Mohammedou Ould Salahi.
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Mohamedou Slahi is an extraordinary person with a harrowing past and a remarkable, still-unfolding story. The interview I conducted with him on Saturday, which can be viewed below, is one I sincerely hope you will watch. He has much to say that the world should hear, and, with a new War on Terror likely to be launched in the U.S., his story is particularly timely now.
Known as the author of the best-selling Guanta'namo Diary a memoir he wrote during his 14 years in captivity in the U.S. prison camp at Guanta'namo he is now the primary character of a new Hollywood feature film about his life, The Mauritanian. The first eight years of Slahi's imprisonment included multiple forms of abuse in four different countries and separation from everything he knew, but it afforded no charges, trials, or opportunities to refute or even learn of the accusations against him.
The film stars Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley, while Slahi is played by the French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim. Foster last week won a Golden Globe award for her role as Nancy Hollander, Slahi's lawyer who worked for years, for free, to secure his right simply to have a court evaluate the evidence which the U.S. Government believed justified his due-process-free, indefinite imprisonment. Cumberbatch plays Slahi's military prosecutor whose friend died on 9/11 when the American Airlines passenger jet he was piloting was hijacked and flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Slahi's story is fascinating unto itself but, with a second War on Terror looming, bears particular relevance now. No matter your views on the post-9/11 War on Terror ranging from "it was necessary to take the gloves off and dispense with all limits in order to win this war against an unprecedented evil and existential threat" to "the U.S. gravely overreacted and mirrored the worst abuses of what it claimed it was fighting" to anything in between it cannot be disputed that limitless power was placed in the hands of the U.S. Government to imprison, to monitor, to surveil, to kidnap and to kill anyone it wanted, anywhere in the world, with no checks. And like most authorities vested in the state in the name of some emergency, these powers were said to be temporary but, almost 20 years later, show no signs of going anywhere. They are now embedded in the woodwork of U.S. political life.
What happened to Slahi is a vivid embodiment of how humans will inevitably abuse power when it is wielded without safeguards or limits. In November, 2001, Slahi was attending a party with his mother and other relatives in his home country of Mauritania, the U.S.-aligned nation in Northwest Africa plagued for years by dictatorships and military coups. Police arrived and told him they needed to question him. That was the last time he would ever see his mother.
After two weeks of intense interrogation about his ties to Islamic radicals, Slahi was flown in chains and shackles to Jordan, the U.S.-controlled oil monarchy where he had never visited and with which he had no ties. For the next eight months, he was interrogated on a daily basis by Jordanian and U.S. operatives, including CIA agents. The Jordanians frequently used classic torture techniques to extract information when their CIA bosses assessed that he was not being forthcoming. After eight months, the Jordanians concluded that he was not affiliated with any extremist groups and had no more information to provide, but the Americans, still reeling from the 9/11 attack, were not convinced.
He was told he would return to Mauritania but quickly realized that was a lie as he was placed in full-body shackles, chains and a jumpsuit. This time, he was flown to the notorious U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, home to thousands of prisoners detained indefinitely by the Bush and Obama administrations with no charges or human rights protections. After two weeks of brutal daily interrogations, Slahi was told that he was being taken to a U.S. military base in Guanta'namo.
Because the camp had opened only after Slahi was first detained in Mauritania, he had no idea what Guanta'namo was. But, he told me, he was so happy and relieved to hear he was being taken to the U.S. because "the U.S. is where you get legal rights and there is a functioning court system." Upon hearing the news, he thought his nightmare, now almost a year long, was about to end. In fact, it was only beginning, and was about to get far darker than he could have imagined.
Flown to the floating island prison in the middle of the Caribbean, thousands of miles away from his home, Slahi, though in American custody on a U.S. military base, was in a place which the U.S. Government had decreed was not the United States at all. It was a no-man's land, free of any law or authority other than the unconstrained will of U.S. political leaders. Shortly after his arrival, the Bush administration guided by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized the use of multiple forms of torture that it and the U.S. press euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
It is not in dispute, because official U.S. Government documents acknowledge it, that Slahi, along with dozens of others, was subjected to these techniques over and over. They included prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings and stress positions, a mock execution, and sexual humiliation and assault.
When he arrived at the camp, he spoke Arabic, German and French, and then quickly learned English from his captors and interrogators. His refuge from his hopelessness was the book he wrote, which he authored in English. Completed in 2005, it was taken from him by camp guards and not permitted to be published until ten years later, when it became a global bestseller while Slahi was still consigned to a cage, convicted of nothing and with no idea of when, if ever, he would be freed.
Throughout his ordeal, all Slahi wanted, as any human would, was the opportunity to be told of the charges against him and presented with the evidence corroborating the accusations. But the U.S. government's decree that Guanta'namo was foreign soil and thus free of constitutional constraints enabled them to imprison people indefinitely with no due process of any kind. A bipartisan law enacted by Congress in 2006 called "the Military Commissions Act" fortified the Bush administration's position by barring federal courts from reviewing any petitions brought by War on Terror detainees to have the validity of their imprisonment legally evaluated.
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