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A voice from Guantanamo: ‘I can’t breathe...’


Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been detained in Guantanamo for 13 years without ever facing trial. From his cell, he wrote "Guantanamo Diary," a unique account of the conditions in the US detention centre.


The redactions are obvious and glaring. The nearly 2,600 black blocks which litter the text, aimed at concealing identities and forms of treatment, reveal the extent of US censorship. The French version of Slahi’s book, “Guantanamo Diary” – which was released this week in a dozen countries, including the US – appeared on the stands Thursday titled, “Les carnets de Guantanamo”.

The 100,000-odd declassified words give an account of life in the Guantanamo detention centre, a “no-go zone,” according to Amnesty International. While details of the CIA’s treatment of detainees are available on the public record in the US Senate Intelligence Committee report, Slahi’s book is a personal account of his experiences not only at the hands of CIA officials, but also with members of the US military. A Mauritanian national, his book is also the first prisoner account to be published while the author is still in detention.

It took six years of negotiations for the US government to authorise the publication of his diary. The resulting text is a product of series of compromises: words, names, facts, dates, places, entire passages have been deleted to protect classified information. While the US treatment of detainees is no secret, the United States continues to cite security concerns to prevent the disclosure of documents proving torture.

‘A long torture trip with the Americans’

Slahi, arrested in Mauritania in 2001 for alleged links to the "Hamburg cell", which organised the 9/11 attacks, was first imprisoned in Jordan, then in Afghanistan and was transferred to Guantanamo on August 5, 2002. The 466 pages of his book, written in longhand in his isolation cell in the summer of 2005, paint a picture of the daily practice of torture and humiliation at the facility.

Slahi’s story, supported by thousands of declassified documents, is a prime example of the mistreatment the prisoner endured after the 9/11 attacks. Sleep deprivation, minimal hygiene, ice baths, repeated blows, death threats, insults, sexual humiliation, prolonged isolation and harsh interrogations are just some of the methods validated at the highest levels of US President George W. Bush’s administration.

The author recalls a particularly painful memory of a day when he was grabbed from his freezing cold cell, his head was stuffed in a bag and he was put on a boat. "A long torture trip with the Americans," he notes ironically. "My chest was so tightened that I could not breathe properly...I didn’t know why exactly, but something was definitely going wrong. ‘I c … a … c … n’t br … e … a … the!’” Slahi recalls, gasping the now familiar phrase. To which, one of his captors wryly replied, “Suck the air!”

His ordeal was just beginning. Slahi was then beaten for hours and ice was slipped between his skin and clothes. “Whenever the ice melted, they put in new, hard ice cubes. Moreover, every once in a while, one of the guards smashed me, most of the time in the face. The ice served both for the pain and for wiping out the bruises I had from that afternoon. Everything seemed to be perfectly prepared,” he notes.

‘The geese have more rights than us’

In a system where the ends justifies the means, Guantanamo detainees have little recourse. Slahi eventually gave false confessions to end the torture. He said he planned an attack on the CN Tower in Toronto. When his interrogator asked if he was telling the truth, Slahi replied, “I don’t care as long as you’re pleased.”

Another detainee, Frenchman Mourad Benchelalli – who spent two years at the detention centre in Cuba before he was returned to France in 2004 – attests to the treatment in Guantanamo. The conditions were so bad, according to Benchelalli, that prisoners took to individual acts of rebellion, from screaming to hunger strikes.

"The hunger strike is the only means available to inmates to protest against prison conditions. The body is the only thing left for us. We do this out of desperation, because we imagine it will change something," said Benchelalli at a press conference in Paris on Thursday.

In a special report tracking the growing cases of hunger strikes among Guantanamo detainees, the Miami Herald identified up to 106 hunger strikers in 2013, of which 44 were force-fed.

At the Paris press conference announcing the launch of Slahi’s book, Benchelalli noted that force-feeding “is very painful...they force a tube through the nose into the stomach without anesthesia. This is also a form of torture. A US state [California] passed a law against force-feeding geese,” said Benchelalli, referring to the practice of force-feeding geese to produce foie gras. “The geese have more rights than us,” he concluded.

A trip to Afghanistan

Benchelalli was with Slahi in Guantanamo in 2002. The Frenchman’s recollection of the Mauritanian detainee was that of “a cultivated man, who spoke five languages. He was among the most intelligent,” he noted. A maths whizz, Slahi studied electrical engineering in the 1990s in Germany, hoping to become a telecommunications engineer. It was an education which, according to US officials, suggests that the Mauritanian could be one of the brains behind al Qaeda.

Slahi admits joining the terror network in 1991. He cut short his studies in Germany to travel to Afghanistan that year to "support the rebellion against the communist government" that was in power in Kabul following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. Once in Afghanistan, he trained at the al-Farouq training camp near Kandahar. At the end of his training, he swore bayat (or allegiance) to al Qaeda.

But following the fall of the communist government under then Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah (who was subsequently tortured and brutally slain by the Taliban) Slahi noted that things began to change. As various mujahideen groups launched a bitter, internecine battle for power, Slahi deplored the fact that Muslims were fighting other Muslims. He says he broke ties with al Qaeda in 1992, while maintaining contact with some of its members.

It was those ties, according to Slahi, that got him into trouble almost a decade later.

A ‘dream vacation’ to kill all dreams

Benchelalli was also imprisoned at Guantanamo for his stay in Afghanistan in 2001. In a June 2006 op-ed in the New York Times, Benchellali noted that when he was 19 he “made the mistake of listening to my older brother and going to Afghanistan on what I thought was a dream vacation”.

Benchellali hails from a radical family well known to French security officials. His elder brother, Menad Benchellali, is believed to have trained at the infamous, sprawling Derunta camp near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad and was arrested in France in 2002 on suspicion of plotting an attack on the Russian embassy in Paris. His father, Chellali Benchellali, a Muslim cleric from a suburb of Lyon, was arrested in connection with a plot to avenge Russia’s crackdown in Chechnya.

Recalling his ill-fated trip to Afghanistan, Benchellali noted that after the September 2001 al Qaeda attacks in the US, “the Western mindset views events filtered through the 9/11 attacks. It is very difficult to envisage today that we could go to Afghanistan without ever having a terrorist project”.

While Benchellali is back in his native France, Slahi is still languishing in the Guantanamo detention centre 13 years after his arrest. In March 2010, a US federal judge ordered his release, but the US Justice Department appealed the decision. His case is still working its way through the US courts.

Of the 242 prisoners who were in detention at Guantanamo in 2009, at the start of US President Barack Obama’s first term in office, 122 are still there today. Obama has long maintained his desire to close the infamous facility – a promise he reiterated in his January 20 State of the Union speech.

In his address, Obama expressed his frustration about the prison, which he said was a source of international embarrassment and potential harm to the US. But Obama’s efforts to shut down the facility have been repeatedly thwarted by Republican lawmakers and with Congress now under Republican control, it looks like a distant promise.

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