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Mohamedou says he's locked up, tortured, and fighting for justice

His book is the first written and released by a Guantánamo detainee.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI is locked up behind bars in Guantánamo Bay, but still he writes.

Each day in his meagre cell in Camp Echo, the now-44 year old writes about his life there – the guards, the food, the experiences, the torture.

The resulting 466-page book about his confinement, Guantánamo Diary, is the first to ever be released by a detainee, and details the torture Slahi says he has been subjected to for years.

Prisoner number 760

mo slahi Source: Aclu Action

The Mauritanian national was imprisoned 13 years ago. He went for police questioning in his home country over a failed US bomb plot and never returned home.

He travelled to Afghanistan twice in the 1990s, and swore allegiance to al-Qaida. Slahi said that he cut ties with the group in 1992.

When he arrived at Guantánamo Bay, he was no longer Mohamedou Ould Slahi: he became prisoner number 760.

In his book, he says he was tortured, which led him to make false confessions.

Free Slahi campaign launch - London Yahid Ould Slahi, the brother of Mohamedou, with his brother's lawyer Nancy Hollander Source: Nick Ansell

Never charged with a crime

His supporters say Slahi has been unlawfully imprisoned by the US government, and his attorney Nancy Hollander points out that he has never been charged with any crime.

When Hollander got hold of Slahi’s writings, they were – as with all documents created by Guantánamo prisoners – locked away in a secure unit in Washington DC.

It took years of litigation for the documents to be declassified. Finally, they were published under the name The Guantánamo Diary.

Journey to publication

The first ‘editing’ work on the book was done by the US government, which redacted portions of the text. Its second editor was Larry Siems of the Torture Project, who will be visiting Ireland next month to talk about the Guantánamo Diary.

When Siems first got the manuscript, he was “enthralled and amazed”, looking forward to polishing “this incredible gem that I was holding in my hand”.

He regularly gets emails from readers who say the book has changed their thinking about Guantánamo, the detention camp that was opened in 2002 to house people captured during the US’s War on Terror.

Barack Obama says today that he regrets not closing down the centre, and the situation now is “a real stalemate” as Siems puts it.

Free Slahi campaign launch - London Mohamedou's brother Yahid Ould Slahi, holding a copy of the book Source: Nick Ansell

Humanising not just himself, but his captors

There is a fierce sense of security around GITMO, not just regarding the prisoners but also the guards. Siems said that those guards who have spoken out describe conditions “exactly” as Slahi describes them.

“I think one of the most incredible things is it not only brings to life the experience of Guantánamo prisoners but also brings to life in a very vivid way the life of the guards and interrogators too,” said Siems of the book.

Slahi, said Siems, “recognises some of the people are in this position because they have limited choices that brought them into this position”.

In Guantánamo, efforts are made to “dehumanise him”, said Siems, but through his writing Slahi humanises himself and those who keep him captive.

What makes Slahi’s book so remarkable?

Free Slahi campaign launch - London Yahid Ould Slahi holds up a letter written by his brother Mohamedou Source: Nick Ansell

Siems said that Slahi’s gift isn’t just in telling his story, but in how he tells it.

Mohamedou’s is exceptional in so many ways, mostly because he really has the gifts of a writer. He experiences everything through all of his senses. He has a tremendous ear for dialogue and language – and he’s writing in his fourth language. The sense of beauty, the sense of irony, the sense of humour. Above all, he’s got a tremendous curiosity and empathy that allows him to reach out of his situation.

From what they know of Slahi, he is “both extremely curious and extremely engaged with the world and outgoing and personable and a formidable intellect”, a guy who memorised the Koran as a boy and won a study scholarship, outlined Siems.

I think in some sense, every life experience is a learning experience for him and his curiosity and desire to make sense of things and also to contextualise everything in the foundations of his life, which are  religious faith and I think a real belief in the ability of human beings to bridge divides and to communicate.

“He has a very real faith which he maintains in spite of conscious deliberate stubborn efforts to deprive him of his faith,” added Siems.

Increasingly disturbed

Free Slahi campaign launch - London Larry Siems shows some redacted pages of the book Source: Nick Ansell

Siems first encountered Slahi when compiling the Torture Report, saying he emerged “as very strong character” who, in review board interviews, “meticulously plotted the treatment he was subjected to”.

He also was “very funny”, said Siems, who was also struck by “how incredibly accurate he reports his experiences”.

Siems says he is “increasingly disturbed” by the Guantánamo situation, calling it a “real test for my country”.

Slahi’s own case is a test itself.

It is going to require public acknowledgement in a way that the government hasn’t been willing to publicly acknowledge before: ‘We tortured somebody. But we tortured somebody who wasn’t the person we thought he was’. Those are gigantic admissions.
I think the extent to which failure to close Guantánamo is a result of some kind of unwillingness and ability to own up to serious mistakes is really troubling to me.
It’s a sign of American weakness, not a sign of American strength.

A call for justice

Obama US Al Qaida Source: AP/Press Association Images

The US government has indicated that Slahi is eligible to have a new review board meeting, which Siems said is a “hopeful sign”. But nothing is clear-cut just yet.

“The book is a very clear and simple call for justice,” said Siems. “Now that this is out there and the story is out there, I don’t see how it can be ignored.”

It will be a race against the clock, though, to get Gitmo closed before Barack Obama’s presidential tenure comes to an end in a year and a half.

It’s going to require anything from act of courage on behalf of President Obama to larger acts of courage by many people in Congress and in the Pengagon. I have to believe it will happen – I am an optimistic person.

It’s been “such a strange experience” working with the manuscript of a man he couldn’t meet – Siems requested at least one meeting with Slahi, but was refused – but if Slahi is freed, the hope is they finally will meet face to face.

Guantanamo Ellen Sturtz, an activist from the antiwar group CodePink, participates in a silent protest on Capitol Hill in Washington Source: AP/Press Association Images

Siems hopes that Guantánamo Diary won’t be Slahi’s only book.

“He’s been there almost 10 years since he wrote this book – there must be at least another book there, certainly a prequel.”

And if the two meet, what will he say to him? “I cannot wait to meet him,” said Siems. “I am certain he will get out. My first question will be ‘how badly did I screw up your book?’” Spoken like a true editor.

Larry Siems will join Slahi’s attorney, Nancy Hollander, to speak about Slahi and his book, and the future of Guantánamo Bay, at the International Literature Festival in Dublin on 19 May. More information at the official website.

Read: After a decade at Guantanamo, four detainees are going home>

Read:  “I would still be in that black hole” – Guantanamo inmates taste freedom after a decade>

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