Michael Bronner

“What do you mean by ‘tea and sugar?’” the American interrogators wanted to know.

Armed with an intelligence phone intercept in which the phrase “tea and sugar” was uttered by a then-30-something Mauritanian electrical engineer named Mohamedou Ould Slahi during a conversation with a friend, the military intelligence officers – who now had Slahi shackled to the floor in a wooden hutch at Guantánamo – were convinced he was speaking in code, “tea and sugar” some sort of encrypted directives in a terrorist plot.

Slahi’s answer, consistent over the dozens of times they asked, would enrage them:

“I mean tea and sugar.”

(Mauritanians drink strong, sweet green tea endlessly; if you’re a guest in a Mauritanian home, the tradition is that you have to stay at least as long as it takes to drink three glasses.)

Unconvinced, the United States would subject Slahi to the worst torture Guantánamo had to offer, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally signing off on a “Special Interrogation Plan.” It’s practical fulfillment, administered over 50 days in the summer and fall of 2003, included sexual abuse, beatings, isolation, disorientation, threat of execution, threats to have his mother detained and raped, mock kidnapping, refrigeration, stimulus deprivation to the point of hallucination – and, for the nearly 12 years since his interrogations stopped, the excruciating mental anguish of indefinite detention without legal recourse.

Slahi admitted from the start that he had suspended his university studies in Germany for several weeks in the early ‘90s to join the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a cause célèbre among young Muslim college students at the time - and one overtly and covertly supported by the United States. The US government would insist for years that Slahi secretly remained a member of Al Qaeda, with a hand in the Millennium Plot and 9/11, but was never able to present evidence to support the allegations and ultimately abandoned most of them.  

In full, Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantánamo without charge for nearly 14 years, on top of eight months at a CIA black site in Jordan and two weeks of grilling at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before that – part of a “endless world tour,” as he’s called it, of detention, interrogation, rendition and torture at the behest of the US - treatment he memorializes in his stunning, bestselling memior, Guantánamo Diary (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

But in what might be read as a coded admission – that tea and sugar may, after all, have been nothing more all along – Slahi’s captors presented him with a letter today (7/20) informing him that he has been cleared for release by a quasi-parole board comprising senior military and intelligence officials. In its “Final Determination,” the board, “by consensus, determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” As to whether Slahi’s detention and abuse were ever necessary in the first place, the Board makes no official comment.

Slahi’s attorneys, Nancy Hollander and Teresa Duncan, who have represented him for more than a decade, were on hand as he opened the letter and read it through (the process is tightly controlled so that the detainee is the first to know the outcome). When he flashed them a smile and stood to embrace them, they knew, too.

“For me it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had as a lawyer – actually as a human being,” Duncan told me in a call shortly after hearing the news. She and Hollander have said they’ll travel to be with Slahi and help him adapt when he is released.

Slahi’s younger brother, Yahdih, who has spearheaded a warm and tireless campaign to free Slahi on behalf of their large family (and spent the afternoon fielding reporters’ calls from every corner of the globe), sent me a text with his reaction to the news: “Shooooooookran!”  [Arabic for “Thaaaank Yooouuu!”], followed by another, in English: “Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees!”

Indeed, the board cites as an important criteria in its decision “the extensive support network available to the detainee from multiple sources, including strong family connections, and the detainee's robust and realistic plan for the future.”

Slahi will most likely be repatriated to Mauritania, where his family lives. Mauritania has successfully managed the return of other freed Guantánamo detainees, and the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, has made it clear to the United States that he wants Slahi home.

“Crisis always brings out the best and worst in people – and in countries, too,” Slahi writes in Guantánamo Diary, which reflects not only upon the abuses he suffered, but also acts of kindness and humanity from several of his guards. In fact, perhaps the most striking affidavit submitted to the board in support of Slahi’s release came from one of his former military guards:

“We had the chance to spend hours and hours, face to face getting to know one another,” wrote the guard to the panel. “Before my assignment to Guantánamo I had heard the men I would be guarding were the worst of the worst and that they would likely hate me and everything the United States and I stood for. I expected to find angry and brutal men. In no way did I experience that with Mohamedou.”

He describes Slahi’s sense of humor, and remembers him as friendly, polite and respectful, showing compassion and empathy when discussing more personal matters, such as the birth of the guard’s child during his deployment. 

“Based on my interactions with Mr. Slahi while in Guantánamo, I would be pleased to welcome him into my home. Based on my interactions, I do not have safety concerns if I were to do so. I would like the opportunity to see him again.”

You can hear the empathetic, compassionate Slahi the guard came to know in Slahi's closing paragraphs of Guantánamo Diary.

“Human beings naturally hate to torture other human beings, and Americans are no different,” he writes. “Many of the soldiers were doing the job reluctantly, and were very happy when they were ordered to stop. Of course there are sick people everywhere in the world who enjoy seeing other people suffering, but generally human beings make use of torture when they get chaotic and confused. And Americans certainly got chaotic, vengeful and confused, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Slahi might be alarmed upon his release to find how chaotic, vengeful and confused the world remains today. Yet for his part, he recently told Hollander he bears no grudges towards his captors, and that he “dreams to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.”