The US and British ruling classes pose as democrats and liberators. They claim their actions stand in stark contrast, for example, to the horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS). British and American methods are, it is suggested, those of pure fighters with clean hands.
Anyone who still needs convincing that this is nauseous hypocrisy should read this book.
Guantánamo Diary is an extraordinary document. It chronicles a decade and a half of imprisonment and torture suffered by an innocent man. Slahi wrote it in 2005 from a Guantanamo Bay “segregation cell” in English, his fourth language. It took many years of legal wrangles before it could be released and the text is disfigured by more than 2,500 black bars through words — redactions by the US government.
Slahi was born in Mauritania, west Africa, in 1970. He did well at school and travelled on a scholarship to study engineering in Germany when he was 18. Fired by a deep sense of injustice, he went to Afghanistan in 1991 to be part of the mujahedin who were fighting against the Russians. At the time he allegedly swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. Of course, at this time the mujahedin were also supported by the US government.
After the Russian-backed Afghan government collapsed, Slahi returned to his previous life, working as an engineer in Canada. There is no evidence that he had any further engagement with Al Qaeda or similar groups. But this counted for nothing once the US decided he was connected to the “Millennium Plot”, a plan to bomb Los Angeles airport in 2000. Slahi was held and interrogated in Canada, Mauritania, the US and Senegal. No evidence could be found against him and on each occasion he was released.
A few months after 9/11 he was asked to report to a police station in Nouakchott, Mauritania, for questioning. He complied with the request and disappeared into the US-run gulag. Secretly, and completely illegally, the CIA organised his “extraordinary rendition” to Jordan. His family had no idea where he had been sent.
After a fearsome tour through a number of other torture sites, Slahi arrived at Guantanamo Bay camp. He is still there today.
Guantánamo is a place of horror, of beatings and constant stress and sleep deprivation and endless suffering. “William the Torturer” threatens to have Slahi’s entire family sexually assaulted and to send him to an American prison where “terrorists like you get raped by multiple men at the same time”. On another occasion Slahi was subjected to a whole night in a freezing room with The Star-Spangled Banner played at full volume.
Meanwhile his torturer warned him not to try to find refuge in Islam: “You’ll insult my country if you pray during my national anthem. We’re the greatest country in the free world and we have the smartest president in the world.”
None of this was accidental or the result of a few crazed rogue operatives. It was ordered from above. In what became known as the “torture memo” created by top administration officials after 9/11, pain only amounts to torture when it is equivalent “to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
Slahi’s torture was the result of a minutely detailed plan approved at the highest level. It was secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld who authorised the “Special Interrogation Plans” for specific detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. It was former vice-president Dick Cheney who said, “I’d do it again in a minute,” after the Senate Intelligence Committee had revealed systematic and disgusting torture. As Slahi writes, “President Bush described his holy war against the so-called terrorism as a war between the civilized and barbaric world. But his government committed more barbaric acts than the terrorists themselves.”
For the US authorities, to be in Guantanamo meant you were guilty. A trial was not simply something to be denied; it was unnecessary. There were no suspects, only terrorists who must be made to talk. As one interrogator put it to Slahi, “In the eyes of the Americans, you’re doomed. Just looking at you in an orange suit, chains, and being Muslim and Arabic is enough to convict you.”
Five years ago Slahi’s lawyers filed a petition challenging his detention. A US judge looked at the case, concluded that Slahi was not guilty of the government’s charges and ordered his immediate release. The Obama administration appealed against this ruling and denied Slahi his freedom.
But the book is not just a record of torture. It also has moments of humour, moments when Slahi laughs at his interrogators, and of Slahi’s extraordinary forgiveness and humanity. In a recent conversation with his lawyer he disclaimed any hatred for his torturers; he dreams of talking to them over a cup of tea, “having learned so much from one another”.
Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase, the black sites of rendition and torture, the million dead in Iraq, the tens of thousands murdered elsewhere in the world. And Guantanamo. This is the bestial face of imperialism. Not individual terrorism, instead a terror state.