Facebook photo of Slahi
Having endured 14 years as "the most tortured man in Guantánamo," Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been denied a passport from his native Mauritania to seek medical treatment abroad for the effects of his illegal detention and abuse - a refusal his lawyers deem a brutal extension of "the extrajudical punishment of a man who has never (been) charged with or convicted of a crime." When Slahi walked away unshackled from a U.S. military plane in 2016, a full six years after a federal judge had ordered his release, he hoped he was finally free from a years-long "nightmare of denied rights and arbitrary detention" that began in 2001, on a "day that is seared in my memory forever," with his arrest in Mauritania; the agents arresting him included a guy he'd just tried to help by hiring him to fix his TV. Though he'd years before renounced an earlier connection to Al Quaeda, he was swiftly rendered to Jordan, Afghanistan and then Guantánamo Bay, where he was held without charge from August 2002 to October 2016.
Over that time, he suffered beatings, death threats, isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, threats of rectal feeding, a mock kidnapping. When his conditions slightly improved three years into captivity after a lie detector test proved his innocence, he began keeping a journal that became Guantánamo Diary, a "brutally original" memoir and the only account of life inside the prison. After a years-long legal battle, a heavily redacted version was published in 2015, followed by a fuller, restored version. It has been published in 26 languages, was longlisted for the UK’s top non-fiction Samuel Johnson Prize, and led one reviewer to declare, "The global war on terror has found its true witness." Dr. Alexandra Moore, a human rights advocate who teaches Guantánamo Diary and invited Slahi to Skype to a journalism festival last year, praises in the Literary Hub the book's humor, humanity and generosity in surreal contrast to the horrors it describes, citing "Slahi’s openness to everyone around him and his willingness not to do what was done to him."
When Slahi returned to Mauritania, he was told he couldn't leave the country for two years, a condition he accepted. But when he recently applied for a passport seeking "advanced medical treatment for conditions associated with his ordeal of detention and abuse,” the government turned him down, despite a consensus by doctors in Mauritania, Germany and the US of his need and the willingness of one German doctor to cover treatment costs. Slahi, now 48, has challenged the de facto travel ban with a petition calling for his right to freedom of movement. It includes a letter of support from almost 200 writers, publishers, teachers and human rights activists, including Larry Siems, who edited Guantánamo Diary. In the letter, Slahi's supporters cite his spirit of equanimity and reconciliation in the face of a “litany of injustices and human rights abuses.” "He is not just an important literary voice," they write. "He is also an inspirational public figure who projects the essential human values of dignity, grace, peace, family, tolerance, faith and community."
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Unforgivably, Guantánamo Bay remains open today. It continues to hold about 40 men, mostly without charge or trial in defiance of all international norms, the symbol of an appalling, ongoing reign of "the dumb and brutal" and "a broken system...incapable of delivering justice." Slahi, despite being "a prisoner in my own country," continues to speak out about it. To mark the 17th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, he appeared by Skype at a Congressional briefing, and wrote an article for Amnesty International calling for the closing of "that infamous hell that is Guantánamo Bay." Its years of torture and abuse, he notes, "happened in the name of democracy...In the name of security...In the name of the American people. With the premise that only very few people deserve due process, dignity and human rights, and the rest of humanity is fair game for the most powerful democracy in the world." He thanks Amnesty for helping him when he was "imprisoned year after year, stifled and shouting in the dark," and he calls on "the decency of good American people (to) close that damn thing." Of his own ongoing battles, he says, “I will get my rights peacefully...Isn’t that what everybody wants, my people and your people?...God Bless you all!"
A Mauritanian folktale tells us about a rooster-phobe who would almost lose his mind whenever he encountered a rooster. “Why are you so afraid of the rooster?” the psychiatrist asks him. “The rooster thinks I’m corn.” “You’re not corn. You are a very big man. Nobody can mistake you for a tiny ear of corn,” the psychiatrist said. “I know that, Doctor. But the rooster doesn’t. Your job is to go to him and convince him that I am not corn.” The man was never healed, since talking with a rooster is impossible. End of story. For years I’ve been trying to convince the U.S. government that I am not corn.” - Guantánamo Diary