Guantanamo prisoner's story shows legacy of stigmatization from war on terror

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Mohammedou Ould Slahi. Image credit: International Committee of the Red Cross/Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, an American movie, The Mauritanian, premiered on Canadian screens.

It tells the story of former Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi -- detained without charges in 2002 until his release in 2016 -- and his subsequent repatriation to Mauritania, where he is originally from.

The movie is based on Guantanamo Diary, a memoir written by Slahi himself while detained. It was published in 2015, with Slahi unable to obtain a copy of his own work while in a Guantanamo cell.

Slahi was arrested in Mauritania in 2001, then rendered to Jordan where he was tortured, then taken to the U.S. Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before finally landing in Guantanamo in 2002.

The U.S. authorities had 14 years to prove that Slahi was a "high-value" Al-Qaeda operative as they suspected, but in the end they failed. Instead, they kept Slahi lingering in a cell. There he was sexually assaulted, and physically and psychologically tortured. He is regarded by many as the most tortured man in the history of Guantanamo Bay.

It was none other than Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. secretary of defense, who signed off on what is called "the program of abuse." This program was conducted by another recognized name in the business of extracting confessions: detective Richard Zulay, known in Chicago during the 1980s and 1990s for making Black and Latino prisoners confess under coercion, manipulation and abuse.

But the Mauritanian story has a Canadian chapter that the movie was silent about. In 1999, Slahi came to Canada as a permanent resident and attended the same mosque as Ahmed Ressam, the "Millennium Bomber," who was later convicted by U.S. authorities for planning to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport.

According to Slahi, it was the harassment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) -- following him, drilling a hole in the wall in an attempt to bug his apartment -- that pushed him to leave Montreal and go back to Mauritania, where his long nightmare with interrogations and imprisonment began.

Indeed, U.S. intelligence authorities suspected Slahi of being the mastermind behind the Millennium Bomber -- and their Canadian counterparts comforted them in this suspicion. In a taped phone call, Slahi spoke to a suspected terrorist and used the words "tea" and "sugar." These words were interpreted as code names for explosives and bombs.

"We have found no evidence to show that he was involved in any planned terrorist attack. A lot of the intelligence material was pure guesswork and people were drawing unwarranted conclusions."

This is how Mark Fallon, a longtime investigator at the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, described the case of Slahi.

Despite his release from Guantanamo, CSIS never came clean about their complicity in Slahi's ordeal.

On the contrary, then CSIS director Ward Elcock recently commented about Slahi: "He portrays himself as innocent, but I'm not sure I share that point of view."

Once you're labelled a terrorist, it will stick on your back forever.

A month after his inauguration as U.S. president, Joe Biden promised that it was the intention of his administration to close the infamous Guantanamo prison. Asked whether President Biden intended to shut the Guantanamo Naval Station by the end of his term, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: "That certainly is our goal and our intention."

It is a déjà vu scenario.

Back in 2009, on his third day in office, president Barack Obama ordered the detention facilities at Guantanamo to be closed "as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order."

Despite swift and serious willingness from the Obama administration to "close" Guantanamo's files and detention facilities, Obama's policy orders failed. When Donald Trump became president, he quickly overturned them. Worse, during his presidential campaign, Trump went further, proposing to keep using the facility by bringing in more detainees. "Bad dudes," he called them. On January 30, 2018, just before delivering his state of the union address, Trump signed an executive order to keep the prison open indefinitely.

Obama tried. The sad reality is he didn't succeed.

When George W. Bush created the Guantanamo Bay prison on an island in the middle of the ocean, his security advisers knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted to create a no-man's land where torture can be carried out with total impunity -- where the chances for prisoners of going back to their countries of origin are slim, and where the stigma associated with detainees, whether they're innocent or guilty, will haunt them forever.

In 2002, there were 779 detainees in Guantanamo. In 2011, 600 detainees had been released, many of them without charges.

In 2016, there were 91 prisoners left. Of these, 35 were recommended for transfer if security conditions could be met, and those remaining were to be brought to the U.S. for trial before military commissions or civil courts. That last move was blocked by Congress and Obama failed in his bid to close the prison.

In 2018, a New York Times report disclosed that the prison costs more than $540 million to hold the 40 remaining prisoners, including pay for military guards, the cost of the war court and related construction expenses, making it the most expensive prison in the world.

This past week, former Guantanamo prisoner Lotfi Bin Ali, originally from Tunisia, died alone in Mauritania. He had a heart condition and a pacemaker that couldn't be replaced because no one paid for it.

Bin Ali was released in 2014 from Guantanamo under the Obama presidency. He was never charged. He was one of those who "benefited" from Obama's promise to close the prison.

But because he is from a country that didn't want to accept him, because he was a Guantanamo prisoner, because he was deemed "the worst of the worst," a "bad dude," Bin Ali became stateless -- going from Guantanamo to Kazakhstan to Mauritania to the grave.

Caught in the war on terror, this man became haunted by his past. It was a past of poverty, petty crimes and a trip to a war zone that labelled him a terrorist.

Of the eight Tunisian nationals sent to Guantanamo, none was repatriated to Tunisia. Some were sent to Italy and others to Kazakhstan, like Bin Ali. The same fate awaited the Syrian nationals. After their release, some ended up in Uruguay and others in Cape Verde. Some of the Chinese nationals, from the Uyghur minority, were sent to Slovakia, others to Bermuda and other countries.

These new countries, picked for them by the U.S. administration, are a sort of exile where the former prisoners don't speak the language, are not familiar with the culture and don't have any common points with the local population.

Whether Biden fulfills his promise or not; whether members of Congress block his administration's efforts to transfer the prisoners to the U.S. mainland; whether the Republican House members, all military veterans, forcefully coming out against the release of the detainees continue their outcry; the fate of the 40 remaining detainees in Guantanamo can already be predicted: indefinite detention or death.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog.

Image credit: International Committee of the Red Cross/Wikimedia Commons

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