Mohamedou Slahi, author of bestselling memoir Guantánamo Diary, contends he would reunite with his children and write books if released after 14 years
One of the most severely tortured men in the history of Guantánamo Bay presented his case for freedom on Thursday.
Guantánamo Diary exposes brutality of US rendition and torture
Held at Guantánamo without charge since August 2002, Mohamedou Ould Slahi endured beatings, death threats, sexual humiliation and rape threats against his mother by US personnel at the wartime prison.
Yet Slahi, an unlikely bestselling author after his 2015 memoir, Guantánamo Diary, made him the highest-profile detainee unconnected to the 9/11 plot, contends that he seeks only to reunite with his children, start a small business and write books in his post-Guantánamo life – and would even welcome his old guards over for a cup of tea.
In a 17-minute public hearing that served as the Guantánamo equivalent of a parole board, Slahi, clean shaven and bald in a white jumpsuit, barely moved. His military representatives and attorneys argued that the Mauritanian citizen poses no threat to the US. Slahi occasionally stroked his forearms, his only gesture of active participation in a process that poses his best chance for release.
“Despite all the US government has done to him, Mohamedou has made clear that he holds no grudge against anyone at Guantánamo,” one of his attorneys, Theresa Duncan, told the board.
Attorneys for Slahi view the hearing, a non-legal process known as a Periodic Review Board (PRB) that examines the risk of releasing a detainee, with cautious optimism. The simple fact that the military is holding a PRB for Slahi has raised expectations that he will go free.
Despite all the US government has done to him, Mohamedou … holds no grudge against anyone at Guantánamo
Theresa Duncan, attorney
“After years of waiting, Mohamedou finally had a chance to show the board that he poses no threat whatsoever and should be released,” said another of Slahi’s attorneys, Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We are hopeful that after seeing the strong evidence and support Mohamedou has, the board will do the right thing and clear his path to freedom.”
The US government, however, indicated it does not view releasing Slahi as a foregone conclusion. Its profile of him, submitted to the PRB, referenced a “broad network of terrorist contacts while living in Germany, Canada and Mauritania” that could “provided him with an avenue to reengage [in violence], should he decide to do so”.
Still, the government assessed that if Slahi was released back to his native Mauritania, he “probably would reunite with his family, take care of his sisters, and start a business”. If permitted foreign travel, the US judged, Slahi will probably “promote his book Guantánamo Diary” globally.
With Republican congressional resistance to emptying the detention facility undiminished, Barack Obama’s last option for fulfilling his famous pledge to close Guantánamo is to transfer detainees out, as that track requires no legal change or congressional approval. For those detainees not approved for transfer by a 2010 internal review, like Slahi, the PRB is the only practical ticket out of Guantánamo.
Accordingly, after years of widely criticized delays, the administration has accelerated the PRB process. Slahi is the 22nd detainee to receive a PRB in 2016. Two more are scheduled for the next week; a third, announced on Thursday, will follow on 16 June.
Slahi’s team, attempting to anticipate questions about his post-Guantánamo life, said that his brother in Germany – who last week was unable to enter the US for speaking engagements, including one with this reporter – would finance his transition to freedom. Another brother, who works in retail, has offered to hire him as an accountant.
Friends in Mauritania also have committed to help. They said Slahi would be eager to live in Germany, Mauritania or “any other location the board sees fit”.
Reporters, human rights campaigners and representatives of the Mauritanian embassy were able to view Slahi’s PRB at the Pentagon, via satellite feed from Guantánamo. The board members, representing a panoply of US security agencies, asked no questions before ending the public portion of the hearing.
Slahi came to Guantánamo by an unusual path. A former Islamist radical who fought alongside al-Qaida against the Soviet-installed government of Afghanistan – he says he renounced the group in the 1990s – he turned himself in for questioning by Mauritanian authorities shortly after the 9/11 attacks. (The government profile states he was “arrested again in November 2011”, omitting his voluntary surrender.) A subsequent chain of custody transfers led him to Guantánamo.
A navy reserve officer who was also a Chicago police detective subjected Slahi to one of the most brutal torture regimens ever implemented at Guantánamo. The plan, personally approved by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, called for sleep deprivation, stress positions, auditory bombardment and more.
A late-night boat ride in the Bay, to trick a blindfolded Slahi into believing he was headed to an even more perilous place, featured Guantánamo personnel punching him, kicking him and filling his jacket with ice. The police detective told Slahi they would arrest his mother and place her in Guantánamo’s “all-male prison environment”.
The treatment broke Slahi. He recalled in his memoir telling his captors he would tell them whatever they wanted to hear: “I don’t care as long as you are pleased. So if you want to buy, I am selling.”
In his memoir, he also describes eventually growing close with members of the guard staff.
The former chief prosecutor of the Guantánamo military commissions, retired air force colonel Morris Davis, recalled meeting Slahi on multiple occasions in 2006 and 2007. Slahi, considered a sufficiently compliant detainee to receive housing privileges, brewed hot mint tea for the prosecutor, despite the baking Cuban heat.
After what Davis described as an “extensive briefing” on Slahi from investigators who had looked into his case for years, the prosecutor declined to charge Slahi with any offense.
“The consensus was there was no proof he did anything hostile towards the United States,” Davis told the Guardian.
In 2010, a federal judge, James Robertson, reviewed the same profile of Slahi the government submitted to the PRB and found the accusations insufficient to establish he was a member of al-Qaida and thus a legitimate subject of wartime detention.
With my brother in Guantánamo Bay, the heart of my family is missing
Yahdih Ould Salahi
Though Robertson ordered Slahi freed from Guantánamo, the Obama administration’s appeals have kept Slahi behind bars, which critics have said calls into question Obama’s commitment to shuttering the facility.
Six years later, and a decade after first meeting Slahi, Davis has written to the PRB on the detainee’s behalf.
“We’ve had him confined at Guantánamo for nearly 14 years,” Davis said. “If we can’t muster enough evidence to charge him with something in that length of time, then how do we justify continuing to incarcerate him?
“Would we shrug and say ‘OK’ if an American was imprisoned for 14 years without ever been charged, much less tried and convicted?
“I haven’t seen him in nearly nine years and I can’t guarantee what he will or won’t do in the future, but I lose more sleep worrying about threats within our borders than I do about Mohamedou Slahi.”