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An introduction to the declassified diary of Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Editor's note: In painstaking longhand in the English he learned while imprisoned at Guantanamo, Mohamedou Ould Slahi has written out his 466-page memoir, which has now been declassified, though heavily redacted. He has been torn from his family, he has been tortured but in recent years has been given relatively liberal treatment, allowed to garden, paint, read and watch TV with his roommate, segregated from all of the other detainees. He has never been charged with a crime. Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center, was given the manuscript by Slahi's pro bono attorneys. He provides the context of Slahi's life. Following that is a condensed version of Slahi's memoir, which originally appeared in the online magazine Slate. It has been further shortened for publication here. (You may read Slate's full version at tinyurl.com/tbtimes-gitmodiary, and you may read an earlier Washington Post story in which unnamed officials claim that Slahi provided useful information on al-Qaida, which is why he now lives in relative comfort in Guantanamo, at tinyurl.com/tbtimes-comfort.)

Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since August 2002, though he has never been charged with a crime.

His life in captivity began on Nov. 20, 2001, when Slahi, then 30, was summoned by police in his native Mauritania for questioning. He had just returned home from work; he was in the shower when police arrived. He dressed, grabbed his car keys — he went voluntarily, driving himself to the police station — and told his mother not to worry, he would be home soon.

Slahi wasn't alarmed because he had been questioned many times: a resume that read like success for the eighth child of Saharan camel herders was also full of red flags for intelligence services. At 18, he won a scholarship to study engineering in Germany. He interrupted his studies in 1990 to travel to Afghanistan to join the U.S.-supported fight against the communist government in Kabul, training in an al-Qaida-affiliated camp and formally joining the organization. He saw action a year later, in one of the last battles before the Soviet-backed government fell.

He returned to his studies in Germany in March 1992, four years before Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States, but a cousin stayed in Afghanistan, becoming one of bin Laden's spiritual leaders. Slahi lived in Canada for a few months in late 1999 and early 2000, leading prayers at the same Montreal mosque Ahmed Ressam had attended; Ressam, who left Montreal shortly before Slahi arrived, was picked up entering Washington state two weeks before New Year's Eve with a trunkload of explosives and a plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

When Slahi drove to his local police station, he expected more questions about Ressam. He had already been cleared of involvement in the foiled LAX plot twice, first by Canadian intelligence and then by his own government when he returned home in 2000. But things were different after the Sept. 11 attacks; this time, the Mauritanians handed him over to the U.S. government, which put him on a rendition flight to Jordan. When after eight months the Jordanians also concluded that Slahi had nothing to do with the millennium plot, the United States retrieved Slahi and, as he describes in his manuscript's first scene, sent him to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Two weeks later he was sent to Guantanamo. Not long after his detention there, another suspicious association surfaced: In Germany in 1999, Slahi had met Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who now stands accused of facilitating the 9/11 hijackings, and two men the U.S. government alleges were among the hijackers, and housed the men for a night; under torture in a CIA black site, bin al-Shibh claimed Slahi had directed the men to Afghanistan for training.

What followed was one of the most stubborn, deliberate and cruel Guantanamo interrogations on record. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally signed Slahi's interrogation plan. Declassified files, including the Defense Department's Schmidt-Furlow Report, the Justice Department's investigation of FBI involvement in Guantanamo interrogations and the Senate Armed Services Committee's report on the treatment of detainees, document the Pentagon's plan and its meticulous implementation.

That all this abuse was fruitless is clear from the 2010 decision of U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson granting Slahi's habeas corpus petition and ordering his release. Once there had been talk of trying Slahi as a key 9/11 recruiter, a capital crime, but no criminal charges were ever prepared against him.

The man first assigned to prosecute him, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, withdrew from the case when he discovered Slahi had been tortured. When Couch's boss, former Guantanamo chief prosecutor Col. Morris Davis, met with the CIA, the FBI and military intelligence in 2007 to review Slahi's case, the agencies conceded they could not link him to any acts of terrorism. During Slahi's habeas corpus proceedings, the government alleged he played a role in recruiting the 9/11 hijackers, though by then it acknowledged, as Robertson footnotes in his opinion, "that Slahi probably did not even know about the 9/11 attacks." The only evidence the government offered to support allegations of Slahi's involvement in terrorist plots came, Robertson found, from statements he made in the course of his brutal interrogation.

In 2005, he began to write out his memoir by hand. He wrote in English, a language he mastered in prison. His handwriting is relaxed but neat, his narrative, even riddled with redactions, vivid and captivating. Slahi's writing is much more than a litany of abuses. It is driven by something much deeper: not just the desire to "be fair," as he puts it, but to understand his guards, his interrogators and his fellow detainees, and to show that even dehumanizing situations are composed of individual, and at times harrowingly intimate, human exchanges. The result is an account that is both damning and redeeming.

Larry Siems is director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center and the author of "The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America's Post-9/11 Torture Program."

© 2013 Slate

An introduction to the declassified diary of Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi

05/11/13 [Last modified: Monday, May 13, 2013 9:47am]
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