US Military Police guard detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Getty Image
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An extraordinary diary from Guantanamo Bay reveals the failure of American democracy

Detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi's account of the camp is heartbreaking. But it is crucial the truth is told.

Guantanamo Diary
Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Edited by Larry Siems
Canongate, 381pp, £20

Thirteen years after it opened, the literature on the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has become extensive. There are works of journalism, collections of documents, scholarly analyses, novels and some searing memoirs, such as those by the former detainees Ahmed Errachidi and Moazzam Begg. But there has never been a book quite like this: an account by a prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, of his abduction, rendition and sustained torture, composed inside Guantanamo’s concentric layers of concrete and razor wire.

It has taken a decade to bring it to press, an achievement that required years of litigation, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Even now, the declassified version of Slahi’s text contains redactions, some of them pages long, which in places make it disjointed. And it is plain that some of these deletions, insisted on by the Pentagon for reasons of national security, are absurd. On one page, the context suggests that a blacked-out single word must be “tears”. To allow readers to become aware of Slahi’s reaction to yet another abusive incident apparently might imperil American lives.

Meanwhile, ten years after Slahi completed his manuscript – written in a clear and vivid style, though English is his fourth language – he is still a prisoner. Like almost all of Gitmo’s more than 100 remaining detainees, he has never been charged with any crime. Indeed, military prosecutors abandoned all efforts to do so long ago.

Among Gitmo inmates, Slahi, an electrical engineer by trade, is probably unique for another reason, in that his nightmare began when he drove himself to a police station in his home country, Mauritania, in response to a request that he present himself. He imagined he might be gone for at most a few days. Instead, soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks, he found himself interrogated and tortured with mounting intensity at the behest of the US, first in Mauritania, then in Jordan, at the US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan and finally at Gitmo, where he arrived in August 2002. We are familiar with the cases of “extraordinary rendition”, in which the US sent prisoners to various Arab countries to be tortured. Not the least shocking thing about this book is that, for Slahi, by far the most brutal treatment occurred at Guantanamo.

I can only shudder on reading that the worst abuses he endured were taking place when I made my first visit to Gitmo, in the autumn of 2003. This was during the period when General Geoffrey D Miller was commandant of the camp – a man who became infamous when, the following year, photographs revealed what happened after he recommended that Saddam Hussein’s old prison at Abu Ghraib be Gitmoised.

Back then, when the US was still reeling from 9/11, the motivation and sense of mission at Guantanamo were palpable and Miller, like most of his joint task force, fully accepted the Bush administration’s claim that Gitmo inmates were “the worst of the worst”. I was on a sanitised, shepherded press trip but there were still plenty of clues that what was taking place amounted to a flagrant abuse of the Geneva Conventions.

But just how bad this was getting, I had no idea. Slahi’s editor, Larry Siems, supplies informative footnotes, which demonstrate that this account is supported by copious, now public, official records. It is therefore safe to conclude that when Slahi describes being kept for weeks on end in freezing temperatures, being shackled in agonising positions for hour after hour, being doused with icy water, being made to wear a special torture suit lined with ice and being beaten so badly that he felt he was “breathing through his ribs”, he is telling the truth. He also writes that when he went on hunger strike, he was told he would be “fed up your ass” – subjected to what last year’s Senate intelligence committee report termed “rectal feeding”, a revolting and dangerous practice that the report’s authors showed was commonplace.

Slahi’s interrogators were convinced that because he had fought against the communists in Afghanistan in 1990-91 and because his cousin was a first-generation al-Qaeda leader, albeit one who had denounced 9/11, Slahi was a terrorist mastermind, a crucial figure in the thwarted “millennium plot” in California and the originator of a scheme to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto.

All of this was fantasy. But finally, after many months, he broke, a process he explains with heartbreaking honesty. “I tried to make myself look as bad as I could, which is exactly the way you can make your interrogator happy . . . I had to wear the suit US Intel tailored for me, and this is what I did.” A few weeks later his reward was to be allowed to read a short letter from his mother – his first contact with his family since his disappearance, 815 days earlier.

I went back to Gitmo in summer 2013 and found it very different. Barack Obama had promised to close it on his second day in office in 2009 and signally failed to achieve this. The result was a pervading sense of listlessness: depressed and homesick soldiers guarding visibly ageing inmates, with no end in sight. For this, Obama blames the Republicans in Congress. Yet in 2010 Slahi won a habeas corpus action in the federal district court. He would be free now – if the Obama administration had not promptly filed, then won, an appeal, so that Slahi’s long limbo in Gitmo’s legal black hole continues.

Slahi ends with a question: “So has the American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks? I leave this judgement to the reader,” he writes. Having read his extraordinary and overwhelming account, I feel the answer is not in doubt.

David Rose writes for the Mail on Sunday. His book “Guantanamo: America’s War on Human Rights” is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.


Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.