This week, the American prison at Guantánamo, located in southeastern Cuba, celebrates its 20th anniversary. Created during the US invasion of Afghanistan, it came to house hundreds of people from 49 countries under degrading conditions, with several reports of torture, in addition to a lack of prosecution or trial.
Currently, 39 prisoners are in this situation, called “eternal prisoners”. One of the many suspects released after more than a decade without any crime being proven is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, born in Mauritania, in North Africa. His story is told in the film “O Mauritano”, released in 2021, showing on movie and streaming channels.
The film goes beyond the country’s controversial, not to say false, narratives to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as many others throughout its history. It still leads us to realize how, in the name of a “greater enemy”, inhumane practices are accepted and inconsistent accusations are encouraged.
Among several possible reflections, the film is an obligatory stop to learn about history and reflect on the evils of global dimensions caused by the “war on terror”, the injustices caused by investigations based on “prize winning” and confessions under torture.
Slahi was subjected to all sorts of rapes in order to make him confess what the accusers wanted and turn in whoever he was. Even though he was innocent and with widespread international pressure for his release, his appeals in court took years to process. In total, he spent more than 14 years in prison before being released without proof of crimes. In prison, Slahi wrote by hand about the hell he lived through. The document went through censorship by the US government until it was released with broad black stripes over the report.
However, this was not able to stop their denunciations. The reports became a book that is published in several languages. In Brazil, it is the “Guantanamo Journal”, published in 2015 by Companhia das Letras.
During a search to write this week’s column, I came across the article published by Clive Stafford Smith on the Al Jazeera news channel website, which has been doing a special on the 20th anniversary of Guantánamo prison.
Like Nancy Hollander, who represented Slahi, Smith is a lawyer and represents some of the prisoners who have been without charge or trial for nearly two decades. For him, this scenario, publicized as necessary to combat “Islamic extremism”, is actually provoking him.
In his account, he claimed to have encountered very few “terrorists”, referring to people captured on battlefields or in fact linked to the country’s enemy organizations – which allegedly justified the government’s narrative of suspension of rights.
Smith tells the story of Mohammed el-Gharani, born in Chad and raised in Saudi Arabia, where he suffered racism and could not study due to his African origin. El-Gharani went to Pakistan to study English and computer science, until he was arrested by the country’s police and sent to Guantánamo, where he was incarcerated and tortured for seven years.
He was 14 years old and had never had contact with Al Qaeda. He hasn’t even been to Kabul, Afghanistan. The torture sessions, which involved beatings and constant exposure to light in the eyes, developed glaucoma, as well as irreparable damage to mental health.
I discovered that his story is told in the book “Guantanamo Kid”, by Jérome Tubiana and Alexandre Franc, still without translation in Brazil.
Smith also represented Sami al-Hajj, a Qatari journalist and cameraman who worked for Al Jazeera when he was detained on arrival in Pakistan. Hajj was subjected to torture for six years at Guantánamo until he was released without charge. He is currently an internationally awarded journalist and works at the station as director of freedoms and human rights. Like Slahi, Gharani and many others, there are books about his trajectory.
In January of last year, these authors of books who were prisoners at Guantanamo, tortured for years and released without charge, wrote a letter to newly elected President Joe Biden.
The document calling for, among other measures, the closure of the prison, was published in the New York Review and is signed by Mansoor Adayfi, Moazzam Begg, Lakhdar Boumediane, Ahmed Errachidi, Moussa Zemmouri, as well as Slahi and al-Hajj. It starts like this: “President Bush opened it. President Obama promised to close it but failed to do so. President Trump promised to keep it open. Now it’s your turn to decide.” On the 20th anniversary, the appeal continues to grow stronger.
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