Bill Newman: A Guantanamo prisoner’s own story

Last modified: Friday, February 06, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — United States government officials arrange for proxy jailers in a foreign country to arrest a man, who is then held incommunicado, interrogated and tortured. Although our government determines that the factual basis for its requested detention was wrong — impossible actually — the man, with no judicial involvement, is transferred to and tortured at one horrifying prison after another.

Eventually, painfully shackled, suffocated and half dead, he is dumped at a United States military base where he languishes for over a dozen years. The government insists that it can incarcerate him indefinitely without a charge or a trial.

If this Kafkaesque fact pattern had been presented as an exam question when I was in law school in the 1970s, we fledging legal minds would have considered it too Orwellian and outrageous to merit serious consideration.

For many good reasons. These facts shred the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures; eviscerate the Fifth Amendment protections of due process, the presumption of innocence and the requirement that interrogation occur without coercion; negate the Sixth Amendment assurances of a fair and speedy trial with the charges made plain; decimate the Eight Amendment rights to a reasonable bail and safety from cruel and unusual punishment; and reject the First Amendment’s promise of freedom of speech and association and of the press.

Of course, this fact pattern is not hypothetical. It is Guantanamo.

And if you want to understand Guantanamo, both its horror and its significance for America, I urge you to read the recently published “Guantanamo Diary,” a griping and harrowing book written in 2005 in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp by Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Slahi is still locked up there. It took seven years of litigation for his writing to be released from the grip of U.S. government censors, who imposed over 2,500 pitch-black redactions over his words. Still, in this autobiography Slahi’s story shines though in a bright and chilling light.

On Nov. 20, 2001, Slahi, a 30-year-old electrical engineer in Mauritania, was instructed by his country’s law enforcement (per an American demand) to report to the intelligence ministry. He drove himself from his home to that meeting hoping not to be gone long. Thirteen years have passed. He has yet to return home.

In black site prisons in Mauritania, then in Jordan, Bagram Air Force Base and Guantanamo, Slahi was interrogated and tortured — strict solitary confinement in complete darkness chained to a filthy floor, subjected to constant freezing temperatures, beatings, sleep deprivation until he hallucinated, 24-hour interrogations, sexual abuse and humiliation. These are but some of the techniques former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally approved and helped devise that were inflicted on him.

The reason for the torture —the ostensible justification? Our government decided Slahi participated in planning the millennium plot, the terrorist scheme to blow up the Los Angeles airport, though, it turns out, our own intel proved he had no involvement. Our government then decided Slahi played some part in planning 9/11, but again America’s, as well as other countries’, intelligence services disproved the possibility. Still, Slahi remained in Guantanamo. His detention had become a result in search of a rationale, and so our government invented another alleged justification.

Because Slahi had fought with al-Qaida in 1991 in Afghanistan against the Russians and occasionally had email contact with a couple of the fighters after that, he was deemed a terrorist and a threat.

In 2010, federal district court Judge James Robertson, after reviewing in minute detail all the evidence amassed against Slahi, including all the torture-induced statements, found the government had failed to prove any basis to hold him. But the Obama administration appealed, and the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that being vaguely associated with a terrorist group could constitute reason for indefinite detention at Gitmo. That decision established a legal standard akin to guilty-until-proven innocent. Two more years passed and Slahi remains in limbo.

Last Sunday’s New York Times’ review of “Guantanamo Diary” begins with the observation that after 9/11 our national character changed. What previously had been unthinkable became commonplace. Torture, indefinite detention and even murder of the innocent became acceptable as norms — collateral damage — of the war on terror. That article concludes, “America has crossed a gulf. We know where we came from, and we (now with Slahi’s and others’ narratives) know where we are, but we do not yet know how to get back.”

Perhaps. But we could take a step towards restoring fundamental freedoms in America by releasing Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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