Freed from Guantanamo, but imprisoned by borders

Mohamedou Ould Slahi left Guantanamo three years ago, but his illegal imprisonment is still ongoing.

Barbed wire with the US flag to the right of it. The wire and fence is black, like a silhouette against the sky.
FILE: A US flag flies above a razorwire-topped fence at the 'Camp Six' detention facility at US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay December 10, 2008 [File:Mandel Ngan/Reuters]

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, former Guantanamo Bay detainee and the author of the internationally bestselling memoir Guantanamo Diary, recently told me that upon being in repatriated to his home country of Mauritania in 2016, that he was in a daze – not knowing whether his new, supposedly free life was real or not. 

His confusion is not surprising. Like many former Guantanamo prisoners, once Slahi finally left the prison, he was faced with a reality reminiscent of a nightmare. A nightmare facilitated by the United States and shaped by secret resettlement agreements, denial of movement and a lack of acknowledgement of wrongdoing that leaves prisoners with the stigma of the terrorist label.

Slahi, who was never charged with any crime, spent 14 years at Guantanamo, a prison reserved exclusively for Muslims apprehended as part of the so-called “war on terror”, enduring some of the most brutal forms of torture including sexual humiliation and sleep deprivation. So one may argue that despite all the difficulties associated with life after prison, he should be considered “lucky” because he was eventually able to leave Guantanamo and return to his country of origin.

However, the limitations imposed on Slahi’s new life have recently taken an even more sinister, dangerous turnmaking it obvious that he is not any more free or safe than he was back at the notorious detention centre.

His application for a passport, which he needs in order to leave the country and receive medical care abroad, has been denied by Mauritanian authorities. Thus instead of being imprisoned by bars, he is now imprisoned by borders – borders that are impenetrable to those whose misfortune has left them in the crosshairs of the US’s so-called “war on terror”.

Slahi told me that he sought out medical care outside of Mauritania to address pain from a surgery that he had at Guantanamo after local doctors told him his case was too advanced for them to treat effectively. “I’m not even talking about night tremors; I’m not talking about not being able to sleep; I’m not talking about waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe – I’m not talking about any of that … It is my right to seek medical treatment; it is my right to have access to medical treatment,” Slahi told me.

Nevertheless, Mauritanian officials told him that they “will not give [him] a passport until the US says so.” But the US has, according to Slahi, repeatedly denied their role in his passport ordeal, telling him that “you are not a citizen; you are not under our authority – there is nothing to ask us – your country is sovereign, they can do whatever they want.” 

While the game of deflection between the US and Mauritania continues, Slahi has garnered little support from Western countries because of what he believes is a deferential attitude towards US violence. “When you say ‘I was persecuted by the Egyptian regime or the Saudi regime’, everybody wants to help you – a lot of people want to help you in the Western world,” Slahi says, “but when you say ‘the United States [is persecuting me]’, the premise is that the United States never does the wrong thing and you must have done something for the United States to pick you up, torture you and drag you to Guantanamo Bay. This is the premise – some people say it outright and some people don’t say it explicitly, but I know what they think.”

After his application for a passport was denied multiple times, Slahi, who had previously been told by the government he would be eligible to travel again two years after being released from Guantanamo, decided to petition Mauritania’s minister of the interior, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. His petition is supported by dozens of writers, editors, publishers, teachers and human rights advocates, who have written to Ould-Abdallah describing the rejection as “extrajudicial punishment of a man who has never engaged in terrorism nor ever been charged with or convicted of a crime”. 

Slahi says he will go to court if Mauritania continues to deny him the right to a passport. However, he knows that the battle is uphill and that his threat to go to court will most likely lead to nothing as “the judiciary is not independent” in Mauritania. He says he feels “like a guinea pig.”

Slahi’s struggle for basic rights, like obtaining a passport and seeking medical care, is not unique to him. Many other former Guantanamo detainees are facing similar horrors on a daily basis as they to live their lives in legal limbo. 

There are still 40 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo and Slahi’s story in many ways shows that even the ones that have been released are not really free of their illegal captivity. Moreover, the torture the US inflicts on former Guantanamo prisoners is not limited to secret deals with host countries that result in these innocent men being imprisoned within borders – the US still refuses to admit that it held and tortured these men wrongfully, so the shadow of guilt still follows them everywhere they go, while crimes committed by the US remains unabated.

“I want to shout out to the whole free world that we are human beings in this part of the world and we want the same freedom and rights that American citizens enjoy – that Danish citizens enjoy; that German citizens enjoy – that all people in the free world take for granted,” Slahi told me at the end of our interview. “I want the same rights. I want them now, not tomorrow.”

The world can’t continue to look the other way as the US continues to torture, imprison and dehumanise innocent men like Slahi inside and outside its prisons just for being Muslim.  Instead, those responsible for designing, implementing and perpetuating the cruel infrastructure of detention and torture in the War on Terror must be held to account.  Perhaps then, former prisoners will be able to reinvent their stolen lives.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.