Interview with Mohamedou Ould Slahi

"The rule of law means nothing to a corrupt regime"

Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Slahi spent more than fourteen years in Guantanamo. His "Guantanamo diary", which has been translated into numerous languages, won him global acclaim. After a protracted legal battle, Slahi finally released in October 2016. In an exclusive interview with Emran Feroz, he talks about his experiences during his imprisonment

How did you feel when you heard that after more than fourteen years in Guantanamo your imprisonment was coming to an end and you would be released?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi: The day I found out, I was sitting in my dark cell as a female US military official came in. She looked at me kindly and asked me: "Did you know you're going home?" I stared at her mouth and could not believe her. Although the exchange was over in a matter of moments, it took me ages to digest this message. It was just completely surreal. Even now, as I talk to you, I still can′t believe that I am finally free.

Had you given up hope ever coming out?

Slahi: After all the torture, when I finally signed the false confession, which had been repeatedly presented to me, I believed it was final. I was sure that I would never leave Guantanamo again. But at the same time, I had also made peace with myself. I had never killed a single person in my entire life. I knew that. I did not care what the Americans thought of me. Also, once I had signed the confession, my fears for my family went away. My tormentors had often threatened to lock my mother up in Guantanamo as well. For me that was worse than all the torture.

What was your worst experience during your time in Guantanamo?

Slahi: My family is very poor. It was my duty to feed them after my studies and take care of them. I wanted to build a house for my mother. In the end, I was unable to do anything for my family. All my dreams were destroyed. That was soul-destroying. They took away the best years of my life. My mother died while I was in prison. I never got the chance to say good-bye to her.

During your detention, you were repeatedly tortured. Did the information you revealed prove helpful to your tormentors in the end?

Slahi: There were two phases during my "hearings". At the beginning, I repeatedly insisted that I had not committed a crime and was not a terrorist. I said that I was just a Muslim. But after the torture that changed. I confessed to everything. I agreed that I was a terrorist, just like all the other people I was supposed to be connected with. The authorities analysed my statements, including a lie detection test and quickly realised that my confession was false, together with all my other statements. I wrote about this in my book. But the US government censored this section before the manuscript was released.

Guantanamo detention camp on Cuba (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Synonymous with torture, caprice and triumphal justice: Republican President George W. Bush had the Guantanamo prison camp erected following the terror attacks on 11 September 2001 with the aim of holding Islamist terrorists without trial. Eight years ago, shortly after his inauguration, Obama signed a decree stipulating the closure of the centre located on the U.S. base on Cuba. Not only did he encounter strong resistance from the Republicans, many in his own party also failed to support him

The one thing the authorities were able to prove is that you were in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Why were you there?

Slahi: In the 1980s and 1990s, it was trendy to go to Afghanistan. The images of Russian soldiers killing innocent Afghans were omnipresent. I too saw these pictures and they got me really worked up. All of a sudden I wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight against the Russian occupation. I was told at the time that there would be a responsible information office in Bonn. At the time, it was the unofficial embassy for the Afghan mujahideen. I visited the office and was issued with a letter of recommendation for the fight. This letter entitled me to a Pakistani visa. I travelled to Khost in the east of Afghanistan via Pakistan. I was trained at Camp Al-Farouq. Looking back, I was totally unaware of what was going on. After my training, I returned to Mauritania. My mother feared for my life. Later, I went back to Afghanistan, to Gardez, in the province of Paktia. Soon afterwards, the mujahideen became corrupt. Once the Russians had left Afghanistan, they fought each other and began destroying their own country. I decided there and then never to return to Afghanistan.

Do you think that the Americans have ultimately benefitted from Guantanamo and the "War on Terror"?

Slahi: The so-called Muslim world has certainly lost a lot. This war has been led by crazy, power-hungry people on both sides. The ordinary people - whether they are in Mauritania or elsewhere - do not want to have anything to do with it. They just want to live in peace. A handful have profited from the "War on Terror". They include weapons producers or private security companies providing services to state military and intelligence services, not to mention the military-industrial complex in general. The al-Qaida extremists and other groups also need the war. Without the war they would have no reason to exist. They need the war, without it they wouldn′t attract any support.

Demonstrators in the U.S. demand the close of Guantanamo (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The broken promise: Barack Obama ultimately failed in his attempt to close the controversial detention centre on Cuba. Nevertheless, shortly after Trump′s presidential victory, he did manage to release 15 detainees to their countries of origin and reduce the camp′s population to a mere 45 inmates. Trump, by contrast, not only wants to keep "Gitmo" running, he also aims to send new prisoners there

What role do the governments of affected countries concerned, such as Mauritania, Jordan or Afghanistan with relation to the USA? In your book, you draw neo-colonial comparisons.

Slahi: It is very obvious that the governments of these states are corrupt, they exploit their populations and act on the interests of the Americans. It's wrong to always point the finger at Washington. A big problem is here – at home. By surrendering me to the USA, the Mauritanian government acted against its own constitution. This action was unlawful and criminal. The other countries you mentioned acted in similar ways. The problem is that there is no rule of law. Our corrupt governments don′t understand what this word means.

During the presidency of Barack Obama, it was always said that he wanted to close Guantanamo. Did you noticed any signs of this happening during your imprisonment?

Slahi: When Obama was elected, we prisoners also heard about this initiative. I was overjoyed when I heard. My euphoria, however, came to an abrupt end. The responsible intelligence officer told me that Guantanamo wouldn′t be closing. The reason: Obama did not have the power to push it through. I personally think Obama really wanted to close Guantanamo. At the time he was serious in his intention. It was only later that he noticed his hands were tied. There were too many lobby groups in Congress, especially on the political right and within the military-industrial complex, both of which were opposed to the closure.

Donald Trump has said that he wants to fill Guantanamo again. Do you think that we will ever see the prison being closed?

Slahi: The president of a country must protect the constitution. What would happen if a candidate for the office of the German Chancellor were to say that he or she wanted to break fundamental laws? The use of torture and illegal detention are clearly prohibited in the United States. The U.S. president must stick to it. All these announcements are absolutely undemocratic and unlawful. We will see if Trump actually puts any of this into practice or not. It is now widely accepted that he is totally unpredictable and fond of contradicting himself. We can only hope that the American people will tame Trump and will not allow the hell of Guantanamo to be filled with innocent people again.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

© 2017

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