On Thursday morning, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of the acclaimed memoir Guantánamo Diary and one of Gitmo’s longest-resident prisoners, now in his 15th year of detention without being charged with a crime, went before a Periodic Review Board (PRB) designed to determine whether holding him there indefinitely “remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” The board’s six members – comprising senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; the Joint Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – will make their recommendation within 30 days.
Warscapes joined reporters from more than a dozen other news organizations at the Pentagon to view the brief unclassified portion of the hearing, beamed via video feed from a nondescript conference room at Guantánamo.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, the PRB’s representing essentially the only path towards leaving Guantánamo for the 80 prisoners who remain. A recommendation to clear a detainee for release has to have the unanimous support of all six members.
Slahi was ordered released in 2010 by a federal judge, the only independent party to review all the evidence against him, who determined the government lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute him. However, the Obama Administration appealed, and Slahi has been languishing every since.
Appearing calm and engaged, wearing a white tee-shirt and reading glasses, the 45-year-old Mauritanian read along as an unseen military official read a summary of the government’s assessment of his case, followed by statements of support from one of his civilian attorneys, Theresa Duncan, and his uniformed military “personal representative,” who serves as a sort of appointed advocate. The transcript can be read here.
“He was anxious and excited. He’s been waiting for this for so long,” said one of his attorneys, who spent the two days prior helping him prepare and collect his nerves. “You talk about different questions that might come up, but with Mohamedou, he’s so eloquent and his story is so straightforward there really wasn’t much need for prep. He’s not afraid to be honest, and the fact that he speaks fluently in English, without the need for a translator, helps make a connection. ‘Have a conversation’ – that’s what I tell every client.”
Observers of the unclassified portion, however, aren’t allowed to hear the detainee’s voice.
The real meat of the PRB comes after the unclassified feed is switched off, when the detainee makes a statement and the board asks questions based on the full classified file.
Given the lack of public access to the substance of the hearing, we have compiled links to the government's "Guantanamo Detainee Profile" providing an unclassified overview of how it views his case, along with several unclassified letters of support, including one signed by nearly 90 academics who teach "Guantánamo Diary; another signed by 15 members of the British parliament; and perhaps the most moving, one written by one of Slahi's military guards at Guantánamo. Additional letters of support were written by former Guantánamo chief prosecutor Col. Morris Davis; Larry Siems, editor of Guantánamo Diary; and Slahi's attorney, Nancy Hollander, who has spent some 100 days with her client during dozens of trips to Guantánamo.
"The first moment with Mohamedou is imprinted into my memory forever," Hollander wrote. "We walked into the cell and there he was—small, young, smiling—it is the smile I most remember. He stood and held out his arms as though to embrace us but did not move. We didn’t realize at first why. Then we saw the shackles on his leg. We walked into his embrace and he held us both. His first words at seeing us remain classified but his smile does not. His joy was evident, his welcoming, obvious.
"I will use my resources to help Mohamedou succeed after his release from Guantanamo. I plan to be with him wherever he is sent, be it Mauritania or somewhere else. I will stay as long as necessary to help him start his life, get a job, begin the process of learning to live in the world again."