Friday, March 20, 2015

The Cost of Sacrificing Liberty for Security: Guantánamo Diary

A Guantanamo detainee being led by a guard in March 2002. (Photo: Andres Leighton)

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Benjamin Franklin cited by Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantánamo Diary.
On November 20, 2001, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 30-year-old electrical engineer and telecommunications specialist from Mauritania, received a visit at his house from two Mauritanian officers summoning him to answer questions at the country’s intelligence ministry. “Take your car,” one of the men told him, as Slahi stood in front of his house with his mother and his aunt. “We hope you can come back today.” He has not returned. After spending a week in a cell in his native country, the authorities found no evidence against him. However, at the behest of the Americans, Slahi was rendered to a black site in Jordan for six months, and then flown blindfolded, shackled and diapered to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for two weeks; from there he was transported to Guantánamo in Cuba where he remains incommunicable to this day. Three years into his detention, Slahi wrote in basic idiomatic English he obviously picked up from his guards – his fourth language and acquired in Guantanamo – a manuscript which was immediately classified. It took years of litigation and negotiation by Slahi’s pro bono lawyers to force the military to declassify a redacted version, heavily black-barred (that sometimes goes on for pages, some of it to conceal the identity of his interrogators, guards and fellow detainees).

Edited by Larry Siems, Guantánamo Diary (Little, Brown & Company, 2015) is a searing account of one man’s descent into a nightmarish inferno. Slahi’s phantasmagorical experience recalls the fiction of Franz Kafka, a master at delineating the surreal and the illogical, especially The Trial in which Joseph K. is informed by telephone that his case will be briefly examined the following Sunday, which turns out to be only the beginning of his journey through the bureaucracy of terror ending with his death. But I believe that an equally apt analogy may be located in the persecution of the Soviet citizen, Eugenia Ginzburg (1904-77). Her comfortable life as a loyal Party Member and literature teacher was rudely shattered during the Great Terror (1937-38) after she was also informed by telephone to make a brief appearance at NKVD headquarters. As recounted in her extraordinary memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind (1966) and Within the Whirlwind (1981), that request signalled her portal into the juggernaut of Stalinist terror that lasted eighteen years. She never again saw her husband who was later arrested and executed, or one of her two sons who died of starvation in a home for the children of “enemies of the people.”  I recognize that some readers may find the comparison an odious example of moral equivalence, but I think it is entirely appropriate to link the two cases, as did the late historian Tony Judt in an important essay he wrote almost seven years ago: the Soviets dismissed the rule of law as “bourgeois justice,” in post 9/11 America, some members of the Bush administration regarded the rule of law as a luxury that could be dispensed with for anyone labelled an enemy combatant. What distinguishes them – and it is an important difference – is that in America it was still possible for the judiciary to challenge government power when judges ruled that state actions could be unconstitutional, and for lawyers and human rights activists to defend victims of arbitrary state power without finding themselves locked away.

Once Ginzburg was hurled into the Stalinist maw, she was subjected to what was known as the "conveyor" interrogation of seven days without sleep, temperature manipulation of extreme heat and cold, and charged with being a member of the Trotskyite terrorist counter-revolutionary group. No longer considered a human being, she was constantly pressured to name other members of her treasonous group and confess her crimes. Ginzburg did neither and she considered herself fortunate that she was not executed. Instead, she was sentenced to years of hard labour and transported to the goldmines of Kolyma, one of the most formidable and coldest places on earth where her life was spared by the support of good friends, especially a German doctor, with whom she fell in love, who enabled her to acquire inside work first as a nurse than as teacher. A one-time true believer in communism and the Party, she gradually regarded the system as evil and the second volume can be interpreted as her mea culpa.

From the outset, the American military were suspicious of Slahi, not for any alleged involvement in 9/11, but a belief that he had been the Al-Qaeda mastermind behind the “millennium plot,” the 1999 attempt by Ahmed Ressam to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border and blow up the Los Angeles International Airport. Slahi had been in Montreal, although not at the same time as Ressam, but they had prayed at the same mosque. Slahi travelled twice in the early 1990s to Afghanistan in order to fight the Soviet-backed regime, a campaign covertly supported by the Americans, and actions that Slahi always acknowledged. But he left as soon as the Soviets departed, when the various jihadi groups began to fight among themselves. He never denied that he maintained contact with former comrades who had fought in Afghanistan. Because of this background, his associations with known Al-Qaeda operatives, including extended family members, and that he acquired his electrical engineering degree in Germany, the military is convinced that he is an Al-Qaeda recruiter. With his less than six degrees of separation, Slahi is targeted for the myriad interrogation techniques of the “special plan” personally approved by the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, reminiscent of those deployed by the Soviets, recounted by Ginzburg, and dramatized in The Confession the 1970 film based on the autobiography of Artur London, a diplomat who recounts his trajectory into the vortex of paranoia and political madness during the early 1950s Czechoslovakian Party purges.  

 Mohamedou Ould Slahi

These sections from Guantánamo Diary document the torture treatment, a grotesque catalogue of abuses that is chilling to read, confirmed by the release in late 2014 of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on the C.I.A.’s interrogation-and-detention program. Slahi endures long periods of solitary confinement without his Quran and any sanitary amenities; unrelenting freezing temperatures, his suffering compounded by being doused with ice (a punishment that was also inflicted in the Gulag); stress positions, including hours of standing painfully bent over with his hands shackled to the floor that seriously inflamed his sciatic nerve and where he frequently soils himself; beatings about the face and ribs; and sexual abuse where female interrogators rub their breasts against his body and fondle him. He is blindfolded and taken on a three-hour boat ride as part of a mock kidnapping and forced to drink salt water until he vomits. Perhaps worse is the unending sleepless interrogation twenty-four hours a day with guards wearing Halloween-like masks. Not surprisingly, Slahi begins to hallucinate. Broken, he falsely confesses to planning to blow up the Toronto CN Tower, a landmark which he had not previously known existed. He names anyone he has heard about and conjures up incriminating information, anything to stop the pain, a confession that pleases his interrogator prompting him to offer his captive food. Throughout this ordeal, Slahi constantly asks of what he is being accused and never receives a straight answer. It is no surprise that his harrowing treatment yields no valuable information, but it does reveal much about his resilience and the character of his interrogators.

If the Diary consisted of primarily a litany of horrors, it would be a grim undertaking that might discourage potential readers. Yet, because of the insight and humanity of Slahi, it is much more. Despite his constant fear that he will be executed and his family harmed, and the obstacle of the 2,500 redactions, readers can discern his capacity for distinguishing between the loutish sadists who scream obscenities at him, insult his religion and exercise with legal impunity any form of power or abuse to sandbag him, and the terrified young men, including one guard who feels so guilty that he admitted to Slahi that he knew he could “go to hell for what I have done to you,” and also the decent Navy medical officer who attempts to secure medicine for his sciatic nerve condition. He is capable of feeling empathy toward some of the guards as he recognizes that they come from backgrounds of poverty and that they are used by the Army to do the dirty jobs. Slahi’s humour helps to prevent the slide into despair or hatred towards his tormentors. One of my favourite examples occurs when he is in Bagram and is promised that if he tells the truth about his terrorist involvement he will be released immediately but if lies, he will never see his family again and they will be sexually assaulted. He knows what he is hearing is bullshit: “I just wished the government agencies would start to hire smart people.” Like Ginzburg who maintains her humanity by citing Russian poems, Slahi takes solace in his faith grateful that he memorized the Quran before his ordeal begun and prays whenever he can despite the prohibitions of his guards. Both Slahi and Ginzburg are also more upset by the cries of others than by their own suffering. When Slahi’s conditions improve in 2004, likely coinciding with the Iraq transfer of Major General Geoffrey Miller (known for implementing the “special plan”), he receives medicine, food and books ranging from Henry V to Catcher in the Rye, the latter making him laugh so much “that his stomach hurt.” His wry humour and curiosity about Western culture are now more inflected with a gentle irony. When asked to give his guards the names of characters from Star Wars, Slahi comments, “I was forced to represent the forces of Evil, and the guards the Good Guys.” What the reader may find most invaluable about the Diary is that it turns an anonymous orange jumpsuit into a three-dimensional human being, a sensitive, intelligent and victimized individual who harbours no feelings of retribution toward those who have wronged him. He ends with offering his interrogators a challenge leavened with grace and absolution: “That he holds no grudge against any of the people mentioned in this book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.”

Two of the 2,500 redacted pages of Guantánamo Diary.
A sceptic might ask whether sympathetic readers to Slahi’s plight, and I count myself as one of them, are being duped by a clever snake-oil conman.  I strongly doubt we are being hoodwinked and there are several reasons for my belief. What he says about his awful treatment has been verified by a number of other sources from the Senate Report noted above to other inmates such as Moazzam Begg and Murat Kurnaz who spent time at Guantánamo and wrote their memoirs after their release. Of equal importance is the valuable introduction provided by Slahi’s editor, the writer and human rights activist, Larry Siems – who was never allowed to meet the author – that provides context, and declassified government documents and monographs that he cites in his extensive and helpful footnotes that corroborate what Slahi writes. In his introduction, Siems reveals that a District Court judge who thoroughly immersed himself in Slahi’s habeas petition concluded in 2010 that the government’s evidence was “so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment … that it cannot support a criminal prosecution,” and ordered his release. (That Slahi, through his lawyer, Nancy Hollander, was able to request a judge to review his case, was only possible because the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that all prisoners had a right to habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge their imprisonment in accordance with the Constitution.) Despite President Obama’s vow to close Guantánamo and his argument as a Presidential candidate that all detainees should have that right, his administration challenged that decision leaving Slahi’s legal status in limbo.

Slahi’s case demonstrates once again that the rule of law and due process – that no one is above the law, the existence of an independent judiciary, the accused has the right to an impartial hearing, that rules govern court procedures and the admission of evidence, the principle that an individual cannot lose his liberty unless he has violated a clearly prescribed law and that he has the right to appeal – are above the power of any politician, and that they are not merely legal niceties. They are the cornerstone of the justice system that dates back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, principles that fell into abeyance for centuries, but were revived in the eighteenth century and were core beliefs of the Founding Fathers of America who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and are fundamental to the 1867 Canadian Constitution Act and the 1982 Charter of Rights. There are strong reasons for embracing the rule of law: not only does it protect citizens from arbitrary government but protects us from each other when enraged individuals may be tempted to take the law into their own hands. The culture of fear and the so-called War on Terror have delivered a substantial and possibly an irretrievable blow to a sacred principle. (I do not want to suggest that even when the rule of law is operative, its application is always a reality; when justice is denied, there is the possibility that individuals, including police officers, may be tempted to dispense their own form of rough justice, as exemplified in Richard Price’s (writing as Harry Brandt) excellent crime novel The Whites. But the principle still serves as a restraining check on vengeful impulses.)

Guantánamo Diary should be widely read but I have doubts that will happen. There is no visual evidence; no one took pictures that might end up going viral, as occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq 2004 setting off an international scandal about how Americans treated their prisoners. Secondly, Slahi is a Muslim and Muslims do not garner much sympathy given the barbaric behaviour of ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. After that massacre, a number of Republican Senators, including John McCain, the former tortured prisoner in Vietnam, urged the President to stop releasing inmates from Guantánamo. One can only wonder how many Americans support former Vice President Dick Cheney’s belief that he does not worry about innocent Muslims because he considers them collateral damage in the war against terror. Yet what remains widely unknown is that the vast majority of terrorist acts are not committed by Muslims and that the overwhelming victims of Islamist terror are Muslims. Pope Francis has frequently said the Islamic State does not represent genuine Islam and that “all religions have these little groups.”  But it is not surprising that a Muslim doctor and his family are stopped at the Canadian border and prevented from entering America. 

In Canada itself, a number of recent events substantiate the perception that anti-Muslim feelings are growing and worst of all it is being lead or exploited for partisan gain in an election year by the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. After two separate attacks by jihadist sympathizers left two Canadian soldiers dead last fall, Harper refused to speak out against the vandalism against mosques and the racist slurs hurled against Muslim candidates in Toronto’s municipal election. Not only has he refused to express any support for Canadian Muslims, in keeping with his hard-edged ideological impulses, he has more recently escalated a flap over whether a Muslim woman should wear the face-covering niqab during a citizenship oath into an assault on the Muslim faith itself when he said that this piece of cloth is rooted in a culture that is anti-woman. According to Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui, in contrast to Obama, Harper continues to conflate through his rhetoric the Muslim faith with terrorism, thereby ignoring the greater threats cited in CSIS documents posed by white supremacists.  In this climate of hysteria, is it possible that Guantánamo Diary will be impartially read and that its author, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, will receive the justice that he surely deserves?

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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