International Committee of the Red Cross

‘Guantánamo Diary’: A tale of American torture

Journal of Mauritanian captive who remains in the prison offers vivid accounts of alleged abuse by interrogators

President Barack Obama admitted in August that “we tortured some folks.” Now one of those folks has published a graphic account of what it meant to be on the receiving end of the George W. Bush administration’s interrogation techniques. “You don’t know how terrorizing it is for a human being to be threatened with torture,” writes Mohamedou Ould Slahi in “Guantánamo Diary.” “One literally becomes a child.”

The book, released Jan. 20, is Slahi’s account of his time in the U.S. military’s island prison and the journey that led him there. After nearly seven years of intense litigation, the manuscript of the captive’s diary was released by U.S. authorities — but not before it was subject to more than 2,500 redactions. The author’s account begins more than a decade ago, includes accounts of his torture at Guantánamo and concludes in 2005. Although a federal judge ordered Slahi’s release in 2010, that ruling was later overturned by an appeals court, and he remains incarcerated more than 12 years after arriving at Guantánamo. 

According to Slahi’s account of efforts to break him down, the process began with his being deprived of his “comfort items,” such as books (including his Quran), soap, toothpaste and toilet paper. He says that the temperature was turned down in his cell — “I was shaking most of the time”— and that he was deprived of sleep over 70 days of interrogation. But this was only the beginning.

Slahi hails from Mauritania and had left home at 18 to study in Germany on a scholarship. It was from Europe that he traveled to Afghanistan to join the network of foreign volunteers that became Al-Qaeda in what had been a U.S.-backed fight against the Soviet-backed regime. He says he had no further connection with the group after 1992, when he returned to Germany and completed his engineering degree. He worked there, then in Canada before returning to Mauritania in 2000. He left Canada, he said, mainly because “the U.S. had pitted their security services on me.” But, he writes from Guantánamo, “being watched is better than being put in jail, I now realize.” 

Slahi writes that his interrogators at Guantánamo told him to confess that he is Muslim and Arab — as if that were enough to convict him. “If you don’t cooperate, we’re going to put you in a hole and wipe your name out of our detainee database,” he says he was told. His hands were shackled to his feet and waist and chained to the floor.

In vivid descriptions, he details how he was taken to a “reservation” — an appointment for abuse. The “torture squad” entered the room. “I had to suffer every-inch-of-my-body pain the rest of the day,” he says. The torture allegedly lasted until those inflicting it exhausted “their resources of humiliations for that day.”

In one of several damning observations about the role of medical personnel in U.S. abuse of detainees, Slahi describes being taken to a doctor: “To know how much torture a detainee can take, they [his torturers] need medical assistance.” 

He describes being forced to take part in a sexual threesome. He responded by praying, he writes, and was told, “Stop the fucking praying! You’re having sex with American [redacted], and you’re praying? What a hypocrite you are!” 

And he couldn’t stop the torture by confessing, he wrote, because “the problem is that you cannot just admit to something you haven’t done; you need to deliver the details, which you can’t when you haven’t done anything.”

Slahi’s attorney believes that his client’s predicament derives from the network of connections he made while in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and their allies and that he continues to pay a price for having associated with the likes of Osama bin Laden at a time when the Al-Qaeda founder’s efforts had the backing of the United States.

Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo from 2005 to 2007 and now a fierce critic of the facility met Slahi four times in an attempt to persuade him to testify in court cases on the island. He told Al Jazeera that investigators had spent years looking into Slahi’s case and his alleged affiliations, and noticed his presence in certain locations coinciding with key moments in Al-Qaeda's history. “It was odd,” said Morris, but that was all they ever came up with.  The U.S. court that heard Slahi's case came to a similar conclusion, said Morris, that   “associations alone are not enough … to make detention lawful.” 

Slahi also describes being subjected to loud music and flashing lights, being denied the right to wash and at one point being forced to stand for 24 hours. But one of the worst days he endures is what a captor whose name is redacted calls his “birthday party” — a torture session by a “squad so well trained that they were performing almost perfect crimes, avoiding leaving any obvious evidence.”

That session is eventually stopped because the redacted official “was afraid of the paperwork that would result in case of my death.”

At one point in the course of abuse, Slahi describes breaking down when offered a kind word by a guard. “What was wrong with me?” he wrote. “Just one soothing word in this ocean of agony was enough to make me cry.” 

U.S. investigations have revealed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally approved Slahi’s being subjected to “special interrogation techniques” because he was considered a high-value detainee.

His interrogators appear to have decided at one point that a sudden change to his interrogation regimen might produce results. On Monday, Aug. 25, 2003, he wrote, a commando team broke into his interrogation room. He described being punched and told, “Motherfucker, I told you, you’re gone!” According to his account, he was then blindfolded, goggles were placed on his eyes, earmuffs were put on his ears, and his head was covered with a bag. He expected to be executed. Instead, he was taken by truck to a boat, driven out to sea and made to drink saltwater. “It was so nasty, I threw up.” His three hours on the boat, he believes, was to claim that whatever injuries the accompanying beatings caused were the result of an accident during transportation and to make him believe he was being taken to a “faraway secret prison.”

Slahi reflects, “I think when torture comes into play, things get out of control.” 

His journey to Guantánamo began after he was detained by Mauritanian officials in September 2001 and questioned by FBI agents about the so-called millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Mauritanian authorities told the U.S. he was innocent and released him. Two months later, he was asked to return to a police station for questioning. He did so voluntarily. On Nov. 28, 2001, he was taken to Amman, Jordan, under the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program.

In Jordan, according to Slahi, he was interrogated for seven months. “Yes, Jordanians practice torture on a daily basis, but they need a reasonable suspicion to do so,” he writes. In the summer of 2002, he writes, the Jordanians told him, “Your case is closed. You haven’t lied.” He was asked to sign some statements and was asked if he would like to work for them, but he told them he wasn’t qualified.

Slahi believes it was pressure from the U.S. that prompted renewed interrogation by the Jordanians, and on July 19, 2002, he was rendered to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, which is where his Guantánamo nightmare began.

Larry Siems, who edited “Guantánamo Diary,” received Slahi’s 466-page, 122,000-word draft and found a story corroborated by the public record. Siems said he didn’t take on this project with any specific goal in mind. “I just read [the manuscript] because I wanted to know what the human side of this experience was … [Slahi] really captures the lives of Guantánamo, which is the lives of real men and women, encounters and conflicts and also moments of real understanding and generosity.”

Siems believes Slahi should be freed. “It’s very clear,” he says. “And it’s amazing that he is still there.” The public debate over Guantánamo can’t be restricted to generalities, he argues. “You have to deal with individuals and individual justice. I think when you read this [book], you are forced to encounter the question of if this one person should be in Guantánamo. And I think the answer is no.”

That’s a view shared by Morris Davis. “People still look at Gitmo in the abstract,” Davis says. He hopes Slahi’s book makes the reader think, “What if this was me? What if this was my family, my brother? ... These are not blind statistics. These are real people.”

Siems believes Americans can no longer claim ignorance of the abuses at Guantánamo. “We’ve known, even today, that half of the men in Guantánamo have been cleared for release for years, for many years.”

“These are grievous mistakes and serious crimes” that, he says, the U.S. is declining to deal with. “We keep putting it off and putting it off. What we’re doing every day is we’re perpetuating those mistakes and those errors. That’s the really shocking thing.”

Slahi has never been charged with a crime. Nor have any of his torturers.

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