When Nancy Hollander first met her new client he stood with arms out to embrace her. But he couldn’t move. She looked down and saw that he was shackled to the floor. They were in a visitor’s hut at the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She stepped forward to complete the embrace and to begin what has become an extraordinary journey and an excruciating lesson in absurdity and injustice.
In that session, her client gave Hollander 90 pages he had written by hand, the beginning of a book about his experience in U.S. custody, including torturous interrogations and an inexplicable isolation from his family and the real world. That was in 2005.
Nearly 10 years later — and nearly five years after a federal judge ordered his release — he remains in the Guantánamo prison. But Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story is finally being heard. His new book, “Guantánamo Diary,” has justifiably become a cause celèbre, an instant classic of its kind — which is an honest and humble cry from prison for justice and humanity.
Slahi is Mauritanian, now 44. Trained in Germany as an electrical engineer, he also once was briefly aligned with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1990s — though he contends he quit and renounced it. That association came back to haunt him. U.S. officials first wanted to blame him for a series of planned attacks known as the Millennium Plot. And they came calling again after the horror of Sept. 11, 2001.
“In November 2001,” Hollander, an attorney based in Albuquerque, N.M., told me over the phone this week, “he is at his mother’s house in Nouakchott, in Mauritania, and gets a call from the police to come in and be interviewed. His family has never seen him again to this day.”
Anyone interested in the legacy of the Patriot Act and the expansion of the national security apparatus, or in the Bush administration’s authorization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” or in the Obama administration’s promise and failure to close the Guantánamo prison should read Slahi’s plain-spoken and disturbing account. It stands in direct opposition to Republican senators who declared in a hearing on Thursday that anyone still in Guantánamo deserves to be there.
Slahi’s book is heavily patterned with jarring black redactions — the names of interrogators and other details censored in the years it evolved from manuscript through declassification.
Remarkably, Slahi wrote the book in English, his fourth language, which he learned largely while in captivity. Its pages reflect an intelligent human being, befuddled, betrayed, battered unceasingly for weeks and months at a time, but still capable of humor and heart.
“Since I wasn’t allowed to have books,” he writes, “I had to pick up the language mostly from the guards and sometimes my interrogators, and after a short time I could speak like common folk: ‘He don’t care, she don’t care, I ain’t done nothin’....F—this and F—that.’”
Slahi’s hoped-for release in 2010 was stalled by the Obama administration, which appealed a federal judge’s order on his writ of habeus corpus. The case remains in legal limbo, and though Hollander awaits another hearing she has no idea when Slahi — never charged with a crime — will be free.
Pressure is mounting as Slahi’s book rolls out to a global audience and as the American Civil Liberties Union gathers signatures on a petition to demand his release. Find a link to that — and excerpts — at guantanamodiary.com.
In a video on that site, Hollander sums up the grave injustice: “It’s not that they haven’t found any evidence against him. There isn’t any evidence against him.”
In light of the book’s early success, Slahi directed Hollander to send proceeds back home to pay for a nephew’s college education. Perhaps the nephew will also learn from his uncle’s courage and his example of grace under pressure.
“I think prison is one of the oldest and greatest schools in the world,” Slahi writes, “you learn about God and you learn about patience.”