Updated: June 14, 2021 11:07:34 am
The critically acclaimed 2021 legal drama ‘The Mauritanian’, starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, has brought to screen the life and ordeals of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, an electrical engineer-turned-Mujahideen fighter from Mauritania in western Africa, who spent 14 years in US custody at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp without ever being charged for a crime.
Slahi, now 50, was arrested in Mauritania three months after the 9/11 attacks, and detained in Jordan and Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantánamo in August 2002, where his long incarceration included 70 days of intensive torture and three years of 18-hours-a-day interrogations.
In 2005, while still in prison, Slahi wrote a memoir that was published in 2015 as ‘Guantánamo Diary’ –– which went on to become an international bestseller and later inspired the 2021 film. Slahi was finally released by the US in 2016, and now lives in his native Mauritania.
What did Mohamedou Ould Slahi do?
Slahi, the son of a camel herder in Mauritania, had been living in Germany since 1988, after winning a scholarship to study engineering there. It was in 1991 that his life first turned upside down, on account of events in faraway Afghanistan, where the final years of the Cold War were being played out.
That year, Slahi went to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen, who the US and the UK were actively supporting in order to destabilise the Soviet Union-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah, Afghanistan’s communist dictator. Slahi trained at a camp run by Al Qaeda– then among the several groups that the West was promoting as “freedom fighters”. He then returned to Germany, but made a second trip in 1992, and stayed there until the Najibullah regime was toppled. All this while, Slahi was on the “same side” as the US.
Slahi’s troubles actually began towards the end of the decade as relations between the West and Al Qaeda soured. What proved fateful were two $4000 transactions Slahi helped a Mauritanian cousin make in 1997 and 1998. This cousin was Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, a close aide of Osama bin Laden, who wanted to send money to his family back home. In 1998, Slahi received a phone call from al-Walid, in which the latter used a satellite phone that the US traced to bin Laden.
In 1999, Slahi moved to Canada after Germany refused to extend his visa. Living in Montreal, he attended the same mosque as Ahmed Ressam, the Al Qaeda “Millennium Bomber” who was later convicted for his role in the foiled plot to attack the Los Angeles International Airport. The US, which knew about Slahi’s contact with al-Walid, suspected his role in the plot, and Canadian intelligence kept him under surveillance.
Slahi decided to return to Mauritania in 2000, but was arrested on the way in Senegal, where he was questioned about the bombing plot. He was interrogated by the FBI even after being transferred to Mauritania, and could go home after three weeks in custody. Back home, he began to work as an electrical engineer.
Then came 9/11, and with it America’s fury. As Washington resolved to double down on any and every suspected link to Al Qaeda, Slahi was interrogated over and over again until November 2001, when the CIA transported him to Jordan for eight months, where Slahi claims he was tortured and made to confess involvement in the Los Angeles bombing plot. In July 2002, he was taken to Bagram in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in August.
What happened after Slahi was brought to Guantánamo?
At Guantánamo, American intelligence officers believed that Slahi was linked to 9/11 from several angles; a prosecutor even labelled him the “Forrest Gump” of the terror plot. He was among 14 people classified as high-value detainees for whom the US government then led by President George W Bush authorised the use of “special interrogation”– essentially torture methods.
Slahi was subjected to extreme cold and noise, sexual humiliation, extended sleeplessness, forced standing or other postures for extended periods of time and threats against his family, among other abuses.
He wrote in his memoir, “The cell — better, the box — was cooled down to the point that I was shaking most of the time. I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day; every once in a while they gave me a rec-time at night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. For the next 70 days, I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping: interrogation 24 hours a day, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off. I don’t remember sleeping one night quietly. “If you start to cooperate you’ll have some sleep and hot meals,” ____________ used to tell me repeatedly.” (underscores represent parts redacted by US authorities)
“Over the next several days, I almost lost my mind. Their recipe for me went like this: I must be kidnapped from ______________ and put in a secret place. I must be made to believe I was on a far, faraway island. I must be informed by _____________ that my mom was captured and put in a special facility.”
“In the secret place, the physical and psychological suffering must be at their highest extremes. I must not know the difference between day and night. I couldn’t tell a thing about days going by or time passing; my time consisted of a crazy darkness all the time. My diet times were deliberately messed up. I was starved for long periods and then given food but not given time to eat.”
“I started to hallucinate and hear voices as clear as crystal… Later on, the guards used these hallucinations and started talking with funny voices through the plumbing, encouraging me to hurt the guard and plot an escape. But I wasn’t misled by them, even though I played along.”
To stop the torture, Slahi began to speak to his tormenters, making false confessions and implicating people he did not know. He told interrogators that he had planned to bomb the CN Tower in Canada’s Toronto, following which he was treated as a privileged inmate at Guantánamo, and was given a television and computer, and could do gardening.
In 2005, Slahi was allowed to write about his ordeals, which he documented in a 460-page book titled ‘Guantánamo Diary’. The book wasn’t declassified until 2012, and could be published only in 2015, after which it became an international bestseller. Although the torture ceased and Slahi was now treated better than other prisoners, it would take several more years until he could go back home.
Slahi’s fight to be released
The year 2004 brought a ray of hope for Slahi and the other detainees, when the US Supreme Court delivered its landmark ruling ‘Rasul v Bush’.
The Guantánamo Bay prison, located on a piece of land in Cuba taken on lease by the US since 1903, had been established by the Bush administration in 2002 under broad powers given by the US Congress. The site was deliberately chosen as the US government relied on legal advice that foreign nationals detained here would be exempt from obligations under the Geneva Conventions, and that judicial review by mainland US courts would not apply here.
The apex court, however, held that it had jurisdiction over Guantánamo, and that detainees could petition America’s federal courts for writs of habeas corpus to review the legality of their detention.
After the ruling, Slahi submitted habeas petitions, but a law passed by the US Congress in 2006 again sought to restrict access to the courts by diverting Guantánamo cases to military tribunals. Unfazed, the Supreme Court yet again asserted in ‘Boumediene v Bush’ (2008) that the detainees could have access to the judicial system, and that protections under the US Constitution such as habeas corpus applied to them.
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the military lawyer appointed to prosecute Slahi (played in The Mauritanian by Benedict Cumberbatch), withdrew from the trial, saying, “Slahi’s incriminating statements—the core of the government’s case—had been taken through torture, rendering them inadmissible under U.S. and international law.” Representing Slahi was Nancy Hollander, a criminal lawyer known for taking difficult cases throughout her career (played by Jodie Foster in the film).
Finally, in 2010, a District Court granted Slahi’s habeas plea, observing “The government had to adduce evidence – which is different from intelligence – showing that it was more likely than not that Salahi was “part of” al-Qaida. To do so, it had to show that the support Salahi undoubtedly did provide from time to time was provided within al-Qaida’s command structure. The government has not done so.”
The decision to release Slahi was flayed by conservatives in the US, and the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama appealed the order, ensuring that Slahi remained locked up. An appeals court vacated the habeas ruling, and sent the case back to the District Court to carry out further factual findings. The District Court never held any hearings after this, and Slahi kept languishing at Guantánamo, despite never being formally charged for a crime and the US government presenting no evidence against him.
So, when did the US finally let Slahi go home?
Slahi remained at Guantánamo until 2016, when a panel of six US agencies recommended his repatriation, citing his “highly compliant behavior in detention” and “clear indications of a change in the detainee’s mind-set.” It also cited “the extensive support network available to the detainee from multiple sources, including strong family connections, and the detainee’s robust and realistic plan for the future,” while setting him free after his detention of 14 years and two months without being found guilty.
Inexplicably, even while he was being flown back to Mauritania, Slahi was kept in shackles. Since his return home, Slahi’s movement continues to be restricted, with the Mauritanian government having denied him a passport, allegedly under US pressure.
On a Guardian podcast in March, recorded after the launch of The Mauritanian, Slahi’s lawyer Hollander said of the detention camp, “We had hoped that this renewed exposure of Guantánamo will awaken people and the Biden administration to the 40 people (who continue to be detained there) and focus on what we can do to get Guantánamo closed, to end indefinite detention, and to provide due process to the people who are already charged. In the US, you can be sentenced to life without parole, you can get the death penalty, but that is after you have been charged and convicted. Not when the government hasn’t even found enough evidence against you to charge you. And these people have to be let go– you either charge them or you release them, end of story.”
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