Mohamedou Ould Slahi, 50, has never been convicted of any crime or even charged with any offence. Nevertheless, he spent 14 years of captivity in America’s notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where he was beaten, sexually humiliated, waterboarded, subject to mock executions, and electrocuted repeatedly.
“They tried to force me to confess for a crime I did not commit,” he explained to me. “I was deprived of sleep and interrogated for the first seventy days, as well as prevented from praying or fasting.”
On the basis of flimsy evidence, Slahi was dubbed Prisoner Number One and accused falsely of being one of the masterminds behind the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington because he had once supported Al-Qaeda during the 1980s Afghanistan insurrection. That’s where he fought against Soviet-backed Communists for three weeks, before breaking his ties with the group.
In the new Hollywood film The Mauritanian, which has been nominated for five Baftas, director Kevin Macdonald tells the story of Slahi’s arrest outside his family home in Mauritania, in November 2002, his imprisonment in Guantanamo without trial, and the dogged work of his defence lawyer.
Slahi was working for a German technology company in the late 1990s when he came onto the US intelligence radar. It was under pressure from the US that the authorities in Slahi’s own country, Mauritania, detained him in 2001 before he was a victim of “extraordinary rendition” and taken to Jordan by the CIA. He was held there in solitary confinement for months. The US later moved him to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, from where he was flown to Guantanamo Bay.
Built on a small area of Cuba that America has leased as a naval base since 1903, the prison site was chosen deliberately for being outside US territory and so not subject to US laws. Established to hold suspects following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the offshore prison came to symbolise the excesses of the US “war on terror” due to the harsh interrogation methods that critics say amounted to torture.
“The American government was very good at weaving the narrative, to make me look like the worst terrorist in the world’s eyes,” he told me. “They made it seem like they picked me up from a battlefield in Afghanistan, but that was not true. I was kidnapped from my country in Mauritania. And now they make it seem like I was in the wrong places at the wrong time but again, no! That is completely untrue, I was busy spending my time working and helping my family.”
Regarded as the most tortured prisoner in the history of Guantanamo Bay, Slahi wrote a best-selling memoir in 2015 called Guantanamo Diary, which detailed his life in the prison. The film is in part based on that book. In it, we learn how he resisted the “enhanced” interrogation techniques which included hours of long, bloody beatings in freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and mock drowning over the side of a boat.
It wasn’t until the guards threatened to bring his mother and place her in a men-only prison — insinuating that she would be raped, he said — that he was finally broken into admitting things that he hadn’t done. Among these was a plot to blow up Toronto’s iconic CN Tower.The Mauritanian stars French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim as Slahi; Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander, the defence lawyer who battled with US military obfuscation to get her client released; and Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt Col Stuart Couch, a US military prosecutor who refused to proceed with Slahi’s prosecution after concluding that his incriminating statements were the result of torture.
“I watched the movie but I couldn’t watch the violence and torture scenes, I just got up and left because that would bring back very bad memories that I’m trying hard to suppress. The reality was much worse and I can still feel their fingertips.”
He explained this by noting that when the CIA took him from Jordan, he literally felt their fingerprints when they were cutting and ripping through his clothes to put him in diapers. “I was blindfolded the whole time. I truly believed I was never going to leave that place alive.”
The cruelty is medieval. It’s a horror story. And it’s true.
The prison opened in January 2002 and 780 men suspected of having ties to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have been held there over the years, although they were never charged with any crimes. Former US President Barack Obama said the prison went against American values and was a “stain on our broader record” when he argued for its closure in 2016. He issued an executive order to shut it down but failed to do so completely, leaving 41 prisoners languishing behind bars, most of whom have not been charged. Now President Joe Biden has said that he will begin a review process to close the prison, a move that is long overdue.
According to Slahi, the problem does not just lie with the US government; it is a collective crime for which the US, the UK, and Muslim and Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan must share responsibility.
“There is no one in Guantanamo I know of who wasn’t handed over by Muslim or Arab countries. And we need to solve this problem before we shout only at the US to close it down because other countries like Mauritania, Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia also play(ed) a role,” he pointed out. “They are not real democratic countries that respect human rights. It’s disheartening that my people who are meant to protect me will hand me over without question. They didn’t treat me as innocent until proven guilty. In reality, the only person who believes in this theory is your mother.”
During Slahi’s appearance before the prison’s Periodic Review Board, which interviews prisoners and reviews their files, he was questioned about his views on Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine. “I was shocked. The American government wanted to know if I’m a good guy depending on my political position on Palestine and Israeli conflict. It was a deciding factor on how good I am.”
He described the whole process as a political game. “Innocent people are in Guantanamo because terrorism is a political term, not a criminal term. We Arabs know all about it because we invented it in the Middle East. All political opponents are classed as terrorists and the governments are allowed to do anything with them.”
Despite going through a massive miscarriage of justice, Slahi appears to be in good health and is both energetic and cheerful. He is full of hope and optimism, he told me but admits that the harrowing experience changed him. However, he still found within himself the ability to forgive.
“Even though I was treated in the most inhumane ways, I decided I will not hold grudges against any guards there and to forgive them completely. It feels so good and liberating, and I feel much closer to God.”
One of Slahi’s first requests after arriving back home at the start of 2016 was to ask his family to buy him two large TV sets full of channels. Strict monitoring of what he could watch and listen to in prison had made him desperate to understand what was really happening around the world. He asked his niece to set up the channels but she looked at him, surprised, and said, “Uncle, I don’t know how to do that. I’ve never used a TV in my life, just my phone.”
Realising that the world is moving too fast, he is still playing catch-up. He is now a full-time writer and a new book, Ahmed and Zarga, has just been released.
Writing is his therapy. As a child, inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, he always wanted to write and teach because “even death is so beautifully written about in its collection of stories.”Under pressure from the US, the Mauritanian authorities refused to hand over his passport for three years. He couldn’t even travel for treatment to fix a longstanding nerve condition that he says was exacerbated by his Guantanamo torturers. In his new life of freedom, therefore, Slahi is still made to feel like a prisoner by the limitations imposed by the US. He is now being refused visas, including a visa for Britain to promote The Mauritanian.
Slahi concluded our interview by saying that the treatment of Guantanamo prisoners says more about America than it says about the people who are kidnapped and imprisoned. “None of them were successfully convicted for any crimes so where is the justice? There is no justice for those in prison; there is no justice for the victims of 9/11 and their families who lost their loved ones in a very painful way. No one is getting any justice.”
So what, we are all entitled to ask, is the real function and purpose of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay?