By Andy Worthington, June 7, 2016
Last Thursday, one of the few well-known prisoners at Guantánamo, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 45-year old Mauritanian, became the 43rd prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board. Slahi was subjected to a specially tailored torture program in Guantánamo, approved by Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and, though still imprisoned, is a best-selling author. While imprisoned, he wrote a memoir that, after a long struggle with the U.S. government, was published in redacted form. Nevertheless, the power of Slahi’s account of his life, his rendition, his torture and his long years in Guantánamo, is such that the book, Guantánamo Diary, has become a best-seller.
Although the Bush administration attempted to make a case that Slahi was a member of Al-Qaeda, which was why they put pressure on the Mauritanian government to hand him over to them in November 2001, and why he was subsequently tortured in Jordan (on behalf of the U.S.) and in Guantánamo by U.S. operatives, the case evaporated under scrutiny. In April 2010, Judge James Robertson, a U.S. District Court judge, after scrutinizing his habeas corpus petition, ordered his release, finding that the government had failed to establish that what looked suspicious in his case — primarily, the fact that he was related to senior Al-Qaeda member Abu Hafs, and, while living in Germany, had met some of the 9/11 hijackers and had helped them to visit Afghanistan for military training — was actually evidence of involvement with Al-Qaeda. Slahi has admitted that he had joined Al-Qaeda, but that was in 1992, when he had visited Afghanistan during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and he insisted that he had not maintained any contact with the organization after that time.
The government, however, refused to accept Judge Robertson’s ruling, and appealed, and in November 2010 the D.C. Circuit Court vacated that ruling, sending it back to the lower court to be reconsidered, where, as I described it in an article about Slahi’s case in April, "it has languished ever since, mocking all notions of justice every day it has remained unaddressed."
Judge Robertson was not the first U.S. official to act on Slahi’s behalf, based on the evidence — or a lack of it. As Jess Bravin explained for the Wall Street Journal:
The Marine officer assigned to prosecute Mr. Slahi before a military commission, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, uncovered details of the interrogation program, which in addition to physical abuse included a mock execution of Mr. Slahi and a threat to take his mother prisoner and place her amid Guantánamo’s all-male population. Col. Couch said it was an implicit threat that Mr. Slahi’s mother would be raped.
After reviewing reports showing that weeks of physical and psychological abuse had induced Mr. Slahi to hallucinate, Col. Couch told superiors the case couldn’t be prosecuted.
Bravin added, "The case has been shelved ever since, leaving U.S. officials uncertain how it can be resolved." He also pointed out that, "After the interrogation plan ended, Mr. Slahi received privileged treatment at Guantánamo, including his own quarters and a garden to tend, as well as telephone calls to his relatives." What he neglected to mention was that this took place after Slahi had been broken by torture, and had become what the authorities regarded as a useful informant, although that is a conclusion that doesn’t seem to be borne out by what is in the classified military files relating to the prisoners, as released by Wikileaks in 2011.
Another man who knows Slahi’s case, and who spoke to the Guardian, is Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the military commissions, who resigned in 2007, after he was placed in a chain of command under William J. Haynes, the Pentagon’s chief lawyer, who supported using information obtained through torture as evidence.
Davis "recalled meeting Slahi on multiple occasions in 2006 and 2007," and, as Spencer Ackerman described it, Slahi, who was "considered a sufficiently compliant detainee to receive housing privileges, brewed hot mint tea for the prosecutor, despite the baking Cuban heat." Davis said he had received what he described as "an ‘extensive briefing’ on Slahi from investigators who had looked into his case for years," as a result of which he "declined to charge Slahi with any offense." As he put it, "The consensus was there was no proof he did anything hostile towards the United States.”
Slahi’s PRB is the first opportunity he has had since 2010 to ask to be freed. The PRBs were set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not facing trials (just ten of the remaining 80 prisoners), and not already approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he first took office in January 2009. They work like parole boards, and, for prisoners to be recommended for release, require agreement from all those involved — representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Those facing the PRBs are, for the most part, men described as "too dangerous to release" by the task force, which, however, also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial; in other words, that it was not evidence at all, but unreliable information extracted through the use of torture or other forms of abuse. 41 men were regarded as "too dangerous to release," and 23 others were initially recommended for prosecution by the task force, but were made eligible for PRBs instead when, in 2012-13, judges in the appeals court in Washington, D.C. dismissed some of the few convictions secured in Guantánamo’s military commission trial system.
However, since the PRBs began at the end of 2013, 33 cases have so far been decided, and in 24 of those cases the boards have recommended the men for release, discrediting the task force’s decision, back in 2010, to describe them as "too dangerous to release." This is a success rate overall of 73%, although it is less for those who had initially been put forward for prosecution, a category that includes Slahi. Of the five cases so far decided for men initially recommended for prosecution, just two men have been recommended for release, and three for ongoing imprisonment. For further information, see our definitive Periodic Review Board list here.
For Slahi’s PRB, his personal representatives (military personnel appointed to help prisoners prepare for their reviews) were clearly impressed by him — describing him as "uniquely talented," and as "one of the most compliant detainees with the detention staff," whose "conduct has continuously been exceptional." They also called him "an advocate for peace," who, "[o]n several occasions … expressed that his intention is to live a life free of violence, where he can be a provider for his adopted children and teach them not to make the same transgressions he has made," and also explained that he "understands his past mistakes and during detention has pursued a new direction in life."
Theresa Duncan, one of his attorneys, who has represented him for over ten years (along with Nancy Hollander), also spoke warmly about him, noting that he "does not present any threat to the United States nor has he ever taken any hostile action against our country," and adding, "In all the years I have known him, Mohamedou has never even expressed hostility to the United States or its people." Duncan also noted "the meaningful relationships" he has "developed with individual people" — the military personnel who "have given him books, movies, clothing, and other souvenirs to mark those relationships," and she specifically mentioned the guard who, in a first, submitted a letter to the PRB, stating that, "based on his interactions with Mohamedou at Guantánamo, be ‘would like to eventually see [Mohamedou] again’ and ‘would be pleased to welcome’ Mohamedou into his home."
Duncan also addressed some of the claims made by the authorities in their unclassified summary (where Slahi was described as Mahamedou Ould Slahi). In the summary, it was noted that he "traveled from Germany to Afghanistan in 1991 and again in 1992 to join the mujahidin in their fight against the Afghan communist regime. There, he trained at al-Qa'ida's al-Farouq camp, swore bay'at to al-Qa'ida, and prepared to fight at the Battle of Gardez." As she explained, the attorneys "submitted a report from an expert in the field of terrorism," who "spent seven years as a case officer with the CIA, most of which was devoted to supporting the Afghan insurgency against the communists in the 1980s and 90s," and who "explains the differences between al Qaeda in the early 1990s, when it and the United States were aligned, and the al Qaeda that came into being much later, with which Mohamedou played no part."
The summary also claimed that, "Between trips, he recruited for the Afghan jihad," and that, "[f]or the next nine years, [he] lived mostly in Germany, spending time in Canada and Mauritania, and recruited primarily for the Bosnian and Chechen jihads." The summary added that he "facilitated the travel of future 9/11 operational coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh (YM-10013) and two future 9/11 hijackers to Chechnya via Afghanistan in 1999," and that he "was arrested in Senegal in January 2000 and moved to Mauritania, where he was arrested again in November 2001." Despite these efforts to portray him as some sort of full-time recruiter for jihad during this period, the summary contradicted these claims by explaining that, throughout this time, he actually "worked as an engineer at various technology companies and developed extensive electronics and computer skills."
He certainly did meet bin al-Shibh and two of the 9/11 hijackers, and helped with their travel, but other aspects of the summary are clearly untrue. He wasn’t, for example, "arrested again in November 2001" in Mauritania, but was seized by his own government, at the request of the U.S., so that he could be rendered to torture in Jordan — not quite the lawful apprehension that being "arrested" suggests.
Moreover, as Theresa Duncan also notes, the allegations in the government’s profile "were also made in Mohamedou's habeas case," when "[t]he court rejected those allegations as a basis for the government's detention of Mohamedou."
The unclassified summary also addressed Shahi’s nation of jihad, which his personal representatives also discussed, noting that he "denounces any violent form of jihad. For him, jihad means to simply uphold your responsibilities and to take care of your family." The government’s summary largely recognized this, noting that, "Throughout his detention, [Slahi] has maintained his support for jihad, but clarifies that his notion of jihad neither condones the killing of innocent people nor supports Bin Ladin's 'version of justice.'"
The summary also noted that Slahi "has criticised U.S. policies several times," but added that "his complaints are directed at the American Government, not the American people." It was also noted that, "On several occasions, [he] has expressed to interrogators his intention to pursue a non-extremist life after Guantánamo, preferably back in Germany," which also reflects his lawyers’ perspective.
The summary also noted that, "If repatriated to Mauritania, [Slahi] probably would reunite with his family, take care of his sisters, and start a business," adding that, "If the Mauritanian Government did not restrict [his] travel, he probably would travel internationally to promote his book Guantánamo Diary, which was released in January 2015. He might also pursue relocation to Germany if he was not satisfied with his reintegration assistance in Mauritania."
In conclusion, the summary claimed that Slahi "established a broad network of terrorist contacts while living in Germany, Canada, and Mauritania," adding that, "Although most of his extremist contacts have since been detained or killed, [his] relation to Abu Hafs al-Mauritani — a former al-Qa'ida senior leader currently residing in Mauritania — could provide him with an avenue to reengage, should he decide to do so."
I don’t believe it is accurate to describe Slahi as having "established a broad network of terrorist contacts," and, moreover, as Theresa Duncan explained, with regard to the Abu Hafs allegation, Slahi’s lawyer secured a submission from Abu Hafs, who pointed out that "he cooperated with American authorities upon his return to Mauritania in 2012, meeting with members of the FBI over the course of two months. Since then, he has had no contact with law enforcement and lives a peaceful life in Mauritania."
Below I’m posting the full text of the personal representative’s opening statement, and of Theresa Duncan’s statement, but before that I’d like to leave the final word on Slahi’s PRB to Col. Morris Davis, who also wrote to the PRB on his behalf.
"We’ve had him confined at Guantánamo for nearly 14 years," Col. Davis told the Guardian. "If we can’t muster enough evidence to charge him with something in that length of time, then how do we justify continuing to incarcerate him? Would we shrug and say ‘OK’ if an American was imprisoned for 14 years without ever been charged, much less tried and convicted?"
Davis added, "I haven’t seen him in nearly nine years and I can’t guarantee what he will or won’t do in the future, but I lose more sleep worrying about threats within our borders than I do about Mohamedou Slahi."
Periodic Review Board, 2 June 2016
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, ISN 760
Personal Representative Statement
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the board. We are the Personal Representatives for ISN 760. Thank you for the opportunity to present Mr. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's case.
During his time at Guantánamo Bay, Mohamedou has been one of the most compliant detainees with the detention staff. His conduct has continuously been exceptional. Ever since he arrived at Guantánamo Bay, Mohamedou has been an advocate for peace. On several occasions, Mohamedou expressed that his intention is to live a life free of violence, where he can be a provider for his adopted children and teach them not to make the same transgressions he has made.
Mohamedou understands his past mistakes and during detention has pursued a new direction in life. He believes what al-Qa'ida has done is wrong and wants nothing to do with the organization or its members. Mohamedou strongly desires peace and denounces any violent form of jihad. For him, jihad means to simply uphold your responsibilities and to take care of your family.
Mohamedou is uniquely talented and can speak multiple languages very well including English. He has been extremely productive in taking advantage of the numerous learning and life improvement opportunities provided to him. He is self-educated in multiple subjects and has technical computer skills he can rely on for employment. Some of his greatest suffering at Guantánamo has been from the fact he cannot provide for his family while in detention. In this regard, Mohamedou plans to pursue a small business and write books to support himself and other family members. Additionally, his family has expressed a desire to help support him as necessary and enable him to lead a simple life after detention. Multiple family members and friends have also pledged to provide him financial support. Mohamedou's brother, who works as a computer engineer, will support him financially whether he is released to live in Germany, Mauritania or any other location the board sees fit.
We are certain that Mohamedou's intentions after Guantánamo are genuine, that he possesses sound judgment, and that he is good for his word. We firmly believe he does not represent a continued significant threat to the United States of America. Mohamedou is open to transfer to any country, but would prefer Mauritania or Germany where he can be a productive member of society and care for his dependent children.
Thank you for your time and attention. We are pleased to answer any questions you may have throughout these proceedings.
Opening Statement of Private Counsel Theresa Duncan
My name is Theresa Duncan and I am private counsel for Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I have represented Mohamedou for over a decade. In that time, I have come to know Mohamedou well, having spent hundreds of hours meeting with him. I also know members of his family well, as I have spoken with them many times and visited them for two weeks in Mauritania in 2014.
Mohamedou does not present any threat to the United States nor has he ever taken any hostile action against our country. In all the years I have known him, Mohamedou has never even expressed hostility to the United States or its people. Despite all that the U.S. government has done to him, Mohamedou has made clear he holds no grudge against anyone at Guantánamo. Indeed, as noted in his book, Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou dreams to one day have tea with the military personnel he met at Guantánamo "after having learned so much from one another."
I am happy to address in detail any allegations against Mohamedou, and Mohamedou is too. We expect much of that will need to be covered in the closed session. However, I wish to make two general points in response to the unclassified Guantánamo Detainee Profile. First, the allegations in that profile were also made in Mohamedou's habeas case. The court rejected those allegations as a basis for the government's detention of Mohamedou.
In 2010, after reviewing all the government's evidence and listening to Mohamedou testify under oath for a day and a half, federal Judge James Robertson concluded Mohamedou was not a member of al Qaeda at the time of his capture in 2001 and ordered his immediate release. [In a footnote, Theresa Duncan added, "Judge Robertson ruled on three Guantánamo habeas petitions before retiring in 2010. Mohamedou's was the only petition Judge Robertson granted. Ironically, the two men whose petitions Judge Robertson denied have been released from Guantánamo"]. Although the government appealed that decision and Mohamedou's case was then sent back to the district court, Judge Robertson remains the only independent person to have reviewed all the evidence in the case to date. Relatedly, a former chief prosecutor for the military commissions investigated the case against Mohamedou and concluded, "there is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Slahi ever engaged in any acts of hostility towards the United States."
Second, the allegations regarding Mohamedou's travels to and actions in Afghanistan in the early 1990s must be considered in their historical context. To this end, we have submitted a report from an expert in the field of terrorism. This expert spent seven years as a case officer with the CIA, most of which was devoted to supporting the Afghan insurgency against the communists in the 1980s and 90s. He explains the differences between al Qaeda in the early 1990s, when it and the United States were aligned, and the al Qaeda that came into being much later, with which Mohamedou played no part.
Mohamedou has had no disciplinary infractions at Guantánamo. None. But perhaps what is most striking about Moharnedou's interactions with detention staff are the meaningful relationships he developed with individual people. Over the years, military personnel have given him books, movies, clothing, and other souvenirs to mark those relationships. I have personally witnessed the warm interactions between Mohamedou and the men and women who guard him.
Included in the materials we have submitted to the Board is a letter from a former guard who writes that, based on his interactions with Mohamedou at Guantánamo, be "would like to eventually see [Mohamedou] again" and "would be pleased to welcome" Mohamedou into his home.
Mohamedou has also developed deep and enduring relationships with his lawyers. As my co-counsel, Nancy Hollander, writes in her submission to you: "If I could invite him to my home in the U.S., I would gladly have him stay with me as long as he wished." I feel the same way. Mohamedou has become a dear friend to me and to Nancy. Before I visited Mauritania, Mohamedou told his family about me to help them prepare for my visit. I was touched by the special meals the family prepared at Mohamedou's request and by the care I was shown throughout my visit. It reminded me of the care Mohamedou has always shown Nancy, me and others during our visits with him.
At Guantánamo, Mohamedou has continued his education and worked to stay abreast of developments in computer technology. At his request, detention staff and counsel have provided Mohamedou with computer programming books. For years, he had access to a computer that he used to practice his skills. He has perfected his English and learned Spanish and Turkish. He reads voraciously, writes fiction and poetry, and has begun studying art as a way to keep his mind active.
Mohamedou is a natural teacher. Over the years he has helped guards and other detainees with their studies. During his phone calls with his family, Mohamedou encourages his nieces and nephews to continue their education and I know he looks forward to helping them with their studies when he is released.
Mohamedou has a large support network committed not just to his peaceful reintegration after release, but to helping him achieve personal and professional success, either in Mauritania, his home country, or in Germany, where he once lived and still thinks of as a home. We have provided a letter confirming that the Mauritanian government will welcome him home if he is returned there. Mauritania has a history of successfully reintegrating former Guantánamo prisoners, having done so twice before. We have included declarations from two former Guantánamo detainees describing their positive experiences upon their return to Mauritania. Mohamedou's friends and family have committed to provide him with personal support. Two friends, one who works for the Mauritanian government and another who is a respected physician, have committed to help him secure employment.
Mohamedou's oldest brother can provide him employment as an accountant in his retail business. His youngest brother is a German citizen who would provide housing and other support should Mohamedou be released to Germany. Mohamedou also wants a career as a writer regardless of where he lives. The American editor of his book has committed to work with Mohamedou on future literary projects.
Mohamedou's legal team is fully committed to providing whatever assistance is necessary to assure his success. Nancy and I intend to travel to wherever Mohamedou is sent and to stay as long as necessary to help him restart his life. Our co-counsel at the ACLU will visit him, too, and will provide reintegration support, including through their connections within the international NGO community. A board-certified psychiatrist, who is a retired Brigadier General, has submitted information to you about Mohamedou's resilience and positive capacity for reintegration. To help ensure a successful transition from years of detention, he has agreed to travel to wherever Mohamedou is sent and to spend several weeks with him to assist in his transition.
The unclassified profile expresses a concern that Mohamedou's relation to Abu Hafs al Mauritani "could provide him with an opportunity to reengage, should he decide to do so." This concern is misplaced. There is no evidence that Moharnedou seeks to do anything other than live a peaceful, productive life after his release from Guantánamo. And as Abu Hafs explains in the declaration we submitted to you, he cooperated with American authorities upon his return to Mauritania in 2012, meeting with members of the FBI over the course of two months. Since then, he has had no contact with law enforcement and lives a peaceful life in Mauritania.
In conclusion, Mohamedou will not pose any threat to the United States if he is released. He is poised to contribute to his family and his community. He has the support of his family and friends, including those of us who have gotten to know him at Guantánamo. I hope that you will understand why that is when you talk with him today. We ask you to approve Mohamedou's transfer from Guantánamo.