Mohamedou Ould Slahi spent 14 years in Guantanamo Bay prison. Born on 21 December 1970 in a small town in Mauritania, Ould Slahi received a scholarship to study in Germany in 1988.
After earning a degree in electrical engineering Slahi travelled to Afghanistan in 1991 to join the Mujahideen fighting against the communist government. In 1999 Ould Slahi moved to Canada where he stayed for a year.
His cousin, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid was an adviser to Osama bin Laden.
Ould Slahi was arrested three months after the 9/11 attacks. He was detained in Jordan and Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on 5 August 2002.
During his time in Guantanamo Bay prison Ould Slahi was subjected to sleep deprivation, isolation, beatings, mock executions, sexual humiliation and other forms of torture. In 2010 a federal judge ordered his release but the decision was appealed.
He was finally cleared and released on 17 October 2016 and repatriated to Mauritania.
In February 2020 a film ‘The Mauritanian’ was released about his detention in Guantanamo.
He spoke to AJ Public Liberties producer Mia Swart about his life and thoughts after Guantanamo:
Swart: Guantanamo has been described as a ‘legal black hole.’ Do you think there was ever any real attempt to establish the guilt or innocence of the detainees? Or was it simply an attempt to extract information?
Ould Slahi: This is a question about the minds of other people. I cannot penetrate the minds of other people. In my case the CIA never thought I did anything wrong. I have that written on paper as early as 2005. The CIA , the FBI and military intelligence do not have any evidence. Colonel Crouch (a US army general) also came to the conclusion in 2003 that he could not find evidence.
I was the first death penalty case. They selected me for the death penalty. I was cleared by a lie detector.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi at approximately age 15 [Courtesy of Mohamedou Ould Slahi]
They tortured me and said I have to write a confession. When I agreed to confess to make them stop the torture they told me what to write in the confession. They asked me to do a lie detector test.
Many of the other prisoners were brought in because of the bounty that were on our heads. The US said you will get $5000 to those who captured Al Qaeda fighters.
Swart: If the CIA said in 2005 that they had nothing on you why did it take until 2010 for the District court case to start?
Ould Slahi: They saw me as a witness and they did not want me to talk. It should not be in the hands of the government to delay a case. The right to a speedy trial is also in the Constitution of the United States. For government to have the power to delay a judicial process is already anti-democratic.
Swart: So during the court case some information would come out which would reflect negatively on the US government…
Ould Slahi: I heard this expression ‘black hole’ a lot. But most of the judges said no this is not a lawless place, this is the US. In Guantanamo if you hurt an iguana you pay $10 000. This means that US law was enforced on the island.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi at the time he was sent to Guantanamo [Courtesy of Mohamedou Ould Slahi]
Swart: Yes this is very ironic of course, Than animals were protected more than some people…
Ould Slahi: Everybody there was subject to US law. It looked like the US really do not like the founding fathers and thought it should try dictatorship. I know dictatorship. I grew up in a dictatorship. Democratic countries are the safest and most prosperous countries. Democracy works. Dictatorship does not work. I love the American people and I think they deserve better. They have a great Constitution and great values. I can say this in spite of what they did to me.
Swart: While you were in Guantanamo, did the Americans try to make you switch sides?
Ould Slahi: Yes of course. Already at an early stage, when I was still in Mauritania they tried that. They wanted me to go back to Canada and spy on mosques. But after they inflicted so much pain on me they never asked me to work for them again. These people are very professional. Very smart people. They are so professional they know deep down that I’m not very qualified to change sides and work for them. Especially after I endured so much pain its difficult for me to do this. But I’m now working for them by default by spreading peace. I don’t want anyone in my country to be involved in violent stuff, in sickening stuff.
Swart: How close were you to your cousin Mahfouz Ould al-Walid? Did you discuss politics?
Oud Slahi: We went to different schools. As children we liked each other but we didn’t play a lot because of physical distance.
I left for Germany when I was very young, only 17. After this we just spoke on the phone and exchanged very short messages.
Swart: What went through your head when you received the call from your cousin that was made from Osama bin Laden’s phone? Did you realise the phone call was made from bin Laden’s phone?
Ould Slahi: Remember this was 1999. There was no display function on phones. It was one of the rotary phones. And it was an overseas call. I did not even think about any of this. This is only on your mind now because you know what happened.
Yes I knew he was close to bin Laden. But this was when Osama bin Laden was very much a nobody.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi with his son [Courtesy of Mohamedou Ould Slahi]
Swart: You are currently back in Mauritania. Are you struggling to obtain visas for countries you would like to travel to?
Ould Slahi: My travel situation is better than it has ever been since I was first kidnapped. I visited London this August. At first I thought it was all a dream. I had so many recurring dreams in prison, especially when I was detained in Jordan. Even though the torture was not as bad as in Guantanamo Bay, the feeling was so bad, the shock. So I thought this visit was a dream.
Terrorism is a political term. It is not a criminal term unfortunately. It is mostly used to suppress political dissent and to punish innocent people and as a human rights activist I would never accept terrorism as a crime because it is all a sham. Why should you invent a political term because you want to circumvent the law? Do you not want to respect the rule of law?
Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Trarza, Mauritania [Courtesy of Mohamedou Ould Slahi]
Swart: You co-wrote to US President Biden asking for the closure of Guantanamo. What do you think is the real reason they keep this very expensive prison going?
Ould Slahi: When Obama signed the executive order to close Guantanamo Bay, the chief intelligence officer and chief interrogator Paul Rester said ‘I’m so happy I’m leaving.’. But in the US the system the president has the power to do a one-off thing such as closing Guantanamo but he has to have balls to do it. From their perspective the Guantanamo Bay detainees is a bunch of Muslims. There is no political reward if we stay or we die, there ids no political price. Why should any president risk anything, risk giving up any political power to close Guantanamo?
I am not a popular person in the United States. My face is not popular. My accent is not popular. My religion is not popular. When I speak to them I speak like all the criminals they are after.
Swart: So the political gains do not outweigh the political loss? It’s an opportunistic issue. Its not a moral decision.
Ould Slahi: The biggest casualty after 9/11 is the rule of law and democracy. Ironically one of the first things the US said after 9/11 was that Al Qaeda attacked the United States because of their values. But they will never defeat us. He abandoned the rule of law.
Swart: We are approaching the 20th anniversary of 11 September. What does the calamity in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the US’ troops tell you?
Ould Slahi: I am not judging anyone or any country. But the so-called war on terror did not bring peace. Organised crime is much more now than before the war. The extremists are emboldened and empowered more than ever.
We Arabs always have this love-hate relationship with America. We want to apply for the US visa because you want to taste the American dream. And I am not a very big fan of hating anyone or hating any country. In Afghanistan I can only hope and pray that they do the right thing in Afghanistan.
Swart: This attitude you have that you do not want to exact revenge, this feeling that you want to reconcile with your captors even though you were in prison for 14 years, was this inspired by the life of Nelson Mandela?
Ould Slahi: I am a very big fan of Nelson Mandela. But, as I realised when I visited South Africa, there are so many who fought against apartheid. I went to their cells, people who died fighting for freedom.
I also draw from my upbringing and from the Quran that calls for forgiveness. It would be very hypocritical of me to advocate for human rights and the rule of law and then not start with myself, with reconciliation.
I invited my former guard at Guantanamo to visit me in Mauritania. There is no need for war or hate.
Swart: There is still much ignorance on the topic of Guantanamo. Did the film The Mauritanian make a difference?
Ould Slahi: Yes absolutely. It has been unprecedented. After the film 40 US Congressmen and -women signed a petition to close Guantanamo prison. As I said. There is no political price if the Americans hurt me. But if you hurt an American there is a very heavy political price to pay. If you hurt a Mauritanian or a Sudanese guy there is no political price.
Swart: One part of the film I found very powerful was when your character was taken to court for the first time and says he was very scared entering the courtroom. Did you not think that the law was on your side?
Ould Slahi: Yes I was scared because I was acutely aware that I had very little chance to be acquitted in a US court because the whole premise is that you are judged by a jury of your peers. I don’t have peers in that system. No one could relate to me. Everything I did in my life was weird according to any American person because I am from a different culture. So I was scared because I knew I wasn’t a good candidate to be acquitted. Because of the way I speak and where I am from. The philosophy in such a court was not ‘did you do it or not?’. It was ‘Are you what we consider to be a good person.’
Swart: What are your dreams for the future and how will you talk to your son about what happened to you?
Ould Slahi: To be honest I never thought about these questions and will just wait until he is ready. He will be from a different age and will have different tools to get information that you and I do not know about. I am just trying to enjoy life. Many good things are coming my way.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
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