Who will end this Guantánamo nightmare?

June 15, 2016

Sumaya Awad tells the story of Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi--and asks when a man who has been held without trial since 2001 will see justice.

"DON'T WORRY mom, I'll be back soon," Mohamedou Ould Slahi told his mother as he was escorted by Mauritanian police to a local station for questioning.

Little did Slahi know that within a few short months, he would be in a prison cell in Jordan, then in Bagram, Afghanistan, before being transferred to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Fourteen and a half years later, Slahi remains at Guantánamo, awaiting release.

Eight years ago, Barack Obama made closing Guantánamo a central promise of his presidential campaign. Two terms later, not only is the prison still open, but living conditions for those incarcerated have deteriorated; hunger strikes have been brutally suppressed; and detainees, many of whom have been cleared for release, remain in shackles.

Obama never planned to give fair trials to the 779 detainees wrongfully imprisoned in Guantanamo since its opening in 2002. Instead, he floated a plan to transfer detainees to a prison facility in Illinois, where they would be subject to the same horrific conditions and systematic torture, with no opportunity to contest the reasons for their imprisonment.

The fence at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay

Today, Guantánamo remains fully functioning, with 80 detainees remaining--some of whom have been there for over a decade without trial.

One of these detainees is Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Held at Guantánamo Bay since 2002, Slahi was ordered released in 2010 after a federal judge said accusations against him were insufficient to establish that he was a member of al-Qaeda, as the U.S. has claimed. Despite this, the U.S. government still hasn't released him.

Earlier this month, Slahi, who has been subjected to torture while in U.S. custody, appeared for a 17-minute hearing in front of the camp's Periodic Review Board, which examines the potential risk of releasing detainees. Even U.S. government documents admit that, were he to be released, he "probably would reunite with his family, take care of his sisters, and start a business." Yet he still waits for freedom.

THE MOST tortured man at Guantánamo and author of the Guantanamo Diary, a painfully raw illustration of the horrific conditions and torture he has endured at the camp, Slahi was imprisoned for allegations connecting him with the so-called "Millennium Plot" and the September 11 hijackings. Both allegations have been disproven--no viable evidence connects Slahi to either of the two events.

First taken into custody in the Mauritanian city of Nouakchott in 2001, Mauritanian authorities later transferred Slahi to Amman, Jordan, where he was held for eight months--during which time he was tortured and interrogated on an almost a daily basis, according to his account. He also spent time at the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan, enduring intense interrogation and torture.

Family members were not informed of his many transfers and lived under the assumption that he was still being interrogated at home in Nouakchott. They often sent him food parcels and clothing.

Slahi's transfer from one prison facility to the next was made possible through the CIA's program of "extraordinary rendition" program, defined by the ACLU as "an intelligence-gathering program involving the transfer of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to detention and interrogation in countries where--in the CIA's view--federal and international legal safeguards do not apply."

Suspects were then interrogated in U.S.-run facilities or by U.S.-trained interrogators. This allowed for the use of unlawful interrogation methods without the government necessarily facing any legal consequence or being denied the use of testimonies given while a suspect is under torture.

Some 54 countries are known to have taken part in the program, including both Mauritania and Jordan, which aided in Salahi's detention, interrogation and torture before his transfer to Guantánamo.

SINCE BEING moved to Guantánamo, Slahi has also faced torture, according to his account. He was held in isolation for weeks at a time, subjected to freezing cold, rape threats, sexual humiliation and sleep deprivation.

In one torture session, he was told his mother would be detained at the prison if he didn't cooperate and provide "useful" information. Threats like this are not unusual at Guantánamo--many of the detainees' so-called "confessions" have come only after such sessions.

It is precisely for this reason that Stuart Couch, Salahi's first military prosecutor at the prison, resigned from his position and refused to work on Salahi's case. After investigating Slahi's case and the statements and testimonies Slahi had released, Couch was suspicious of why, after almost a year of silence and refusal to cooperate, he suddenly became cooperative in providing statements linking himself with al-Qaeda. After investigating further, Couch found that Slahi's confessions began only after he was subjected to numerous methods of torture.

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Couch described the methods of torture that Slahi was subjected to:

Specifically, he had been subjected to a mock execution. He had sensory deprivation. He had environmental manipulation--that is, the cell is too cold, or the cell is too hot. He, at one point, was taken off of the island and driven around in a boat to make him believe that he was being transferred to a foreign country for interrogation. He was presented with a ruse that the United States had taken custody of his mother and his brother, and that they were being brought to Guantánamo.

Most prosecutors aren't told about the methods used to extract confessions and testimonies from detainees, Couch said. They are simply handed a file with statements and asked to produce a charge against a detainee. Couch says he was so ignorant of the torture methods applied in the camp that he once mistook rock music played at an excruciating volume--a torture method meant to mentally destabilize detainees--for off-duty soldiers having a good time.

These methods to extract confessions aren't confined to military detention centers like Guantánamo, but are used often in U.S. prisons. Many of the interrogators at Guantánamo were transferred to the camp after working in U.S. prison facilities, where they honed their techniques.

Take Richard Zuley, a Chicago police detective brought to Guantánamo in 2002 to help manage the then-newly opened camp. Last year, an investigation by Britain's Guardian newspaper detailed that, as a Chicago officer, Zuley "repeatedly engaged in methods of interrogation resulting in at least one wrongful conviction and subsequent cases more recently thrown into doubt following allegations of abuse." The same techniques Zuley applied in Chicago precincts he then brought with him to Guantánamo.

WITH NO charges leveled against him and no trial, Slahi, with the help of his attorneys, filed for a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a detainee the right to appear before a court.

Finally, in 2010, Slahi appeared before a federal judge. The allegations against him, including his supposed connection to the Millennium Plot, were found insufficient, and the judge declared that there wasn't enough viable evidence to keep Slahi behind bars. An order was issued for his release. A federal appeals court, however, sent Slahi's case back to the lower court, blocking the judge's order.

This is not uncommon with Guantánamo detainees. Currently, 26 of the 80 prisoners still at the camp have been cleared for release by a federal court. The $454 million it takes to keep these 80 detainees locked up each year--well over $5 million per detainee--comes out of taxpayers' pockets.

In March 2013, six detainees went on hunger strike at Guantánamo. Within a couple months, the number had risen to 116, Slahi being one of them. As news of the hunger strike gained momentum, camp administrators dealt with the new threat by ordering forced-feeding procedures. The force-feedings were another form of torture. Not only were there too few medical staff to be able to carry out the procedures correctly, but those administering the force feedings made sure the process was both painful and humiliating.

Shaker Amer was among five detainees at the camp who released statements describing the force feedings they endured:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can't describe how painful it is to be force fed like this. As it was thrust in, I felt I was going to throw up. There was agony in my chest, throat, stomach. They put you on a chair, reminds me of an execution chair. Your legs and shoulders are tied with belts. If the tube goes in the wrong way, the liquid might go into your lungs.

I was sick in the prison hospital and refused to be fed. A squad and eight military police officers in riot gear burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forced an IV into my hand...and left me for 26 hours in this state.

Later they fed me by nasal catheter. The food rushed into my stomach too quickly. I asked him to reduce the speed. He not only refused, but tried to turn it up.

By the end of summer 2013, the number of hunger strikers had dwindled. The 2013 strike was the last mass hunger strike to occur at the camp.

ON JUNE 2, after 14 years in detention and a statement authorizing his release, Slahi was given the chance to make his case for freedom through a Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing.

The public hearing lasted 17 minutes, during which Slahi wasn't given the chance to speak. Instead, his attorneys made a case for his release, citing the 2010 federal judge's ruling and the lack of evidence to convict Slahi of any of the accusations leveled against him. There is no word of a decision.

Even while undergoing unfathomable forms of torture, Slahi asserts in his book that he always has been conscious and understanding of the fact that his interrogators, his prosecutors and guards were not simply a small group of people responsible for the conditions at Guantánamo, but that they functioned within a larger system that not only created, but nurtured his oppressors.

Referring to one masked interrogator at Guantánamo, Slahi wrote:

When I got to know [him] more and heard him speaking, I wondered how could a man as smart as he was possibly accept such a degrading job, which surely is going to haunt him the rest of his life. I later on discussed with some of my guards why they executed the order of stopping me from praying, since it is an unlawful order. "I could have, but my boss would have given me a shitty job, or transferred me to a bad place. I know I can go to hell for what I have done to you," he said.

Slahi's case has received much attention because of the sheer absurdity of his more than 14 years of detention. His book Guantánamo Diary, the first-ever released prison diary from a detainee at the camp, offers much insight into the conditions endured by these victims of the U.S. "war on terror."

Slahi's diary--which is filled with redactions insisted on by the U.S. military before tolerating its publication, sometimes pages at a time--is a reminder of how little we know about the ways that the rule of law can be bent and broken to justify the unlawful detention of figures like him, in detention camps like Guantánamo and in prison facilities on U.S. soil.

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