In 2021, the life story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay Prison for 14 years, warranted being made into a Hollywood movie called The Mauritanian. Today, in 2022, his story is surfacing again as Slahi sues the Canadian government for $35 million for its role in his incarceration.
Let’s start at the beginning. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, born in 1970 and of Mauritanian origin, won a scholarship to study electrical engineering in Germany in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, he travelled from Germany to Afghanistan to support the Mujahedeen, then among the several groups that the West was promoting as “freedom fighters” against the Russian invaders of the country.
He went to Afghanistan twice, and during his second visit trained in an Al-Qaeda camp. But when he left Afghanistan, he severed all ties with Al-Qaeda.
When Germany refused to give him a return entry visa, Slahi went to Canada for a very short stay and became a permanent resident. He became a person of interest to the US and Canadian governments, for he was close to several jihadi figures. He was a cousin of Mahfouz Ould Al-Walid, an aide of Osama bin Laden. Another cousin, Abu Hafs, called Slahi from Bin Laden’s satellite phone, which the US had traced.
In Montreal, Slahi began leading prayers at a mosque where a jihadi who frequented the same mosque had attempted to smuggle explosives in the trunk of a car across the US border so as to detonate suitcases filled with them inside the Los Angeles International Airport.
As a result, many things worked against Slahi, and the US government concluded that he was “the leader of the Montreal-based Al-Qaeda cell” and had possibly assisted in recruiting the 9/11 hijackers. Furthermore, the Canadian Intelligence Services also began to question him, leading him to head back to Mauritania in the early 2000s.
It was then that the US detained him, and his incarceration ordeal began. First, he was detained in Mauritania. Then, via a rendition programme – the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect to be interrogated elsewhere – Slahi was first sent to Jordan and later to Afghanistan for questioning. He was later transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he remained for 14 years.
At Guantanamo, Slahi was subjected to 18-hours a day interrogation for three years in addition to the enhanced interrogation techniques commonly used against those held under such circumstances. He suffered from sleep deprivation, isolation, temperature extremes, physical beatings, forced standing, incessant noise, and sexual assault, among other tortures and humiliations. A mock execution in which he was blindfolded and taken out to sea in a boat has also been documented.
The US Military Commission refused to prosecute Slahi since “Salahi’s [sic] incriminating statements – the core of the government’s case – had been taken through torture, rendering them inadmissible under US and international law.” Nevertheless, it was only in 2016 that Slahi was released after languishing in detainment for 14 years, having never being formally charged with a crime.
In 2005 and while in Guantanamo, Slahi wrote a memoir, Guantanamo Diary, a 464-page depiction of what he had undergone, which, in its recent edition, was renamed The Mauritanian. It became an international bestseller and was made into a Hollywood film in 2021. Not only does The Mauritanian portray Slahi’s gut-wrenching story and the suffering he experienced, but it also depicts the horrendous conditions at the Guantanamo Bay Prison.
Slahi’s story is resurfacing today as he sues the Canadian authorities over their role in his incarceration. He accuses them of providing false information to the Americans, which led to his detainment and subsequent incarceration. As a result, he says, the Canadian authorities were complicit in his torture.
According to a report on Canadian CTV News, Slahi says that “surveillance by Canada’s spy agency and police force was fed to his American interrogators.” The report adds that “eventually their ‘torture broke him down’ and prompted a false confession about a plan to blow up the CN Tower [in Toronto,] which he had never heard of, the court filings state.”
The filings also state that Slahi’s interrogators pressed him about a telephone call in Montreal in which he invited someone for tea and asked him to bring sugar. “His interrogators insisted the request for ‘sugar’ was code for ‘explosives’,” the report said, adding that the Canadians told the Americans that “sugar” was a codeword.
“Canadians need to understand that this is a Canadian story,” Slahi told The Canadian Press. “Without Canada, I’d never have been kidnapped. Without Canada, I’d never have [been] tortured.” In an interview on Canada Tonight on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Slahi said that “it is not a day to give the Americans carte blanche. The American government is as guilty, as dirty, and as involved,” but “I came to Canada to seek protection well aware that the Americans had their eyes on me because of my connection.”
Journalist Chris Reynolds said in The Canadian Press that “part of the reason that it’s so horrifying is that the Canadian government and Canadian national security administrations participated in having a man who had done nothing wrong tortured, that we knew about it, and that we tried to make sure Canadians never found out about it.”
Jody Brown, one of two lawyers representing Slahi, described his client’s saga as “the outcome of a ‘vicious cycle’ of flawed intelligence and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques – torture or degrading treatment of detainees conducted under the George W Bush administration” in the US.
Slahi’s suffering needs to be recognised and his story, like the stories of others in similar circumstances, must become known. Slahi’s ordeal is not unique, as it is similar to those of at least the 779 prisoners detained for years in Guantanamo, if not more. Only 16 of those prisoners were ever charged with a criminal offence, and 39 remain incarcerated today.
* The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.