged with any crime. Before he landed in Guantanamo, he was held in Mauritania, experienced rendition to Jordan with 8 months interrogation there and he then had another rendition to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. The book begins with Slahi being stripped, blindfolded, diapered, shackled and flown to Bagram.
All these events are what Slahi humorously referred to as “my endless world tour”.
Slahi wrote the book back in 2005 but it took more than 6 years of legal fights to have the manuscript cleared for public release. Slahi wrote the book from his segregation cell in Guantanamo. The book is still heavily redacted by government censors.
Slahi’s account presents the best picture we have of what went on at Guantanamo in the years after 9/11. Probably for most all of us, torture remains an abstraction. It is something you read about or see a story about on TV. Slahi takes you inside the experience.
The famous writer, John le Carre described Slahi’s book as “a vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka..” It is hard to disagree. We don’t have a clue what has gone on at Guantanamo. Sadly, it is a very sick, sadistic form of torture that is absolutely contrary to our constitutional values as well as international law.
I feel what sets Slahi’s book apart from other books or articles about Guantanamo is the human dimension. You are not reading about a list of torture techniques he experienced. Slahi describes the torture experience but the book presents a much deeper view that includes humor, wit, his relationships with his guards and interrogators, his political and religious observations and his subjective feelings about his suffering.
The book is, not surprisingly, an indictment of the view that torture works. Slahi made up stories to get the torture to stop. I think just about any human being who went through what he did would do the same. The crazy thing is that the wilder Slahi’s statements about his terrorist activities, the happier the torturers got.
Slahi was so broken by the torture that he would tell the torturers whatever they wanted to hear. “I don’t care as long as you are pleased. So if you want to buy, I am selling.”
The book is a window into a form of organized madness. You might think some of the torture is spontaneous and random. In a way, it would be nice to think that because that would seem less malevolent. Many of the torture techniques are based on years of study into the best way to break people down without leaving physical evidence of the torture. They were part of the “special plan” personally approved by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Slahi was subject to extensive sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, stress positions, restricted diet, extreme cold temperatures, sensory bombardment (noise), a simulated kidnapping, a mock execution on a boat, sexual assault, threats to kidnap his mother, beatings, cold water dousings that left him shaking, and ice cube stuffing under his clothes. He was chained constantly and hooded. For years, all his guards and interrogators wore masks during the torture. It is hard to imagine how you would not lose your mind under these circumstances. From Slahi’s account, many detainees did lose it.
In describing the torture methods, I am not doing justice to the extent of the harm. For example, regarding Slahi’s diet, his captors would serve him a meal and take it away one minute later or they would force him to drink so much water he felt his stomach would burst. Food and the quality of food he received were integrated into the torture routine. When the captors became happier with Slahi’s responses to the same questions they asked him for years, his diet would be improved.
Unfortunately for Slahi, he fit a possible terrorist profile. He had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda when the United States was allied with Al Qaeda. He had a relative who was an advisor to Osama bin Laden. Like the 9/11 co-conspirators, he had studied in Germany. He was an electrical engineer. He had also spent some time in Canada. With that profile, there was no presumption of innocence. Although he could not be told what crime he committed, his captors told him he met all the criteria of a top terrorist.
While they lacked evidence, the captors believed Slahi was mastermind of the so-called “millenium plot”, a 1999 attempt by Ahmed Ressam to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport. The facts did not fit this theory at all because Ressam had left Montreal before Slahi moved to Canada. Because that plot made no sense, the interrogators creatively tried out the theory that Slahi recruited the 9/11 hijackers.
The assumption remained that Slahi was a big fish terrorist, among the worst of the worst. Because of his profile, guilt was assumed. Forgotten was the fact that on November 20, 2001, Slahi drove himself to the police station in Noakchott, Mauritania and turned himself in voluntarily for what he thought would be some further questioning. Before his rendition, Slahi never tried to run.
In March 2005, Slahi handwrote a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 in the case of Boumediane v. Bush, Slahi and other Guantanamo detainees obtained the right to challenge their detention through habeas corpus.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson heard Slahi’s habeas petition in 2009. In March 2010, Judge Robertson granted Slahi’s habeas petition and ordered his release. The Obama administration appealed Judge Robertson’s decision. At the time of Slahi’s release, the case was still pending. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals had sent the case back for rehearing at the Federal District Court.
Slahi’s experience is an example of what happens when hate, fear, and paranoia replace rules of evidence, due process and a speedy trial. The victim faces the absurd situation where, regardless of the facts, there is no way to establish innocence.
No doubt there are many who will not care about command-sanctioned torture of a prisoner in custody. Numerous polls show a majority of Americans support torture against terror suspects. We even have a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump, who favors “a lot worse than waterboarding”.
Slahi’s story shows the danger in normalizing torture. Innocent people can be swept up in dragnets and get subjected to the sickest abuse.
I think Guantanamo has done enormous damage to the moral authority of the United States. Torture leaves an indelible stain. We need to never forget that torture remains a crime. The United States needs to stand up for a firm commitment to international standards for human rights.