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