The release of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo and his reunion with his family in London this past week is a case of justice long overdue. It is also a case of justice realized at last thanks to international pressure, and in this case pressure especially from the United Kingdom – official pressure from leaders from across the political spectrum, and grassroots pressure from NGOs and thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens. In a memorable Parliamentary debate in March, several UK MPs called out the United States for continuing to imprison a man not for anything he had done but because of the abuses he had witnessed and he himself had suffered in US custody. ‘Now,’ as the New York Times reported in announcing his release on Friday, ‘Mr Aamer will be free to speak his mind in public.’
I am hoping that, with similar international pressure, the same may soon be true for Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
In the summer and fall of 2005, Mohamedou handwrote the memoir of what he calls his ‘endless world tour’ of detention and interrogation in an isolation hut in Guantánamo. In it, he recounts an odyssey that began when he turned himself in for questioning in his native Mauritania in November 2001, and included renditions to Jordan, then to Bagram in Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo, where he was subjected to one of the most stubborn, deliberate and cruel Guantánamo interrogations on record.
For almost seven years, the US government held the 466-page manuscript as a classified secret. It continues to hold Mohamedou Ould Slahi himself. A federal judge who heard his habeas corpus petition in 2010 ordered him released, but the government appealed. Mohamedou has never been charged with any crime.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of his attorneys, and to the efforts of American NGOs that forced the US government to release thousands of pages of documents corroborating Mohamedou’s story, this January readers in the United States, the United Kingdom and seven other countries were finally able to read Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story in his own words. By the end of the year, Guantánamo Diary – a book that was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and praised by the New York Times as a ‘dark masterpiece’ and ‘the most profound and disturbing account yet of what it’s like to be collateral damage in the war against terror’ – will be available in 28 countries and 25 languages.
And yet, to this day, Mohamedou is unable to speak directly to the public about his experiences, which now include an additional ten years of arbitrary, unjustified imprisonment since he wrote his manuscript. I was barred from meeting him or speaking with him throughout the process of bringing his manuscript to print, and I still cannot contact him; no writer or journalist has ever been allowed to visit or interview or speak with a Guantánamo prisoner. Long a symbol of the United States’ failure to respect the most basic human rights, Guantánamo remains as well one of the world’s most rigid censorship regimes.
When he wrote Guantánamo Diary, in the same isolation cell he had been dragged into for one of the prison’s most well-documented tortures and less than a year after the worst of that torture had ended, Mohamedou displayed a remarkable faith: faith in the power of the written word, and faith in the reading public to answer his simple and profound appeal for justice. The release of Shaker Aamer last week shows what can happen when the public takes up the cause of justice, and it is an important benchmark in the ongoing struggle to bring the sad Guantánamo saga to an end.
It is my hope that my fellow PEN members and all who campaigned for Shaker Aamer will similarly take up Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s cause, so that he, too, may be reunited with his family, and so that he can enjoy, at last, his fundamental right to speak and write freely.
You can do this by signing the American Civil Liberties Union’s petition on his behalf, at https://action.aclu.org/secure/free-slahi, and by sharing that link, and Mohamedou’s remarkable story, with your networks and friends.
With many thanks,
Listen to John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Cave, Neil Gaiman, Brian Eno, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Jude Law, Colin Firth, and many others read excerpts from Guantánamo Diary.
Read English-language reviews of Guantánamo Diary.
Guantánamo Diary is published by Canongate in the UK.