By Julia Boccagno
During his 13 years in prison, Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi kept a journal. “Guantanamo Diary” would become the first published handwritten account of life in the Cuban prison. Unable to arrange a conventional book tour for his memoir, two of his lawyers spoke on his behalf at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.
“You can feel it. You can taste it. You can smell what he goes through, because he gives us such vivid accounts,” said Nancy Hollander, one of Slahi’s two lawyers. “And still with that, he maintains his humor, and his humanity, and he understands that there are good people and bad people.”
Slahi has been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since 2002, but has yet to be formally charged with a crime. In 2010, James Robertson, a federal judge, granted Slahi’s habeas corpus petition. However, the Obama Administration appealed the ordering of his release, which is why he remains incarcerated to this day, alongside more than 100 inmates.
“There are other people like him being unlawfully held,” said Hina Shamsi, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union and serves as Slahi’s second lawyer. “And I think part of our effort with this book as well, is to tell his story and help people understand that, the same generosity that Mohamedou has, in his book, towards Americans and individuals, is the generosity that I hope we have towards the people we are still holding, to see them as individual human beings, to determine their cases on a case-by-case basis, and to ensure their release and put an end to the ongoing travesty that is Guantanamo still today.”
Throughout the pages of “Guantanamo Diary,” Slahi details what he describes as torture—brutal beatings, sexual harassment, periods of starvation and sleepless nights. Before the publication was declassified, the U.S. government subjected Slahi’s account to more than 2,500 redactions.
He writes, “As soon as I stood up, the two _______ took off their blouses, and started to talk all kind of dirty stuff you can imagine, which I minded less. What hurt me most was them forcing me to take part in a sexual threesome in the most degrading manner. What many _______ don’t realize is that men get hurt the same as women if they’re forced to have sex, maybe more due to the traditional position of the man.”
Prior to his imprisonment, Slahi spent most of his life in Mauritania. Though born to a poor family, he quickly made a name for himself by receiving a competitive scholarship to attend a German university and pursue studies in electrical engineering. Pressured to fulfill the role as the family’s breadwinner, Slahi, in 1991, traveled to Afghanistan to join the insurgency against the communist government there. That’s where he swore an oath to Al-Qaeda, a group in which the U.S. also supported at the time.
But, after the communist government toppled, Slahi severed relations with Al-Qaeda in 1992; though, he still had familial ties indirectly linking him to the organization. In 1999, he moved to Montreal and became involved with a mosque. Things from here become a bit more complicated, as the Nigerian immigrant who is responsible for coordinating the Millennium Plot, a plan to bomb the Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Day, also prayed at the same religious institution. Despite their religious commonalities, FBI authorities, after multiple arrests, failed to link Slahi to the planning of the terrorist attack.
Then 9/11 happened, and the United States government was convinced that Slahi helped recruit one of the pilots who bombed the World Trade Center. That’s when Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, drafted, ordered and personally approved the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” for “high value detainees” like Slahi. As a result, CIA officials blasted loud music into his ears, doused him with ice water, shackled him for days in freezing cells and threatened to harm his family members and friends.
Statements made by a federal judge in April 2010 verify Slahi’s claims—saying that there is “ample evidence” that he was subjected to “extensive and severe mistreatment” at Guantanamo Bay from June 2003 until September 2003.
“The government in 2003 was just desperate to find people to charge and was convinced that everyone they had must be guilty of something, and they were determined to do that,” Hollander said. “And the other thing we’ve just recently learned is they were also experimenting on torture tactics. What is it that we [the U.S. government] can get people to talk and fail to resist?”
Ultimately, Rumsfeld’s special interrogation plan worked how he intended. In his memoir, Slahi admits to having provided false statements to stop his torturers from dehumanizing him. A 2008 report conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee confirms the falsity of his so-called “confessions.”
“I think this book shows, yet again, there are really two things that torture absolutely guarantees,” Shamsi said. “One is pain and the other is false information.”
She continued, “He was told what they wanted him to say. He was also in a position, he says in the book, the more incriminating the fiction he could make up, the happier his interrogators were.”
Though parts of Slahi’s memoir are censored, Hollander and Shamsi encourage all members of society to read it, not only because of what it reveals, but also because the book’s proceeds contribute to a larger cause.
“We set up a trust for Mohamedou, and we will go into that trust to help him rebuild his life,” Hollander said. “But, at his instruction, we have also used some of that money to send one of his nephews to a college. He wants to get all of the people of college age in his family educated. And then, he would like to—if there is enough money and if we sell enough books—to start a foundation to educate girls in Mauritania.”
Despite the excruciating treatment he has undergone, Slahi doesn’t wish malice onto his jailors. Rather, he dreams of the day when he can freely sit down with them and enjoy a cup of tea—one absent of grudge and revenge.
“Let this be the year we set him free,” Shamsi said.
Criminal Defense Attorney
Politics and Prose
Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project
Politics and Prose