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Close Guantánamo: Ex-Prisoner & Torture Survivor Mohamedou Ould Slahi Calls on Biden to Shut Prison

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President Joe Biden is facing new calls to close the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an enduring symbol of U.S. abuses in the “war on terror.” Since 2002, about 770 men and boys have been held at the prison, and only eight have been convicted of a crime. Three of the convictions were later overturned on appeal. Today the prison’s population is down to 40, and shortly after Biden’s inauguration, seven former prisoners penned an open letter to the new president pleading with him to finally close the facility. One of the seven authors was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was held without charge for 14 years, during which time he was repeatedly tortured, before his release in 2016. He says he also wrote a personal letter to Biden asking him to close the prison. “I really believe he’s a good man,” Slahi says. We also speak with Slahi’s lead defense attorney, Nancy Hollander, who says there is no justification for keeping “forever prisoners” at the facility. “If the political will is there, President Biden can get Guantánamo closed,” Hollander says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Joe Biden is facing new calls to finally close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo. Since 2002, over 770 men and boys have been held at the prison in Cuba. Of them, only eight have been convicted of a crime. Three of the convictions were later overturned. Today the prison’s population is down to 40. According to The New York Times, the U.S. spends a staggering $13 million per prisoner each year, according to the New York Times.

President George W. Bush opened the prison in January 2002, just months after the September 11th attacks. President Obama campaigned on closing Guantánamo within his first year, but he failed to fulfill his pledge. He was fought by Congress. President Trump moved to expand Guantánamo during his presidency. Now the future of the prison lies with President Biden.

During a presidential debate in 2019, PBS moderator Yamiche Alcindor questioned then-candidate Biden about Guantánamo.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Vice President Biden, why couldn’t you close Guantánamo Bay? Why couldn’t the Obama administration close Guantánamo Bay?

JOE BIDEN: We attempted to close Guantánamo Bay, but you have to have congressional authority to do it. They’ve kept it open. And the fact is that we in fact think it’s the greatest — it is an advertisement for creating terror.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House recently pledged to conduct a robust review of options to close the prison. Supporters of closing Guantánamo include Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Shortly after Biden was inaugurated in January, seven former prisoners penned an open letter to Biden. They wrote, quote, “Many of us were abducted from our homes, in front of our families, and sold for bounties to the US by nations that cared little for the rule of law. … Some of us had children who were born in our absence and grew up without fathers. Others experienced the pain of learning that our close relatives died back home waiting in vain for news of our return. Waiting in vain for justice. … That is what you must contend with and change,” they wrote.

One of the seven authors of the letter was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was held without charge for 14 years, during which time he was repeatedly tortured. He was once falsely accused of being one of Guantánamo’s most high-value prisoners. His story is told in a new film, just out, called The Mauritanian. He will join us later in the broadcast. The director and cast of The Mauritanian appeared in a video released by Amnesty International urging the Biden administration to close the Guantánamo Bay prison. This is director Kevin Macdonald and actors Shailene Woodley and now Golden Globe Award-winning actress Jodie Foster.

JODIE FOSTER: We are part of the new film, The Mauritanian. The movie is about Mohamedou Slahi, who was tortured and imprisoned for years, never charged with a crime.

SHAILENE WOODLEY: He and almost 800 other men have passed through the terrifying doors of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay.

KEVIN MACDONALD: Guantánamo is a symbol of torture, indefinite detention and injustice.

SHAILENE WOODLEY: Join us to tell President Biden:

JODIE FOSTER: Close Guantánamo, once and for all.

KEVIN MACDONALD: And end indefinite detention.

AMY GOODMAN: But first we’re joined by Nancy Hollander, who represented Mohamedou Ould Slahi, played by Jodie Foster in the new film. She is joining us from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Nancy Hollander, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the efforts to close Guantánamo and why you fought for so many years for this, both representing Mohamedou, who we’ll hear from in a minute, as well as another man who is still a prisoner at Guantánamo?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Hi, Amy. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: We hear you perfectly.

NANCY HOLLANDER: OK, great. I have some — we’ve had some audio problems.

You know, I’ve fought for this for years because Mohamedou is an innocent man. He was tortured in Guantánamo. They knew early on that he was innocent, certainly after the torture ended, and they realized that his confessions were fake, and yet they made no effort to release him.

And we finally won a habeas case for him in front of Judge Robertson. We won in — I believe it was the end of 2009, beginning of 2010. And the judge ordered that he be immediately released, that the government, even then, 2010 — they had held him now for almost nine years — still could not tip the balance on a civil case to show that they had any reason to detain him.

However, the Obama administration, after saying that he wanted to close Guantánamo, the Justice Department appealed Mohamedou’s case and several others’ that had won. And the court of appeals sent it back to the district court, and there it stayed. The district court did not act on it. I think perhaps the district courts — his was not the only one — had realized that when they went up to the court of appeals, they were going to lose. So they just stopped.

We ultimately got Mohamedou out, finally, through something else that Obama created called the Periodic Review Board, six intelligence agencies that had to be unanimous that he did not pose a significant threat to the United States and its allies. But that took another six years.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou is one of 770 men and boys held at Guantánamo for this last almost 20 years. Eight of them have been convicted of crimes. Three of those convictions were overturned. The vast majority of people, including Mohamedou, were never charged. And yet the government now is spending something like half a billion dollars to maintain this prison a year?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Sorry, Amy. You’ve cut out.

AMY GOODMAN: The government is spending around half a billion dollars to maintain the prison a year?

OK, let me go to Mohamedou Ould Slahi himself. He is joining us from Mauritania, imprisoned at Guantánamo for nearly 14 years without being charged with a crime. In a moment, we’re going to talk about the film, major feature film, that has just been released about you, Mohamedou.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the letter you just wrote to President Biden? Mohamedou, can you hear me?

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Yeah, now I can hear you.


MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: And, Amy, thank you very much for having me on your program. Always a big admirer of your program. And I know you from Guantánamo already. Could you please repeat the last part of the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the letter that you signed, along with a number of other former prisoners at Guantánamo, calling on President Biden to close the prison?

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Yes. So, I’m a big believer in democracy and human rights. And this is for [inaudible]. I don’t want to be treated outside the rule of law. And I don’t want people from this part of the world, specifically North Africa and the Middle East, to be seen as underhumans, as people who are not deserving of human rights and being subjected to the rule of law, what I call open season. I don’t want that anymore. This needs to stop. All we want is just like your program, is democracy now.

And yes, I co-signed that letter. And when you just read that portion, it sprang to my mind that seared image, the very last image I saw from my mother as she held her prayer beads in prayer and she was [inaudible] I would only see her from the rearview mirror until she disappeared. She disappeared forever. I had no chance, never, to see her again. The only thing I know about her is that last memory, the very last memory that I couldn’t replace with anything else.

And yes, I think I really believe that — I sent two letters, by the way, Amy. One is this letter with the group, and one is a personal letter I wrote with my hands and sent with post, regular post, to President Biden, because I really believe that he’s a good man. And I think him having suffered the loss of his young wife, the loss of his [inaudible], that’s something that I couldn’t even imagine how painful it is. And I think that he would close the prison, because the prison does not belong. It’s a disrespect to human rights, disrespect to human dignity, disrespect to the Constitution of the United States of America. And it tells more about those who made it than those who were dragged into it from all around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to tell our audience who is listening around the world, we’re having some sound issues as we’re speaking with Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Mauritania. And we’re rejoined right now by Nancy Hollander, your attorney, on the telephone. Nancy Hollander, how much stock do you hold in President Biden first saying, back last year when he was running, that he felt that Guantánamo should be closed, that the defense secretary, the first African American defense secretary in U.S. history, Lloyd Austin, says it should be closed, and the Biden administration says they’re conducting an interagency review — Justice, State Department, Pentagon — of what should happen to Guantánamo?

NANCY HOLLANDER: I believe that if the political will is there, President Biden can get Guantánamo closed. Six people there have been cleared for release, at least one of them for over 10 years. There is no reason why they can’t find homes where those people will be safe, either back in their country or another country. Those people should be gone. They should get — I mean, that should be an easy start.

The other 25 or so, who are called forever prisoners, they need to find homes for them. We don’t have forever prisoners, Amy, in our justice system. People who have been convicted are sometimes held for life without parole, but these people have never been charged. Some of them have been there since 2002. And for those people who have been charged, including my client, Abd Rahim al-Nashiri, they have to provide every single right under the United States Constitution and get those cases resolved, either by trials or pleas or transfers. That can be done. The political will has to be there to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s also the latest news, in the last weeks, about vaccines, about vaccines that were headed to Guantánamo for the, what, 40 prisoners that are held there now, and then they were barred from getting them, Nancy Hollander. The New York Times reported the Pentagon suspended the plans to provide the coronavirus [vaccine] to those remaining prisoners, originally scheduled to get them in early February.

NANCY HOLLANDER: You know, Amy, that’s just political. We’re talking about 40 people here. Forty people are not going to use up vaccines that could be used by other people. And these prisoners have every right, just as prisoners in the United States do, to get this vaccine.

Secondly, if they’re concerned — if people are concerned about the health and safety of others in Guantánamo who are in contact with the prisoners, certainly they what to get them vaccinated. If they want to start these hearings again for those who have been charged, then everybody has to get vaccinated. It’s ridiculous. It’s just beyond ridiculous that 40 vaccines would make any difference to people getting them in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to ask both of you, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Nancy Hollander, to stay with us as we continue our coverage of Guantánamo.

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Next story from this daily show

“The Mauritanian”: Film Tells Story of Innocent Man Held at Guantánamo for 14 Years Without Charge

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