By William Fisher
After nine years in captivity, a federal court has ordered the release of a Guantanamo prisoner once described as the "highest-value detainee at the facility " –and set off a firestorm of protest from Republican lawmakers.
Federal District Judge James Robertson ruled in Washington, D.C. that the U.S. could not continue to detain Mohamedou Ould Salahi (sometimes spelled “Slahi”), a Mauritanian citizen who has been in U.S. custody since 2001. Judge Robertson’s opinion, providing the reasons for the granting of Salahi’s habeas corpus petition, was released last week after undergoing a classification review; some portions were withheld as classified.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and private attorneys challenged Salahi’s detention, arguing that the government had no reliable evidence that he was part of al-Qaeda when he was seized in 2001.
Salahi became the 34th GITMO detainee whose imprisonment has been declared illegal.
The Department of Justice said it would appeal Judge Robertson’s decision. However, even if the government’s appeal is unsuccessful it is unclear that Salahi could be released until another country offers to take him in.
Jonathan Hafetz, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, told IPS, “Salahi's case is a national disgrace -- rendition, brutal torture, and eight years of arbitrary detention without charge or any reliable or credible evidence. Regrettably, rather than ending this shameful episode that flouts the rule of law, and repatriating Salahi, the government is seeking to prolong his illegal imprisonment."
“Salahi's illegal detention for more than eight years without charge or trial embodies the most egregious abuses of Guantánamo,” he said. “The district court’s decision invalidating that detention and ordering Salahi’s release is an important step towards restoring the rule of law,” he added.
After Salahi was arrested in Mauritania on suspicion of ties to al-Qaeda, the U.S. government illegally rendered him to Jordan, where he was detained, interrogated and abused for eight months. He was then rendered to Bagram, Afghanistan and finally to Guantánamo, where he has been held in U.S. custody since August 2002.
While at Guantánamo, Salahi was held in total isolation for months, kept in a freezing cold cell, shackled to the floor, deprived of food, made to drink salt water, forced to stand in a room with strobe lights and heavy metal music for hours at a time, threatened with harm to his family, forbidden from praying, beaten and subjected to the “frequent flyer” program, during which he was awakened every few hours to deprive him of sleep. The government falsely told him that his mother had been arrested and was being sent to Guantánamo.
Salahi’s abuse was documented in a 2009 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the military lawyer originally assigned to prosecute the case against Salahi in the military commissions, determined that Salahi’s self-incriminating statements were so tainted by torture that they couldn’t ethically be used against him. Couch told his supervisors that he was “morally opposed” to Salahi’s treatment and refused to participate in the prosecution.
In his decision, Judge Robertson wrote that there is “ample evidence in this record that Salahi was subjected to extensive and severe mistreatment at Guantánamo.”
Congressional Republicans expressed outrage over the decision. The Hill newspaper reported that Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, stated, "While (Attorney General Eric) Holder's Justice Department should appeal this outrageous decision, I'm not holding my breath. Holder seems more intent on closing Guantánamo Bay than keeping terrorists locked up where they belong."
The Hill also reported that Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, sent a letter to Holder asking him to appeal the ruling, in which he wrote, "It is certainly possible, if not likely, that Mr. Salahi will re-engage in efforts to commit terrorist attacks against innocent Americans if allowed to go free. This ruling clearly puts the American people in danger and should not be allowed to stand."
Salahi was subjected to several years of torture, which began soon after he was taken in by the Mauritanian authorities on November 20, 2001, at the request of the Bush administration. "My country turned me over, shortcutting all kinds of due process of law, like a candy bar to the United States," he said in his combatant status review tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004.
Salahi was transferred by the US from Mauritania to Jordan. According to historian Andy Worthington, he was one of at least 15 prisoners rendered to Jordan by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) between 2001 and 2004. He was held there for eight months and said what happened to him was "beyond description." He was tortured "maybe twice a week, a couple times, sometimes more." He was then transferred to the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan for two weeks and arrived in Guantánamo on August 4, 2002.
Worthington reports that, “as the highest-value detainee at Guantánamo - in the days before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other high-value detainees were flown in from secret CIA prisons in September 2006 - Salahi was again subjected to torture, which included prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings, death threats and threats that his mother would be brought to Guantánamo and gang-raped.”
This program, he says, was implemented in May 2003 and augmented with further "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It culminated in August 2003 in an incident when Salahi was taken out on a boat, wearing isolation goggles, while agents whispered, within earshot, that he was "about to be executed and made to disappear." As the German magazine Der Spiegel explained in an article in 2008, "He was so terrified that he urinated in his pants."