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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The quiet civil war for control of the Labour grassroots machine

The party's newly empowered far left is trying to wrest control of local branches.

“Party time! PARTY TIME!” A young man wearing a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt appears on screen and starts dancing, accompanied by flashing emojis of a red rose and a party popper.

“There’s only one game in town and it’s getting our boy J Corbz into Downing Street”, he announces, and to do that, he is planning to explain the “nitty gritty” of local Labour politics, and, promisingly, “give a little gossip on the way”. The man is Michael Walker of online left-wing outlet Novara Media, and the video has been watched more than 38,000 times on Facebook in just two weeks.

So why should Labour members suddenly be made to care about “structures, factions, conference, selections, rule changes”? “There were shedloads of people who got involved in the Labour Party for the first time by knocking on doors during the general election,” Walker explains, “but to make sure that the Labour Party represents their voices as it goes forward, they’re going to need to take getting involved in Labour’s bureaucratic structures seriously.

“There’s a risk that the party structures and bureaucracy will try and shut down participation in the Labour Party just like they did last summer, and we want to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

While the Parliamentary Labour Party is going into recess as a more united group since the election than it had been in the past two years, there is a quiet war still being fought at local level. Now that their man has proved that he could exceed expectations and turn Labour into a solid opposition, Corbynites want to make sure that the centrists cannot keep a hold on the internal party machine.

This involves projects like Walker’s catchy videos, and Momentum’s Your Labour Conference website, which encourages members to get interested in the election of the conference arrangements committee, in order to have more of a say on what gets discussed at the party’s annual conference.

“We recognise the fact that sometimes the Labour Party can be a bit of a labyrinth and something which can be pretty hard to work out, and we want to push people forward and help them get more involved,” a Momentum spokesperson says. “We’re trying to make it more open and more accessible to younger people and help people understand what’s going on.”

With tens of thousands of people joining Labour over the past few months – including around 20,000 since the election – their intentions seem noble: the Labour party internal structure is, after all, notoriously complex. However, it isn’t clear how the existing members who are involved in local organising – a lot of whom are or were until recently sceptical of Corbyn – will deal with this new influx of activists.

“Corbyn supporters are no longer the underdog in the party, and understandably people who joined recently are highly motivated to get their opinions across, so they’ve been turning up in droves at local meetings,” says Richard Angell, the director of Blairite organisation Progress.

“They’re not brilliantly organised but they’re there, and they turned up with this sense of 'we told you so', so they’re starting to win things that they wouldn’t have before the election.”

Centrist and centre-left Labour factions have often been the most organised campaigners in constituency Labour parties, and they’re now worried that if they were to get ousted, the party would suffer.

“Lots of our members are the people who hold the CLPs together – lots of people turned up in certain places to campaign, and the people who organised the clipboards, the data, did the work to make that happen are still a network of moderates,” Angell adds. “If Momentum tried to sweep them away in a vindictive wave of jubilation, it would backfire, and that’s what they have to think about now.”

Though the people at the helm of Momentum have never explicitly called for a takeover of the party at local level, some CLPs are struggling with bitter infighting. Lewisham is home to some of these battlegrounds. With three CLPs in the borough, the local Momentum branch is trying to gain more power in the local parties to implement the changes they want to see at that level.

“There’s an organised left-wing presence in all three CLPs in Lewisham,” a local Momentum organiser, who did not want to be named, says. “We want the CLPs to become outward-looking campaigning bodies, and we want them to be functionally democratic.”

What the branch also wants is to have a radical rethink of what Labour does at council level, and the activist was critical of what the councillors have been doing.

“Under the right-wing, Lewisham CLPs never really campaign on anything – they’ll occasionally have these set pieces, like the Labour day of action on education, which is good, but in reality there’s no one going campaigning on anything,” he says.

“The other thing is about the record of the council - no-one would deny that Labour councils are in a difficult situation, in terms of getting cut again and again and again, but equally at the moment, the attitude of a lot of Labour councils in Lewisham at least is 'it’s not just that there’s nothing else we could do, we’re actually going to go further than the Tories are demanding'."

“It’s not just that they’re saying 'oh, there’s not really anything we can do to fight back against cuts' but it’s also that they’ve actually absorbed all the neoliberal stuff.”

The response to these allegations from a long-term Labour member, who wants to remain anonymous but is close to the currently serving councillors, was unsurprising.

“It is utterly absurd to suggest that councillors want to cut services – Labour members stand for council because they want to stand up for their community and protect local services,” he says. 

“As for campaigning and taking on the Tories, it was the 'right-wing' Lewisham Council which took the government to the High Court over their plans to close Lewisham Hospital – and won. The 'right wing' CLPs worked tirelessly with the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and we won.”

According to him, Labour is doomed to fail if it doesn’t unite soon, and he worries that left-wing activists may be getting carried away. “The vast majority of members in Lewisham are really pleased with the result and with the way the party pulled together – locally and nationally – for the election campaign,” he says.

“At the second members' meeting after the election, we had a discussion about how we all needed to carry on in the spirit of unity that we'd recently seen, and that if we did so, we have a good chance of seeing a Labour government soon.”

“It's a shame that some people want to label, attack and purge fellow members, rather than working together to beat the Tories. The more they focus on internal, factional in-fighting, the less chance we will have of seeing a Labour government and ending the cuts.”

Beyond the ideological differences which, as the election showed, can mostly be smoothed over when the party senses that it’s getting close to power, an explanation for the Labour left’s occasional bullishness could be its sense of insecurity.

After all, the wave of new members who joined after Corbyn became leader was hardly welcomed by the party’s mainstream, and the narrative quickly turned to Trotskyist entryism instead.

Momentum also spent many of its formative months being treated with suspicion, as a Trojan horse aiming to get MPs deselected, which is yet to happen two years on. Painted as the opposition to the opposition, activists from the Labour’s left had become used to being party pariahs, and need to figure out what to do now that they are in a position of power.

“They’re behaving like an insurgency still, but they’re in charge”, says Angell. “It’s quite a big change in mindset for them, and one I don’t think they’re really ready for.”

“We have shown that we will campaign for the Labour Party anywhere in the country, whoever the candidate is, to try and get the best result in a general election, and there is no acknowledgement of that from them at all.”

This was, amusingly, echoed by the Momentum activist – if there is one thing all factions agree on, it seems to be that the Labour left needs to figure out what it wants from the party machine it’s in the process of inheriting.

“Momentum nationally had a very good election, it mobilised a lot of people to go to marginals, and got a lot of people involved in campaigning, and that’s a step forward, to go from getting people to vote Corbyn to getting them on the doorstep,” he says, “but it’s another step from actually having a vision of how to transform the Labour Party.”

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.