After nine years in captivity, a U.S. federal court has ordered the
release of a Guantanamo prisoner once described as the "highest-value
detainee at the facility" - and set off a firestorm of protest from
Federal District Judge James Robertson ruled in Washington, D.C. that
the U.S. could not continue to detain Mohamedou Ould Salahi (sometimes
spelled "Slahi"), a Mauritanian citizen who has been in U.S. custody
Judge Robertson's opinion, providing the reasons for
the granting of Salahi's habeas corpus petition, was released last week
after undergoing a classification review. Some portions were withheld as
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and
private attorneys challenged Salahi's detention, arguing that the
government had no reliable evidence that he was part of al Qaeda when he
was seized in 2001.
Salahi became the 34th Guantanamo detainee
whose imprisonment has been declared illegal.
staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, told IPS,
"Salahi's case is a national disgrace - rendition, brutal torture, and
eight years of arbitrary detention without charge or any reliable or
credible evidence. Regrettably, rather than ending this shameful episode
that flouts the rule of law, and repatriating Salahi, the government is
seeking to prolong his illegal imprisonment."
court's decision invalidating that detention and ordering Salahi's
release is an important step towards restoring the rule of law," he
After Salahi was arrested in Mauritania on suspicion of
ties to al Qaeda, the U.S. government illegally rendered him to Jordan,
where he was detained, interrogated and abused for eight months. He was
then rendered to Bagram, Afghanistan and finally to Guantánamo, where he
has been held in U.S. custody since August 2002.
Guantánamo, Salahi was held in total isolation for months, kept in a
freezing cold cell, shackled to the floor, deprived of food, made to
drink salt water and forced to stand in a room with strobe lights and
heavy metal music for hours at a time.
He was threatened with
harm to his family, forbidden from praying, beaten and subjected to the
"frequent flyer" programme, during which he was awakened every few hours
to deprive him of sleep. The government falsely told him that his
mother had been arrested and was being sent to Guantánamo.
abuse was documented in a 2009 report by the Senate Armed Services
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Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the military
lawyer originally assigned to prosecute the case against Salahi in the
military commissions, determined that Salahi's self-incriminating
statements were so tainted by torture that they couldn't ethically be
used against him.
Couch told his supervisors that he was
"morally opposed" to Salahi's treatment and refused to participate in
the prosecution. In his decision, Judge Robertson wrote that there is
"ample evidence in this record that Salahi was subjected to extensive
and severe mistreatment at Guantánamo".
expressed outrage over the decision. The Hill newspaper reported that
Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the ranking member of the Intelligence
Committee, stated, "While (Attorney General Eric) Holder's Justice
Department should appeal this outrageous decision, I'm not holding my
breath. Holder seems more intent on closing Guantánamo Bay than keeping
terrorists locked up where they belong."
The Hill also reported
that Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, sent a letter to Holder
asking him to appeal the ruling, in which he wrote, "It is certainly
possible, if not likely, that Mr. Salahi will re-engage in efforts to
commit terrorist attacks against innocent Americans if allowed to go
free. This ruling clearly puts the American people in danger and should
not be allowed to stand."
The Department of Justice said it would
appeal Judge Robertson's decision. However, even if the government's
appeal is unsuccessful, it is unclear that Salahi could be released
until another country offers to take him in.
Salahi was subjected
to several years of torture, which began soon after he was taken in by
the Mauritanian authorities on November 20, 2001, at the request of the
Bush administration. "My country turned me over, shortcutting all kinds
of due process of law, like a candy bar to the United States," he said
in his combatant status review tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004.
was transferred by the U.S. from Mauritania to Jordan. He was held
there for eight months and said what happened to him was "beyond
description". He was then transferred to the U.S. prison at Bagram
airbase in Afghanistan for two weeks and arrived in Guantánamo on Aug.
Historian Andy Worthington reports that, "as the
highest-value detainee at Guantánamo - in the days before Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed and 13 other high-value detainees were flown in from secret CIA
prisons in September 2006 - Salahi was again subjected to torture,
which included prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation,
beatings, death threats and threats that his mother would be brought to
Guantánamo and gang-raped."
This programme, he says, was
implemented in May 2003 and augmented with further "enhanced
interrogation techniques" authorised by Defense Secretary Donald
It culminated in August 2003 in an incident when Salahi
was taken out on a boat, wearing isolation goggles, while agents
whispered, within earshot, that he was "about to be executed and made to
disappear". As the German magazine Der Spiegel explained in an article
in 2008, "He was so terrified that he urinated in his pants."