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The Mauritanian Speaks: In Conversation with Mohamedou Ould Slahi on Guantanamo Bay Torture Crimes

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was detained at the inhumane Guantanamo Bay 'Detention Camp' for 14 years without charge. For 14 years, Mohamedou was tortured by the US military: he was severely beaten, sexually assaulted, water boarded, threatened, sleep deprived, and isolated. His lawyer, Nancy Hollander, helped him expose these crimes against humanity committed by the US and tell the world the truth about what was happening. Mohamedou was freed in 2016 and has since dedicated his life to human rights activism. Guantanamo Bay remains open to this day where detainees are still held without charge and tortured by the US.



CJLPA: Welcome today, Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to come and interview with The Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art to expose the crimes you endured in Guantanamo Bay.


As a brief introduction, it began when you were brought in for questioning by the Mauritanian authorities on 20 November 2001, after which you were detained and eventually transported to US military custody, in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, on 4 August 2002. After being arrested without charges brought against you, you then endured for the next fourteen years at Guantanamo Bay the cruellest crimes against humanity, as you were isolated and subjected to the most degrading, inhumane, and painful acts of torture. You were only finally released in October 2016. Whilst in prison you wrote a memoir in 2005 which the US government declassified in 2012, with numerous redactions. The memoir was published as Guantanamo Diary.


The film made in your honour, The Mauritanian, depicts the experience at Guantanamo Bay based on your book Guantanamo Diary and provides an overview of Nancy Hollander as she took your case pro bono to defend you. You are now a survivor of Guantanamo Bay and continue to live life to the fullest despite the years taken away from you. So it’s an honour to have you here today, and we will discuss this experience to continue spreading awareness of human rights. To begin, could you share the experience you had when you first arrived at Guantanamo Bay? What did the authorities tell you during your initial arrival?


Mohamedou Ould Slahi: Thank you so much, Nadia Jahnecke, for having me. I vividly remember, as if it were yesterday, when those two cops came to my home. It was Ramadan. To be precise, it was the fourth of Ramadan, and I was really tired. It was around 4pm and I had just come back from work. It was only me and my mother; no one else was at home. I was getting ready to take a shower and just get some sleep because we stayed up until very late in Ramadan. We use Ramadan as a season to eat more than we usually eat, to be honest, and to have more entertainment, which very much defeats the purpose of Ramadan [laughs].


So, two cops in plain civilian clothes, ‘Mukhabarat’, asked me to come with them. This is not a country ruled by law; it is a country ruled by the military. They did not show me cause, and they did not show me an arrest warrant. I could see the fear in my mother’s eyes, but I didn’t fully understand it. I was really afraid, but I didn’t think it was going to be really that bad because it was not my first time being arrested. So, I went with them, and then one of them drove with me, and the other one followed us or drove in front of us. I don’t remember, but I could see my mother in the rearview mirror as she disappeared. It was I think after about 200m when we turned right. I always forget whether we turned right or left, but we turned right and then we turned left. That’s why I forgot.


And that was the last time I saw my mom, the very last time. I never thought that this would be the last time I saw her. She was really very sick; it took her years to go to the hospital. Many years, after many years in prison, they came to me and told me that she died and she passed away. They came back again and told me my brother, by the way, passed on too. I cannot describe to you the pain. The pain that I experienced, I remember it was so, so bad; I couldn’t hear anymore. The guys who came to me to tell me the news were in these military-like very special clothes and very well-maintained. They had a priest with them because we are not allowed to have Imams, and the priest was from Sudan, I think they took him because he spoke Arabic. He started to talk to me about it. I don’t know what he was talking about, honestly, because I just wanted them to go away and leave me alone. I remember I was in so much pain I needed to punish my body. Then I started to sing the Quran, I think for about 12 hours straight. I took one break until I completely collapsed.


What was in between was a lot of pain. I was first taken to Jordan for eight months incommunicado, where I was not allowed to see anyone or talk to anyone. This is so shameful, as this is like humiliation upon humiliation, that you are being tortured and humiliated by your own people. This is more than anything; we say in Arabic [speaking Arabic], ‘When injustice comes from your next of kin, it’s worse than being cut into pieces by a sword’. Then I was taken to Afghanistan; they tried to take people to free Afghanistan from so-called terrorists, but I was taken to Afghanistan by force. From Afghanistan, I was taken to Guantanamo Bay, and I was the first candidate for capital murder, the first ever. I remember, after so many months of torture and forced confession, one staff, First Sergeant Shirley, came to me and told me that I was being chosen for the death penalty. You may ask me, ‘Was I afraid? How was my feeling?’—I tell you, I didn’t have any feelings. I was numb. I was just listening to him, looking at his lips moving, and I just wanted the session with him to end so I could go back and live in my head, in myself.


All of this happened, in all those 15 years, completely outside the rule of law, completely free of any judicial oversight, meaningful judicial oversight. I was never charged with a crime, ever. When I finally got to see my case for the first time in front of an independent person, a judge, who could see all the evidence, even the classified evidence, he ordered my release. Those are the facts of the case. I was the only detainee who was ordered to be released. He was tough; he saw the case for what it was, a complete hoax.


CJLPA: Wow, there is a lot to unpack from that, so thank you. Before we delve into your experience in Guantanamo Bay specifically, I found it quite interesting how you mentioned that your own people, your own kin, left you and abandoned you. Jordan assisted the US in detaining you and sending you to Afghanistan, which ultimately led to your transfer to Guantanamo Bay. Why do you think they helped with this or contributed to this? Do you believe it’s a result of the fear of other international countries, particularly the US as the world superpower, and their influence?


MOS: One of the bitterest experiences I faced is that in my part of the world, we have real problems. The absence of democracy, the absence of the rule of law—we know this; it’s like an open secret. This problem is exacerbated by them being in bed with very powerful countries like the United States of America. For better or worse, the United States of America is the leader of the free world, and their association with the most distasteful—I don’t want to say dictators, just authoritarian regimes, to be on the safe side—is completely hurting the local people. Because this so-called war on terrorism is used, at least in my part of the world, to crush political dissent. People who peacefully want democratic change, who want to have their votes counted, and who want to limit the power of the military general, the king, or the president, are labelled as Islamic extremists or terrorists and are being crushed.


When I was arrested, there was no Guantanamo Bay because the United States was discussing with other countries—they were discussing with the government executive branch the power of places to put the people they capture in a place that is not subject to the rule of law. That was the whole idea. While waiting at that place, they already had places where they worked, like in Arabic countries. We know Jordan is part of them, my country and Morocco are part of them, even Syria was part of them, Egypt, and Pakistan, of course, and so on. There are people who I met and who were delivered to those countries, and this is really shameful. The point is if they couldn’t take me to the US because the government, the FBI, and the CIA knew that there was no evidence—I didn’t do anything—but, you would ask, why then did they capture me? Because they want information; they want to ask me if my cousin is friends with Osama Bin Laden. I don’t need to have rights; I’m from Mauritania, and no one is defending me. My country certainly is not defending me.


CJLPA: When you first arrived at Guantanamo Bay, a detention site where, as you mentioned, the rule of law doesn’t exist, what were the prison conditions like? Can you describe what it was like when you first entered there?


MOS: So, when I was interrogated in Bagram, I didn’t speak English, so my English was very limited, and I didn’t understand. When they asked me if I needed to use the bathroom, I spoke German, and ‘bathroom’ in German is very close to ‘Badezimmer’, where we take a shower. I thought, ‘Wow, Americans are good people; they want to allow me to take a shower’. I said yes, and they took me to a barrel full of human faeces, an open barrel, and told me, ‘Yeah, you can use the bathroom’. I said, ‘Ah, okay, this is the bathroom in English. Okay, now I understand’. We didn’t have toilets; we only had very big barrels brought in as toilets for the detainees.


They brought in an Arabic interpreter who asked me what languages I spoke, and I told them I spoke Arabic, French, and German. They said, ‘What? You speak German?’. I said, ‘Yes’. Then they brought a CIA agent who spoke German, and he was the one who interrogated me. He felt a kind of relationship with me because he was German, and we were the only two people who spoke German. He told me, ‘You are screwed either way. I’m just going to be honest with you because even if you are innocent, you are not getting out of this’. He told me, ‘I don’t know whether you’re innocent or not. Maybe you’re innocent, maybe you’re not. But either way, you are not getting out of this’. I think he told me, or it was already decided, that I would be sent to Guantanamo Bay. I was really happy after 8 months in Jordan and the pain I saw in Bagram.


In Bagram, I was in shackles for 24 hours, I peed in my cell on the carpet because there was no toilet. Because they had to take me to another place, and because I was in isolation, there was no toilet, so I peed everywhere, and my room reeked of urine. But I was just happy because he explained to me that Guantanamo Bay is under the full control of the US. I told myself, ‘This is the US, so they cannot harm me because now I am under US custody. Not anymore; they won’t blame it anymore on Jordanians and the Afghanis’.


But I was in for a very big surprise. The trip was torturous, full of beating and humiliation. When we arrived, the sun of Guantanamo hit me, and it felt really good. I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel the sun on me. Then they took me to interrogation, and in the beginning, it was really normal, almost 24-hour interrogation. After about five months, they turned the heat up and brought a special FBI team who interrogated me for four months. Then they told me, ‘Mohamedou, we are not getting anything out’. They told me if I didn’t cooperate with them, they would torture me. I said, ‘The sooner, the better’. I knew what ‘The sooner, the better’ meant because, by that time, I had picked up a lot of the English language. The decision to torture me was a foregone conclusion anyway.


They took me to a place where they brought a special team, the torture team. They took me to India Block, emptied it from all detainees, so it was only me. 70 first days: no sleep, 24 hours. Sexual assault, stripping you naked, and beatings so bad, I thought I was going to die. After 70 days, they took me on a boat ride and brought another team, an Arabic-speaking team. One guy had an Egyptian accent, and another guy had a Jordanian accent. The guy with an Egyptian accent said he was Egyptian, and the other guy said he was Jordanian. They threatened to take me back to Egypt and Jordan, but they didn’t know I had already taken that path, and there were no miracles. Richard Zuley, a Police lieutenant from Chicago, came to me and told me he was going to kidnap my mother and take her to Guantanamo Bay. He also insinuated that he could not secure her safety in an only male prison. I completely unravelled and told him I would tell him anything he wanted.


That’s when I gave them the false confession. First Sergeant Shirley helped me write it. This false confession was the biggest challenge for them because, in dissemination, they sent the information to different agencies like the FBI, CIA, and others. They were all saying ‘no, he didn’t do this, we know he didn’t do it’. Richard Zuley was so angry because they said, ‘You want to convict him, you want the death penalty, this secures the death penalty, why are you asking questions?’ They all asked for a lie detector test. I took the polygraph twice and told him I didn’t do anything. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. I passed the test twice, and after the test, there was a complete change in my situation. They started to drive down the torture and decided that I could not be released ever because of what I saw and experienced. In 2012, the Mauritanian government asked for my release, and they were told, ‘He is un-releasable’.


CJLPA: Because, as you said, at that point, you had become a witness to all the crimes against humanity and what was happening in Guantanamo Bay. So once they released you, the whole world would know what was occurring there.


MOS: Yes, that would be a challenge to the narrative, to their narrative, yes, propaganda.


CJLPA: It’s beyond the international community, the crimes that they committed, and how they tortured you while you were there. What do you think they were told in order to commit these barbaric and inhumane torture crimes? To conduct them and still be able to sleep at night? Do you think it was brainwashing? Do you think they truly believed you were involved, or do you think it is just pure hatred towards a certain religious group and certain countries? How do you think they could do this?


MOS: Let’s be cold and scientific about this. This is humanity, just human beings. This is not because they’re Americans or they’re French. When you start dehumanizing a group of people, there is nothing you can’t do to them. And this started with our faces being put out; they took very ugly pictures of us and put them out there. When I saw my picture, I said to myself, ‘This guy is a bad guy’ [laughs].


I don’t remember when they took this picture because I was held, and my face was swollen because of the beating. This picture is actually on the internet; they put it on the internet. And this is the person we are holding here, so those are evil people. Just the soldiers, the people who participate in the torture, and the people who ordered them are evil people. They would kill you in a heartbeat if they had a chance. So when you start with sleep deprivation, then sexual assault, then beating, they would always tell me, ‘We want to save lives’, but what they didn’t know is that I couldn’t save any lives. I didn’t do anything; I didn’t know people who are holding a bomb to kill anyone. And this goes on and on, and they are not doctors, and they don’t know.


That’s why Abdul-Gul-Gul died from torture in the same room, in the cold room they put me in. It’s very cold; you could die. Because I was in this room, and they told me they would not stop pouring cold water on me until I talked. What they didn’t know was that I couldn’t talk because I was so cold; I couldn’t move my tongue. This is probably how they killed Gul Rahman, and in the same prison where I was in Bagram, they beat Dilawar to death; he was beaten to death. And other people we don’t know about, because according to classified documents, or at least some reporting, 20 people were never brought back; they were kidnapped and just disappeared. The people we know on record, about five people, we know died under the program of torture that I was subjected to.


So, democracy is here for a reason. The rule of law is here for a reason. The reason is that we can never trust the government. We can never trust the government to do the right thing. The government always needs someone to control them: the judiciary. We know that this good, beautiful thing that we have now, that is democracy, protects me and protects you. We know that it has shortcomings; we know especially that it’s designed so that the judiciary has so much power over the judge, because when the judge said I could go home I was kept for six more years. The judge does not have the police and does not have the military. We can only hope that the government, the judiciary would respect the other branches of the government. In this case, the judiciary and the executive branch did not respect the rule of law, and in our country it’s the same situation. We know this game because we grew up in an undemocratic regime.


CJLPA: While you were in prison, did you have contact with the other prisoners? Did you get to know anyone? Did you hear much about how they were detained and if they ever found out if they had charges brought against them?


MOS: Very few contacts, because 90% of my time I was in total isolation. I met the general population for the first after ten months, but we were always in the cells all the time, so we didn’t get to meet or talk much. Of course, we shouted, we talked, and this was during all the interrogations. And of course, we talked about interrogations, and we were afraid. I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me either. Then I was completely taken away from the general population. The only things I could read or had access to were the statements given to me by my lawyers, and the statements of other detainees that relate to my case. For example, there is a well-known detainee, Ramzi Shibh. Shibh was heavily tortured until he lost his mind. I know about his case because he made a statement, and my understanding, though I wasn’t allowed to see the statement due to blackout, is that he knows me, and we spoke about something like that. So I know about this kind of statement, and I know he was tortured because that’s what my lawyer told me. He was subjected to heavy torture. But I don’t know about other detainees who were tortured and talked about me.


CJLPA: And it was only in 2005 that you got a lawyer, and this was Nancy Hollander, whom we also had the pleasure to interview, an international defence lawyer, and she took your case. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like when you first met her?


MOS: Yeah. So, when they told me that I was allowed to see my lawyer, I was so happy because when I was young, I used to watch Married with Children and a little bit of Law and Order. I had this idea that Americans are humorous and respect the rule of law. So, I thought, ‘Ah, this was only a mistake, and then now they will release me, and then I will go home, and I will get a lot of money, like in the movies’.


That didn’t happen, but I started to write to my lawyer, to write to her about my life. In just a few days, I wrote about 163 pages. When I finally met her, I remembered wanting to hug her, but I couldn’t reach her because there was a table between us. She stood there for what felt like an eternity. She didn’t know that I was shackled, bolted to the ground and unable to move because it was under the table, and she couldn’t see it. Then she brought another lawyer who spoke French, but I told her I didn’t need anyone to speak French. I can speak English. So, we started, and she asked me to continue writing.


In two and a half months, about ten weeks, I wrote everything you see in my Guantanamo diary. When I sent it to her, she tried to publish it, but they told her, ‘You ain’t gonna publish this’. It took about eight years of fighting, and this is in a country that positions itself as the defender of freedom of speech. You can say anything, you can talk about violence, you can talk about killing the president—anything. But just my story, that I was kidnapped from home and taken to Guantanamo Bay and tortured, was not allowed to be told. I think that the American people deserve better than this, and I grew to know American people who are, by and large, fairly decent people and very good human beings.

CJLPA: With your Guantanamo Bay diaries, what, in particular, did you find that they redacted? What were some key points that they chose to take out that you think should have been kept in, and that people should know about? Essentially, what were the main things that they were trying to hide from the world, do you think?


MOS: So, there are things like the dates and the places they redacted. It made sense in a military context; they don’t want people to know when they kidnap you or where they take you, the timeline. However, some things didn’t make sense. For instance, that it was so bad that I cried, or that I brought some poems, and they took the poems out. They also removed personal pronouns, and if you referred to a man or woman, they took that out. There was a very long portion, I don’t even remember anymore, but a very long story that they removed. Many years later, when I tried to restore the damage, I didn’t know all of this; I forgot a lot.


CJLPA: When you first had Nancy Hollander take your case, did you face any challenges in trusting her based on your previous experiences in prison with the US government? Or was there an instant connection when you saw her, and you knew she was on your side, ready to help you?


MOS: After 4 years of torture, pain, and suffering, you have nothing to lose. I trusted Nancy from the first day, along with her colleagues—Nancy was with a team, so I will always give all of them credit. However, Nancy, by nature, is a mistrusting person. So, logically, she looked at me and said it was impossible that they kidnapped him, tortured him, and spent so much money hiding him in different countries if he didn’t do anything. Then I kept telling her I didn’t do anything, not even like, ‘Oh, it was a mistake’, or ‘It was the wrong place at the wrong time’, nothing. This was very hard to digest. But I told her you will know this when you know my case. When she saw the investigation, and I think there was an investigation, and when she saw the torture that I was exposed to and the resignation of the prosecutor who was supposed to put me to death, then she knew. He was a prosecutor, a marine, and there was no reason for him to side with me unless he believed in the truth. That was a significant factor, among many others, in understanding the facts of the case that kept trickling in, I would say.


CJLPA: Concerning the film The Mauritanian, it would be interesting to get your perspective on how you think the portrayal of Tahar Rahim was of you. Was it an accurate representation? What was it like seeing him in this film, and enduring what you endured at Guantanamo Bay?


MOS: It’s a very good way, to brag and tell people, ‘Look how I look’, and then, maybe even very tempting to take his photo and put it as my profile picture. And it’s another way to tell my story. We are completely vilified in this part of the world, and it’s not very common that you see anything positive about us in Hollywood. Seeing Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster portraying someone who did not hurt anyone is something I want to convey—that my family and I did not grow up to hate anyone. We grew up to love people, love life, and live peacefully. Of course, I was a young man, and I wanted to help Palestine and Afghanistan, with everything. But doing that, I never killed anyone, never did anything to anyone. Of course, I wasn’t always very careful about what I said, but that’s okay. Why is it okay for young French people and young American people to be stupid and say stupid things, but it’s not okay for Saudi people or Moroccan or Mauritanian people? I don’t accept that.


CJLPA: And specifically, going back to the film, naturally Hollywood films can’t depict everything. What do you think is something important that could have been included in the film, something from your diary that wasn’t shown? Something crucial that people need to know about is what happens in these camps.


MOS: You can’t depict 70 days of sleeplessness in a movie; that would be too long. And I was in prison for 15 years. 15 years. I think Kevin, my good friend, did a very good job. They asked me a lot because I told them I don’t interfere with the work of movies since I’m not a movie maker, but they asked me, and I shared my opinion. They very much considered everything I told them after doing the research, of course, and they talked to the other side a lot.


CJLPA: Were you surprised, or did you have hope throughout the case working with Nancy Hollander that you were going to win? Because, of course, you knew you were innocent and you knew they didn’t have evidence. But at that point, it was quite clear that it didn’t matter to the authorities whether there was evidence or not. You’d already seen too much. So throughout the case, were you still hopeful nonetheless that you would have justice?


MOS: You know, I learned everything about the American justice system the hard way. In the Western world, there are two philosophies. There is a common law, as it is practised in the United Kingdom, and this is like common sense: what decency dictates. It doesn’t need to be written, but when people think this is bad, it should be bad, hence the jury, because the jury decides the law.


Then there is what they call Napoleonic law. Napoleonic law is based on Sharia, but don’t say that in France, because they will hate you for it. Napoleonic law dictates that there cannot be a crime without being defined. America is neither common law nor Napoleonic law; it’s a mixture of both, and that’s why a lot of the crimes that they charge the detainees of Guantanamo Bay with were not defined, like material support of terrorism. That was not defined as a crime.


So, when the judge asks you in the US if you are guilty, you have to understand the question, which is not ‘Did you do this or not?’. The question is, ‘Did you commit a sin, or didn’t you commit a sin?’. The commission of a sin could be you feel bad that you didn’t prevent this crime from happening, or it could be that you put the gun to the head of that guy and put 10 bullets in him, but you were defending yourself or your family and you were in the right. In both cases, you say ‘I’m not guilty’, or ‘I’m guilty’, so that’s the first difference, because in most European countries, the countries that practice the Napoleonic law, there is no pleading. They don’t ask you whether you are guilty; they only look at the facts, what happened. That’s it. That was my first shock.


Then it came to me testifying. After I finished the summary, I thought ‘I am screwed, this is not going well’. Because he kept asking me, for example, ‘did you watch jihad movies when you were young?’—I said yes. ‘Did you read jihad magazines?’—yes. And then, I was—I wanted to cry because I didn’t want to say yes or no. If you ask someone a line of questioning and you limit them to yes and no, you can make them come to any conclusion, no matter what the conclusion is. And I was not allowed to explain anything; he only asked yes or no. And I think the first thing I would do if I were responsible for the justice system, would be to forbid ‘yes and no’ questions in cross-examination.


Later, when the judge interfered, he said, ‘Why did you ask him this question about whether he saw a movie or something, why?’. And then the prosecutor told him, ‘to go for the jugular’. And the judge said, ‘But you ain’t got no jugular, do you?’ And then the prosecutor said, ‘No, I don’t’. That’s when I knew that I was right all along because the Prosecutor admitted in front of the judge that he didn’t have anything on me.


CJLPA: This will be the last question before you have to leave. First of all, there are various other detention camps around the world where illegal acts by government authorities are continuing. What comes next? How can the world put an end to this? What actions can people take, and what role can lawyers play? How do individuals become involved, exert pressure on politicians, and bring attention to these crimes to help save lives and support those who have undergone such experiences?


MOS: I believe this is a very insightful question, and it encapsulates everything. How can we prevent this? I think the government, as it is currently acting, is not working for us. I am from Mauritania, a very small country. Mauritania lacks values that align with the broader perspectives of the American and UK political systems. As a Mauritanian, it occurred to me that I need to reach out directly to people like you and say: ‘You guys are really hurting me’.


What can we do to prevent this hurt that is coming to me and the people here? My philosophy is that we need to undercut the government and build a very broad grassroots movement that is cross-cultural and spans across countries. We should talk to each other, completely ignoring the government, focusing on securing our safety and promoting human rights worldwide. Nowadays, if someone is imprisoned in Mauritania, Morocco, the US, or anywhere else, we need to address it immediately. I wish for a world where we unite as one, even elect someone we trust, without borders. We don’t care about borders, and we discuss how to move forward, combat human rights violations, and address wars. All these things are not good for us.


CJLPA: Thank you very much, Mohamedou Slahi. It was an honour to have you here today. Your strength and bravery are truly extraordinary, and survivors like you, sharing your fight and story, will help make a difference in the world.

 

This interview was conducted by Nadia Jahnecke, Legal Editor and Founder of Human Rights Volume of CJLPA 3. In addition to her role at CJLPA, Nadia is currently working as a Trainee Lawyer and will qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales in March 2024.

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