Guantanamo’s ‘most tortured prisoner’ on surviving 14 years of hell

After 9/11 he was imprisoned and tortured by the US — yet never charged with a crime. With a movie based on his ordeal out soon, he tells Christina Lamb how he survived.

From a tent in west Africa, Mohamedou Ould Slahi is sharing his screen to show the movies he has watched recently on YouTube. They are all Polish and he doesn’t understand a word. “This is what the guards used to put on in Guantanamo,” he explains. “Polish and Romanian films we couldn’t understand. I guess I’m trying to recreate my cell, as that’s where I felt comfortable.”

“Crazy, huh?” he shrugs. “Human beings are very complicated.”

Comfortable is the last word anyone would use about the 6ft by 8ft box where he was kept in one of those orange jumpsuits, shackled 24 hours a day, often in freezing temperatures, rap music pounding to stop him sleeping. Subjected to beating, waterboarding and sexual abuse, he has been described as Guantanamo’s most tortured prisoner.

Slahi spent 14 years and two months as Prisoner 760 in America’s most notorious detention centre — yet he was never charged with a crime. Almost seven years of that was after a court ordered that he should be released. When finally told in October 2016 that he was going home, it was, he says, “as if someone had told me I would be going to Mars or Jupiter”.

He was given no apology, no compensation; a medical officer simply said, “760, I declare you fit to fly,” and he was marched blindfolded and earmuffed on to a military plane, just as he had been when first taken there.

In some ways the torture continues. “Sometimes I wake up and cannot breathe,” he says. “I think I’m in Guantanamo Bay and it takes me a long time to realise I’m not. Sometimes I don’t want to talk to people. I close my door and go away.” Sexual abuse from female guards has left him hating to be touched. “I feel physical pain,” he says.

To my surprise he is now married to an American. Hadn’t his experience turned him against the US? “That would be very childish,” he chides me. “If the American government is bad, it doesn’t make American people bad. Tarring people with the same brush is what led to all this.”

The pandemic renders it impossible for me to travel to Slahi’s home in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania; so he is on Zoom, peering at me through fluorescent green-rimmed glasses from what appears to be a small white tent — he later explains it’s his mosquito net. Now watching the rest of the world locked up but in the comfort of their own homes, he laughs: “This is a good time for schadenfreude!”

Yet it is not the pandemic that stops him from travelling to Germany to see his wife and baby son. First he was denied a passport for more than three years; now he is refused visas, including to Britain, owing to pressure from Washington, he claims.

“They don’t want me travelling around talking about Guantanamo or anything that happened,” he says.

The Guantanamo detention centre became notorious during the “war on terror” waged by George W Bush’s administration. Built on a small area of Cuba that America has leased as a naval base since 1903, the site was deliberately chosen for being outside US territory and, it was initially argued, beyond US laws.

As America furiously sought the jihadists responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks, suspects were seized far and wide, many ending up in Guantanamo. When the 9/11 masterminds Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh were captured, they were held and interrogated there. But of 779 prisoners, only eight were convicted and three of those judgments were overturned. While some cases were impossible to prove, other inmates were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After four years of Donald Trump psychodrama, Guantanamo — often known as Gitmo — has been largely forgotten, even though it still holds 40 prisoners. That may be about to change. Slahi’s story has been turned into a big-budget movie, The Mauritanian, starring Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch as opposing lawyers duelling over his fate. Slahi is played by Tahar Rahim, the French-Algerian actor garnering rave reviews as the lead in the BBC series The Serpent. Rahim and Foster have picked up Golden Globe nominations for best actor and best supporting actress for their performances in The Mauritanian.

Although, as Slahi says, “You cannot tell 20 years in less than two hours,” and although the movie focuses as much on the courtroom drama as his ordeal, it is still shocking to see his character being abused by a female guard in a mask and repeatedly dunked underwater from a speedboat. When Slahi visited the set in South Africa (which did give him a visa) he couldn’t watch. “I just closed my eyes,” he says.

It is disconcerting that he appears on my laptop looking exactly like Rahim. He looks younger than his 50 years, laughs a lot and his fluent English is peppered with American expressions — such as “no shit”, “frickin’ ” and various expletives — which he learnt from the Gitmo guards. One of the earliest phrases he learnt was “cavity search”.

The son of a camel herder in Mauritania, Slahi was the ninth of 12 children. He became the great hope of the family when in 1988 he gained a scholarship to study electrical engineering in Germany. There he met other youthful Muslims who told him about the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan and he decided to join the fight against the invaders. “I was young, idealistic and thought doing jihad with the mujahidin was going to bring us freedom,” he says. “I was wrong, but that’s the right of a person to be stupid in a free country. What’s not my right is to commit violence — and I never did.”

As he says, at that point the West and Osama bin Laden’s Arabs were on the same side, supporting the mujahidin fighting the Russians in the last front of the Cold War. Slahi obtained a visa to go first to Peshawar in Pakistan and then on to Afghanistan. “I got my visa from the Bureau of Mujahidin in Bonn, which was a recognised body supported by Germany, the UK and the US.”

As a cub reporter I was in Peshawar at the same time, and the American Club where we journalists used to enjoy cheeseburgers and Budweisers was just along the road from Bin Laden’s guesthouse, where Slahi stayed.

His first trip to Afghanistan lasted just two months. He returned in 1991 for military training but says he didn’t fight. There was also his cousin Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, a poet who later became a spiritual adviser to Bin Laden and adopted the nom de guerre Abu Hafs.

Slahi went back to Germany to finish his degree and, he says, had little contact with his cousin until 1998, when he got a call from Hafs asking for assistance getting money to Mauritania to treat his sick father. Hafs wired $4,000 to Slahi’s German account, which Slahi withdrew and gave to friends travelling to Nouakchott. Only later, Slahi says, did he discover that his cousin had called using Bin Laden’s satellite phone.

The connections to extremists continued. In late 1999 Slahi moved to Montreal, where he prayed at a mosque also attended by Ahmed Ressam, a radical who was arrested in December that year at the US border carrying large quantities of explosives in his car boot. Ressam later confessed he had planned to blow up Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve in what became known as the Millennium Plot. Slahi stayed only a few months in Canada before returning to Mauritania when his mother fell sick, and he was there when the 9/11 terror attacks took place.

A few weeks later, attending his niece’s wedding, he received a summons from the country’s spy chief. Initially he was not too concerned as the state security had already taken him in for questioning twice since his return and then released him. But this time he was put on a flight to Jordan, where he was kept in a secret prison for six months before being flown to Bagram, the biggest US base in Afghanistan. There for the first time he found himself in the custody of American soldiers.

“Where is Mullah Omar [then leader of the Taliban]?” they demanded. “Where is Osama bin Laden?”

Slahi tried to explain he had never met either man. But his links to known jihadists counted against him. He was loaded onto a plane with 33 other detainees, all tied to each other, and on August 5, 2002, landed in Cuba. He was left kneeling for hours in the sun before being processed as Prisoner 760. “I was shackled by my feet, my hands, blindfolded, my ears muffled, hoods, everything. I was like a walking bag.”

He spent the next 30 days in a freezing isolation cell being questioned by the FBI and Canadian and German officers determined to find a connection between him and 9/11. They showed him photos of the 9/11 orchestrator Bin al-Shibh, who had been captured in Pakistan, and they claimed Slahi had recruited him.

“I figured I’ve seen the guy, but where and when?” Slahi wrote in his diary. Eventually he realised that Bin al-Shibh was one of three men who had stayed at his apartment in Germany for a night in October 1999; the other two had been among those who hijacked the 9/11 planes.

When I point out there seem to be an awful lot of coincidences linking him to terrorists — one of the US investigators calls him “the Forrest Gump of al-Qaeda” — he nods.

“Absolutely,” he replies. “All this suspicion is very logical, but that did not mean I was guilty and that’s why the rule of law is very important. You can suspect me of what you want, but it’s not against the law to have friends who are bad people or perceived as bad by government. That’s the difference between democracy and authoritarian regimes. In authoritarian regimes suspicion is enough to kill you, but not in a democracy.”

It took him about a year of Guantanamo, he says, to stop believing US authorities would release him. “That was when they started to introduce real physical torture and sleep deprivation and sexual assault.”

The US military authorities running the prison considered Slahi their highest-value detainee. In May 2003 Slahi’s lead FBI interrogator told him that the military would take over his interrogation. “I wish you good luck,” he added.

For the next 70 days Slahi had little sleep. Interrogations could last 24 hours. In between them his cell was kept so dark he did not know the time of day and the temperature so cold he was shaking. He was alternately starved and force-fed, he says. Having told medical officers he suffered from sciatic nerve pain, interrogators kept him in stress positions that exacerbated this.

One of the worst parts, he says, was the sexual abuse from female guards. “I didn’t understand how painful and how humiliating it is to be sexually assaulted by another person you are not willing to engage with. It really scarred me.”

I tell him that I have interviewed many female survivors who tell me it is impossible to get over sexual abuse. “To this day I have a lot of intimacy issues,” he replies. I ask if he has had counselling. “These things are a big taboo in this part of the world,” he says. “It’s, like, ‘Man up, grow a pair of balls.’ I talk to people I trust and can open up to, and to other victims — a woman who is a very close friend of mine — but it’s hard. Neither of us wants to tell the details or hear the details.”

Yet that was not the worst episode. “The lowest moment was when they said they had decided to kidnap my mother and rape her.” They showed him a forged letter claiming she was in US custody.

Shortly after that, he says, “three masked guys came in with a snarling German shepherd and started beating me really heavily. They blindfolded me. I couldn’t breathe and later found out I had broken ribs. They took me on a boat and started forcing my head into the sea to swallow seawater. Then they gave me to another team of two — one with an Egyptian dialect, one Syrian — who kept beating me, then poured ice cubes between my clothes, then beat me again, then more ice. This went on maybe seven or eight hours.”

It’s so horrendous that I don’t know what to say. This wasn’t some evil dictatorship but 21st-century America. “People are people and unfortunately can commit heinous crimes,” he replies.

That’s when he decided he could take no more. “They threw me into a cell that turned out to be Camp Echo — for special interrogation. They kept me in the dark and when I arrived there, broken, I decided I wanted to tell them everything.”

Slahi confessed he had planned to blow up a skyscraper, the CN Tower in Toronto. How did he feel admitting to something he now says he hadn’t done? “I did not have any feeling,” he says, “just one thing in my head — I don’t want the torture to continue, I don’t want my mother to be kidnapped.”

After he’d said everything he thought his interrogators wanted to hear, one day one of his tormentors walked in with a pillow. A few days later he was given painkillers.

He also received a letter from his mother. His family had had no idea he was in Guantanamo until they had read about it in the German magazine Der Spiegel —they’d thought he was still in custody in Mauritania and had been sending food there.

The following year a new guard arrived called Steve Wood. He and Slahi passed hours talking politics, playing rummy and chess. So disturbed was Wood by what he saw in Guantanamo that he subsequently converted to Islam.

A post shared by Mohamedou Ould Salahi (@mohamedououldsalahi)

Things started to change in 2005, when two lawyers arrived to meet Slahi — Nancy Hollander, an American criminal defence lawyer of international repute, and her assistant Theresa Duncan. Despite earlier claims that Guantanamo was beyond US jurisdiction, the Supreme Court had ruled that inmates could challenge the grounds for their detention. Many detainees refused representation despite some high-profile law firms offering to act for free, because they thought it would legitimise an unjust system. But Slahi saw nothing to lose.

When his lawyers finally gained access to his records they were horrified to find he had made a confession — but even more horrified to read about the torture that preceded it. In March 2010 the district court judge James Robertson ruled that the government’s evidence about Slahi was “so tainted by coercion and mistreatment that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.” He concluded: “Slahi must be released from custody.”

The government appealed. Slahi was stuck and wounded by what he saw as hypocrisy. “One time in Gitmo I saw Hillary Clinton on TV receiving this Chinese blind man who had been imprisoned without due process and China had been nice enough to let him go. He was received as a hero in the US and Hillary was saying China must abide by the rule of law, must respect due process. I was shouting, ‘Please look at me!’ “

I tell him I travelled to Guantanamo in 2011. “Why didn’t you visit me?” he laughs.

It was one of the most surreal places I had ever been to. I flew in on Air Sunshine, driving past the only McDonald’s on Cuban soil, an open-air cinema and signs warning of hefty fines if you run over an iguana — the saying goes that the iguanas have more rights than the inmates.

Slahi’s only solace was writing. As a child he had always wanted to write and teach. “I would write things down anywhere and everywhere,” he says. He wrote a diary of his detention as a series of harrowing letters to his lawyers — 466 pages, which had to be posted to a classified facility near Washington.

In 2012 Slahi’s lawyers won a seven-year legal battle to declassify this information. Government censors redacted names, dates, locations and anything they considered sensitive or embarrassing. Guantanamo Diary was published in 2015 with vast portions blacked out. But as the first account from someone still inside, it became an international bestseller. A year later he was finally released.

“It was beautiful,” he says. “In the beginning it was twilight — I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or asleep.” On his release the US authorities cited his “highly compliant behaviour in detention” and “clear indications of a change in the detainee’s mindset”, yet did not comment on the treatment he had received.

For Slahi, freedom was hard to take in. “It was like a flood of information and everything had changed,” he says. “I felt like the old man in The Shawshank Redemption coming out of jail [after 40 years] and finding everything different, the cars different.

“One of my fantasies in Guantanamo was to have every TV channel so I could watch anything I wanted, so I bought two satellite dishes and two TVs and asked my niece to set up channels.” He was baffled when she told him she watched everything on her phone. “How could I watch a movie on a phone?”

Flashbacks still haunt his nights. The music on his playlist are songs that were pounding over the system into his cell: In da Club by 50 Cent, I Surrender by Celine Dion, Anywhere But Here by Chris Cagle. He prefers online contact to real. “I feel safer to have online friends than real friends because real people you have to listen to, whereas with Twitter or Facebook you can always be offline.”

It was through Twitter that he met Catherine Austin, the American lawyer to whom he is now married. “I liked her tweets so I DM’d her, then we started talking. The rest is history.” Her job is in Berlin and since Slahi could not travel, she went to Mauritania to visit him. They married while she was out there and now have a two-year-old son called Ahmed, who lives with his mother in Berlin.

Denied a visa for Germany to join them, Slahi spends his time writing and lobbying for the release of the remaining 40 Guantanamo prisoners. He is hoping that the new US president, Joe Biden, might finally carry out the pledge by Biden’s former boss Barack Obama finally to close the place. He hopes too that the new administration will end the pressure on other countries not to let him in. Though some of those countries may remain suspicious of him of their own accord, he’d like to move to Germany and visit Britain.

In Mauritania he has been visited by his lawyers and the former guard Steve Wood, who is godfather to Ahmed. The film ends with footage of these encounters, then Slahi himself crooning The Man in Me, a Bob Dylan song that features in the 1998 hit movie The Big Lebowski. He was shown the movie in Guantanamo by Wood and identified with Jeff Bridges’s character, “the Dude”, who is a victim of mistaken identity.

Slahi’s favourite line from the film? The Dude saying with frustration: “You got the wrong guy.”

The Mauritanian is released in NZ cinemas on March 24.

Written by: Christina Lamb
© The Times of London

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