Imagine you receive a knock on the door one day as you return home from work. It’s the police requesting you visit the local police station to answer some routine questions. You take your own car and leave your house for the station to find the course of your life forever altered. Suddenly you’re being held in a secret security prison without any contact with the outside world, not even those you hold dear, let alone legal counsel. Soon enough you are flown off from one country to another on a world tour of torture, indefinite detention, and interrogation. Eventually you land at your final destination: a military prison. It’s a torture complex that violates all forms of international law and basic human rights. For years you are held in detention and solitary confinement. You’re tortured and sexually abused. You’re told that you have been designated a dangerous terrorist, Enemy #1, and if you do not cooperate your entire existence will be erased, your family raped, tortured, and killed.
You learn your predicament is due to the commands of the most powerful world governments and intelligence agencies, yet you never learn of the charges against you. Eventually you are able to record your story in a diary for the entire world to read. After years of a government crusade to silence your story, the world is finally granted the opportunity to be exposed to the darkest reaches of power and state tyranny.
All the architects and perpetrators of your abuse and torture return triumphantly to their lives: one becomes a renowned law professor; another a federal judge; the other awarded a distinguished medal of honor; another granted a job with the Department of Aviation. Yet you remain detained for over a decade waiting for a breakthrough, for the truth to matter. Such a setting is not a dystopian Hollywood film plot, nor a contemporary attempt to emulate Kafka, but rather the account of the life and experiences of Guantanamo prisoner #760 Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
The book describes the ordeal of the Mauritanian national, first imprisoned in his home country in fall 2001, renditioned to an intelligence detention facility in Jordan for six months, then to Bagram in Afghanistan, finally reaching the Guantanamo military base in the summer of 2002, where he remains today.
The supposed basis of his imprisonment and interrogation has been described by the ACLU as “guilty by long ago association.” In 1990 Slahi went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting the Soviet-supported government.
This was at a time when the United States’ military was actively supporting the Mujahideen of Afghanistan. By 1992 Slahi severed his ties with Al-Qaeda, and has never returned to Afghanistan. According to Slahi, this is where his relationship with Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda ended. The United States, however, despite never having filed anything resembling charges against Slahi, initially maintained he was an architect of the foiled Millennium terror plot, as well as a top recruiter for Al-Qaeda with links to Osama Bin Laden. Five years into his ordeal in Guantanamo, Slahi began to record his experiences producing a 466 page handwritten transcript in English, a language he acquired while imprisoned there. After an extended government-led legal assault attempting to prohibit the publication of the manuscript, Guantanamo Diary was finally published in January 2015.
The persistent crusade the United States government launched against the publication of Guantanamo Diary itself merits discussion. The basis of the attempted prohibition is the policy that any communication expressed by a Guantanamo detainee, whether orally or written, is presumptively classified, regardless of the sensitivity of the nature of the communication.
The litigation battle to get the diary published was initiated by the legal team pursuing Slahi’s habeas case and lasted over six years. The details of that part of the habeas litigation remain under seal. Initially the transcript was only accessible to Slahi’s legal team, stored in an office near Washington D.C. and classified as Secret.
Those beyond the legal team who were allowed access possessed security clearances. In order for them to be published, Slahi’s legal team was required to send the manuscript to a government team who assessed the sensitivity of the manuscript, with every page requiring analysis as to whether it should be declassified. Seven years later, the end result is 2,500 bars of redaction within the 466-page manuscript.
These black bars of redaction at one point censor seven consecutive pages, serving “as fingerprints of [the] longstanding censorship regime” as Larry Siems, the editor of the book, states
Some of the redactions transcend any form of logic, such as the absurd censoring of the name of the 1950’s ex-Egyptian president Gamal Abdul-Nasser, in addition to the systematic redaction of any female pronoun referring to Slahi’s interrogators. Perhaps the latter alludes to the government’s wish to keep secret the active participation of female military officers in the sexual assault of detained men at the military camp.
In a particularly emotional entry, Slahi relates an experience in which a Puerto Rican prisoner escort attempts to provide solace, telling him that he would indeed return to his family:
“No worry, you gonna back to your family” he said.
When he said that I couldn’t help breaking in [redacted].
Lately I’d become so vulnerable. What was wrong with me? Just one soothing
word in this ocean of agony was enough to make me cry.
Disturbingly, we witness the censoring of the word “tears” by the clearance team, perhaps in a cynical–and vain–attempt to dehumanize an especially humanizing moment in the story. Despite the rampant appearance of black boxes across the book, Siems, who has never been allowed communication privileges with Slahi, took on the daunting task of rendering educated guesses on the words and phrases that the redactions were meant to conceal. Siems successfully utilized publicly accessible records such as Slahi’s 2005 administrative review board hearing testimony transcript, Slahi’s 2008 habeas corpus brief, as well as government and media reports in order to contextualize much of the redacted material for the reader.
Even though such censorship is a clear attempt to cover up the deplorable injustices committed by the U.S. government and their proxies against Slahi and prisoners of the “War on Terror,” it fails to disguise some of the darkest points of the book that clearly depict the subversive nature of the empire. Such descriptions include the interrogation, brutal torture, and rendition of Slahi. He depicts his interrogators as well as the interrogation techniques used on him in the different secret facilities he had been to with emotional and sensory precision. Such varied settings in the diary serve as an international comparative analysis on torture and interrogation tactics, with Slahi tactfully assessing each.
Slahi’s torture and particularly that which he experienced at Guantanamo has been a frequently cited subject, and brought to much attention by previous reports and books on Guantanamo such as Jess Bravin’s The Terror Courts or the Senate Armed Service Committee’s report on the status of detainees in U.S. custody. As cited in Guantanamo Diary and thoroughly documented in the Senate Committee Report, Donald Rumsfeld personally authorized a “special interrogation plan” to extract information from Slahi. The tactics included sensory and sleep deprivation, sexual abuse, denial of adequate and edible food, threats of harm to his family members, as well as beatings, and were based upon the John Yoo “Counter Resistance Techniques” memos of 2003.
The documentation of such abusive practices is conveyed in a nuanced manner in Guantanamo Diary. Slahi is not the detached voice or passive victim cited in a government report or a media exposé on enhanced interrogation techniques, but rather the active storyteller, embodying a voice of the voiceless still languishing in Guantanamo and black sites around the world.
One of the most disturbing descriptions in the book is that of a late night boat ride in which Slahi is blindfolded, beaten, and threatened with murder while a bag is put on his head and his jacket is filled with ice. The leader of what the interrogators describe as Slahi’s “Birthday Party” is labeled by the author, throughout his narrative, as “Mr. X.” Recalling one of his final interrogation sessions with Mr. X, Slahi states:
Redacted] and another guy with a German shepherd pried open the door
of the interrogation room where [redacted] and I were sitting. It was in [redacted]
Bu[The] special team realized that I was not going to cooperate with them as
they wished, and so the next level of torture was approved.
[Redacted] and his colleague kept hitting me, mostly on my ribs and face,
and made me drink salt water for about three hours before giving me over to
an Arabic team with an Egyptian and a Jordanian interrogator. Those interrogators
continued to beat me while covering me in ice cubes, one, to torture
me, and two, to make the new, fresh bruises disappear.
Then after about three hours Mr. X and his friends took me back and threw
me in my present cell.
“I told you not to fuck with me, Motherfucker!” was the last thing I heard
In light of the degrading and inhumane experiences Slahi endured, one of the most remarkable elements of the story is his resilience, as well as his capability to rationalize and empathize, even with those who categorized him as the enemy. As Siems states in the introduction,
[He] recognizes the larger context of fear and confusion in which all these characters interact, and the much more local institutional and social forces that shape those interaction . . . he tries to understand people , regardless of stations or uniforms or conditions . . . . In doing so he transforms even the most dehumanizing situations into a series of individual, and at times harrowingly intimate human exchanges.
Slahi’s grappling with the darkest forms and complexities of the human condition is an approach that manifests elements of a literary classic. That Slahi fails to lose sense of his humanity in the face of subhuman conditions forcing him to the edges of his sanity is truly one of the most significant components of the narrative. On speculating why an individual would choose to become involved in the commission of war crimes, doing a job which “surely is going to haunt him for the rest of his life,” Slahi states:
Maybe he had few choices, because many people in the Army come from poor families, and that’s why the army sometimes gives them the dirtiest job. I mean theoretically [redacted] could have refused to commit crimes of war, and he might even get away with it. Later on I discussed with some of the guards why they executed the order to stop me from praying, since it’s an unlawful order.
“I could have refused, but my boss would have given me a shitty job or transferred me to a bad place. I know I can go to hell for what I have done to you” one of them told me. History repeats itself: during World War II, German soldiers were not executed when they argued that they received orders.”
Despite Slahi’s persistence in evoking truth throughout his ordeal, and his resilience and dedication to being set free and reunited with his family in his homeland, three months after the publication of Guantanamo Diary, Slahi was once again internally relocated within the camp and had all his possessions of the past thirteen years, except his Quran, taken from him. Currently 105* detainees remain at Guantanamo. The Obama administration claims that it is attempting to transfer some of them out, while others cleared for release by several federal agencies are allegedly to be set free in the coming months. However, such efforts are likely to be thwarted by Congressional action seeking to ban future transfers of imprisoned men outside Guantanamo. Mohamedou Ould Slahi continues to wait for his freedom.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that there were 122 detainees remaining in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. After the release of two prisoners this week, there are 105 detainees remaining.
The post also misidentified Mr. X as Richard Zuley. They are two different people.
Leila Sayed-Taha is a graduate from DePaul University with a LLM in International Human Rights Law. For the past eight years, she has been involved in issues pertaining to immigration, civil liberties, women empowerment and education. She has with worked with communities in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and Chicago, where she is currently based. Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director with Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She has worked for a number of years in North Carolina and Georgia to protect the human rights of immigrants and Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities. She received her JD from the University of Michigan Law School. She also has a Master’s in Modern Middle Eastern and North African Studies from the University of Michigan.
This piece originally appeared in NLG Review.
Follow Azadeh Shahshahani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ashahshahani