End 17 Years Of Injustice

As Mohamedou Ould Slahi is Denied a Passport, Remember That All Former Guantánamo Prisoners Live Without Fundamental Rights

Mohamedou Ould Slahi photographed in Mauritania after his release from Guantánamo.

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By Andy Worthington, March 14, 2019

In the long quest for justice for the 779 men and boys held at Guantánamo, it’s not just the 40 men still held who are victims of the U.S.’s contempt for the law in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Although they, shamefully, remain held indefinitely without charge or trial, or are charged in a broken trial system, the military commission, that seems incapable of delivering justice, those who have been released from the prison also face problems that, in many cases, will make the rest of their lives a misery.

This is an important fact that those paying attention were reminded of two weeks ago, when Literary Hub published an article about the tribulations of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, torture survivor and best-selling author, who, after nearly 15 years in U.S. custody, was released in his native Mauritania in October 2016.

Although he was never charged with a crime, along with the majority of former Guantánamo prisoners, Slahi expected that there would be restrictions on his freedom following his release, and, sure enough, as Literary Hub described it, "the day after he returned to Nouakchott, Mauritania’s director of state security told him that he couldn’t leave the country for two years."

The article continued: "Although Slahi said he received no formal document outlining those terms, he accepted them. So when the two-year anniversary of his discharge from Guantánamo passed in October, Slahi expected to be granted his passport. But the Mauritanian government denied his application, he said, leaving him in limbo once again."

As of the end of February, his lawyer, Brahim Ebetty, was "preparing to file a petition with Mauritania’s Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization asking it to issue Slahi’s passport immediately." Larry Siems, the editor of Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, and around 200 other people "from the human rights, academic, and literary communities" have signed a letter of support, urging the Mauritanian government to grant Slahi "the freedom of movement to which he is entitled under domestic and international law." If you want to sign the letter, you can do so here.

The letter also notes that Slahi "requires advanced medical treatment for conditions associated with his ordeal of detention and abuse," adding that a physician in Germany "has offered to oversee and cover all costs associated with his treatment" — for the "headaches, nightmares, and chronic pain that have plagued him since he left Guantánamo," as Literary Hub described it.

"I need my freedom. I need it now," Slahi told the literary magazine.

Literary Hub noted that it "remains unclear" why the Mauritanian government won’t return Slahi’s passport, but Slahi himself suspects that it relates to whatever classified agreement was undertaken between the governments of the U.S. and Mauritania prior to his release. These agreements are never made public, but last year the New York Times noted that third countries accepting former prisoners "provide basic assistance while monitoring them," and, "typically, the receiving countries also agreed not to let the former detainees travel for two or three years, leaving ambiguous what would come next."

In seeking answers, Literary Hub approached the U.S. State Department, but a spokesperson referred them to the Mauritanian government. When the magazine approached the Mauritanian government, however, phone calls and emails to the Mauritanian embassy in Washington and the Mauritania Permanent Mission to the United Nations were not returned.

Slahi not only needs to travel for medical care; he also wants, and should be able to travel abroad to engage with supporters of his writing. As Literary Hub explained, "Guantánamo Diary has been published in more than two dozen countries and languages. And Slahi has continued to write since returning to Mauritania, where he recently completed a novel — for which he is seeking a publisher — and is working on several other projects."

The letter of support for him notes that some of the signatories "have hosted him in events and have invited him to share his writing in our universities via Skype," adding, "As rich as these exchanges have been, however, they are limited by time and technology in ways that deny both Mr. Slahi and his hosts and audiences many of the opportunities to share stories and ideas that face-to-face encounters would offer." This is an extremely valid point, but as it, at least in part, relates to U.S. universities, it is also worth bearing in mind that no released Guantánamo prisoner has ever set foot in the U.S. or is ever likely to under current circumstances.

For now, however, it is Slahi’s medical concerns that preoccupy him. Asked if he looked forward to embarking on a literary tour, he replied that he couldn’t think "beyond his medical concerns at this point." As he said, "The only thing that I’m concentrated on now is getting my medical treatment. I really, really, need to … be a healthy person. And then from there, when I get to the next bridge, I’ll cross it."

Dr. Alexandra Moore, co-director of the Human Rights Institute at the State University of New York at Binghamton, who has been working with Larry Siems on getting support for the petition, told Literary Hub that she "includes Guantánamo Diary in the courses she teaches and hosted a Skype event last year where Slahi spoke with her students," and said that she "is compelled by the diary as both a work of literature and record documenting the failure of the U.S. after 9/11 to uphold its commitment to human rights, rebranding the torture practices banned by the Geneva Conventions as 'enhanced' or 'special' interrogation."

As she put it, "What strikes me about Guantánamo Diary is that it tells us a lot about Mohamedou, but it also tells us a lot about the U.S. and the workings of the security state." She added, as Literary Hub described it, that "she admires Slahi as a person who promotes the values of non-violence and ethical communication that are so crucial to the cause of international human rights."

Again, in her words, "It’s clear from being with him and from reading his work, his commitment to peace and to community, to understanding across cultures illuminates Slahi’s openness to everyone around him and his willingness not to do what was done to him, but instead to take each encounter as a chance to establish a personal relationship, even as he’s being abused." This ability to rise above what was done to him — and, in fact, to stress that only forgiveness liberates those who have been subjected to torture and abuse — is indeed an extraordinary strength on his part, which I have written about previously, after Larry Siems told me about it.

On Skype, Slahi told Literary Hub’s reporter, Jen DeGregorio, that he was hopeful that the law would eventually resolve his current predicament.

"I will get my rights peacefully, going to court and going through the right channels," he said, adding, "Isn’t that what everybody wants, my people and your people, that everybody is treated within the rule of law and that peace be everywhere in the world?"

"Enemy combatants" forever stripped of all rights

That is certainly true of those who oppose the existence of Guantánamo, but those who set up the prison, and those who have continued to support its lawlessness over the last 17 years, have no interest not only in Slahi’s particular case, but also in the cases of all the other former prisoners — everyone ever held at the prison who is still alive — who will continue to be branded as "enemy combatants" for the rest of their lives — unless, eventually, concerted action is taken by those who respect the law to hold the U.S. to account.

It was noted above that Slahi and those representing him cannot get access to whatever decisions were taken about him, between the U.S. and Mauritanian governments, at the time of his release, but it’s important to remember that the same problem afflicts every other former Guantánamo prisoner.

In the early days of Guantánamo, prisoners were told not to speak about what happened to them, because otherwise the U.S. would sweep them up and take them back to Guantánamo. This was no doubt an idle threat, and no one was swept up and returned to Guantánamo after their release, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that deals were made between the U.S. government and the prisoners’ home governments, and that details of these deals have never been made public — as well as the fact that whatever deals are arranged have absolutely no context in international law.

The status of the "un-people" of Guantánamo is a peculiarly aberrant post-9/11 creation, and one that cannot be allowed to stand forever.

Currently, however, the pernicious influence of the lifelong designation as an "enemy combatant" can be seen everywhere. Former prisoners are routinely denied passports — but for how long, and under whose jurisdiction, isn’t made clear. Is the long hand of the U.S. involved? Or do prisoners’ home governments make their own decisions? It may be one or the other, but the decisions are never transparent.

And, whether or not the U.S. is behind it, prisoners’ own governments can also readily avail themselves of the peculiar non-status of former prisoners, who can, when those governments wish, be regarded as more dangerous than any convicted prisoners, even though almost all of them have never been charged with any crime, let alone convicted, and all we can really say with any clarity is that they were the victims of abuse and sometimes torture, inflicted by the U.S. and its allies.

Moreover, even when prisoners are theoretically allowed to travel, states avail themselves of opportunities to thwart ex-prisoners’ travel plans whenever they feel like it. Recently, a former prisoner from another E.U. country — an E.U. national — intended to visit London to interview me, but although he had a valid ticket and all his paperwork was in order, a British official, interviewing him in his home country before his flight took off, delayed him so that he missed his flight.

This is just one example of the ways in which former prisoners are routinely abused by their own governments, or by others. And in the case of the British national Moazzam Begg, who has regularly had his travel plans disrupted, an even more sinister development took place in 2014, when, after he had travelled to Syria, where he had been gathering information about the Assad regime’s notorious torture prisons, he was arrested, and imprisoned — re-imprisoned — for seven months until, when his trial date came around, the prosecution dropped the case, claiming that documents had come into their possession showing that MI5 had been aware of, and had consented to, Begg's travels to Syria, as Begg had insisted all along. It remains more likely, therefore, that Begg’s imprisonment was staged by the British government as a warning to young British Muslims not to travel to Syria.

For former prisoners released in third countries — generally because it was considered unsafe for them to be repatriated — the situation is arguably even worse, because there is absolutely no precedent for people held by the U.S. at Guantánamo without rights to then be transferred to a third country, where they cannot call upon any of the presumed rights that come with nationality.

As has been shown since Donald Trump came to power, with his colossal indifference towards the fate of former prisoners, which has involved him shutting down the office of the State Department envoy who used to deal with transfers, the former prisoners’ lack of rights has, in two cases, led to men being sent back from the country of their re-settlement, Senegal, to their home country, Libya, where they disappeared and are presumed dead, and in 23 others, has led to men sent to the UAE at the end of Obama’s presidency, to be freed after passing through an ill-defined rehabilitation program, being, in an unknown number of cases, still imprisoned three years later.

In another case, Mansoor Adayfi, a talented writer resettled in Serbia, came into conflict with the government, who then threatened to send him to a Middle Eastern country with a poor human rights record. This didn’t happen, but not because Adayfi had any formal status whatsoever. Outside support and publicity, including from Close Guantánamo, helped him, but legally he — and numerous other former prisoners settled in third countries — remains a kind of ghost.

The examples above show how important it is for Donald Trump to appoint a new envoy for Guantánamo, but I also think it clearly shows that it is time for the international community to come together to demand that the disgraceful labeling of people as "enemy combatants," forever under suspicion, and forever without rights, needs to be brought to an end. If this is of interest to you, then please get in touch to discuss how we might take it forward, as it is, I confess, something of a long-term plan of mine.