Former Guantanamo Bay detainee discusses experience, forgiveness
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Monday, January 29, 2018
On Nov. 20, 2001, in the early days of the United States’ “War on Terror,” Mohamedou Ould Slahi drove himself to the national police headquarters in Nouakchott, Mauritania — his home country — for voluntary questioning in relation to recent terrorist activity in North America due to a cousin’s relationship with Osama Bin Laden and attendance at the same mosque in Canada as one of the planners of the failed Millenium attacks.
Despite no evidence of direct involvement, Slahi was taken into U.S. custody where he would remain for the next 15 years, most of which were spent at the United States prison at Guantanamo Bay where he was subjected to torture before his eventual release.
Sunday afternoon, in the Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Slahi discussed his experiences with Notre Dame students and community members via video-chat — due to U.S. government restrictions on his travel stateside — as part of a week-long forum sponsored by the Center For Civil and Human Rights surrounding the release of a revised edition of his international best-seller “Guantanamo Diaries.”
“I knew what dictatorship looked like because I grew up in a dictatorship,” Slahi, who was wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt, told the crowd. “What I saw in Guantanamo Bay was a dictatorship.”
The forum, which was moderated by Christine Cervenak, the associate director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, also included reflections from Slahi’s editor Larry Siems (‘81) and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and former director of the Notre Dame Center for Civil and Human Rights, Juan Mendez, who had also been a political prisoner, in his native Argentina.
Mendez said Slahi’s treatment at Guantanamo was representative of other U.S. abuses during the “War on Terror.”
“[His case embodies] this characteristic of the global “War on Terror” that seems to say that the rules apply to everybody else but not the United States … a grotesque version of the exceptionalism of the United States,” he said.
Siems discussed how profiling led to Slahi’s arrest and continued imprisonment despite the scant evidence.
“There’s some cultural bigotry at play and I think that kind of profiling has trickled down and seeped out in ways that permeate not just post-9/11 detention policies but in immigration and refugee policy as well,” he said.
After his imprisonment, Slahi longed to write about his experience, as he had written all his life.
Because of his understanding of freedom of expression in the United States, Slahi was surprised when he was told he could not write.
“[I thought] this is a democratic country and I have the right to express myself no problem … but they said you cannot have pens,” he said. “That was when I started to steal pens from my neighbors.”
Slahi said his motivation to write came from his desire to make the truth known.
“As someone who writes, it’s a responsibility to tell the truth, it’s my responsibility, it’s my job, to say everything to be as objective as I could,” he said. “… Truth is a very powerful weapon, truth is a weapon I have in my arsenal that the [U.S.] government does not have.”
Pouring all his time into writing, Slahi eventually produced a 466-page, hand-written manuscript. However, this manuscript was not allowed to see the light of day due to confidentiality restrictions placed on all writing and art produced by Guantanamo prisoners.
Eventually, thanks to the tireless work of lawyers, Slahi’s now-heavily redacted manuscript made its way to Siems, who would eventually work with Slahi to get the work published.
When the book was eventually published in January of 2015, Slahi was still in jail, still subjected to torture.
Despite the torture he suffered at the hands of the U.S. government, Slahi says he forgives all involved in his torture — a forgiveness he realized through his Muslim faith.
“I found out that no revenge is as complete as forgiveness,” he said.