(April CCPA Monitor)
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Guantanamo Diary Reveals Canadian Complicity in Torture
(April CCPA Monitor)
By Matthew Behrens
Following December’s release of the U.S. Senate report on American complicity in torture, Prime Minister Stephen Harper quickly declared, “It has nothing to do whatsoever with the government of Canada.” Despite the CIA’s close relationship with Canadian state security agencies – as well as two judicial inquiries finding Ottawa complicit in the torture of Canadian citizens in Syria and Egypt – Harper preferred to ignore the facts.
At the same time, a stunning memoir was published that paints another damning portrait of Canadian authorities from even before 9/11. Guantanamo Diary – originally composed by hand in 2005 from a cell at the infamous U.S. torture camp that remains open despite President Obama’s promise to close it 8 years ago – is the remarkable story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian national who remains detained there despite a 2010 U.S. release order.
Learning English by listening to his kidnappers and torturers, Slahi elegantly relates a tale of human resilience under the most appalling conditions. Filled with wisdom, humour, and heartbreaking moments of despair produced by unending months of round-the-clock torture, the memoir was classified secret, becoming the subject of a six-year legal battle for its release. It contains countless redactions from single words to whole pages, but in a remarkable comment on the cultural shift that has come to accept torture as reasonable and inevitable, most of the sections detailing his brutalization appear intact.
Slahi’s troubles began in Montreal in 2000, where, after 12 years in Germany, he lived as a Canadian permanent resident for just over two months. At the time, he was subject to an RCMP/CSIS “disruption” campaign of harassment: two cameras were implanted in the wall of his Montreal room, and he was followed in an obvious manner “to give the message that we are watching you.” Slahi’s very first interrogation was at the hands of the RCMP, and “I was scared to hell” as he was questioned about a fellow Montrealer he’d never met: Ahmed Ressam, who was eventually convicted in the U.S. for a “Millennium Plot” to bomb the Los Angeles Airport.
Flying home to Mauritania, Slahi was intercepted and twice detained at the behest of U.S. officials, first in Senegal and then Mauritania, repeatedly interrogated about alleged involvement in the Millennium Plot. Released in February, 2000, Slahi was again arrested in September 2001, questioned, cleared, and released. In one 2000 Mauritanian interrogation, Slahi recalled that things seemed to be going smoothly, “but when they opened the Canadian file, things soured decidedly.” Significantly, this illustrates how Canadian state agencies were participating in the U.S.-led rendition-to-torture program at least 20 months before 9/11, which contradicts CSIS and RCMP claims that similar human rights violations they committed in 2002 and 2003 were mistakes resulting from confusion and fear after 9/11, as opposed to a Standard Operating Procedure that was clearly employed against Slahi.
Indeed, readers familiar with Canadian human rights abuses against Arab Muslims will recognize in Slahi’s memoir a similar pattern that reveals the dangers of “information sharing,” “intelligence” data dumps that are full of inflammatory and false allegations, “cooperation” with secret police, and using the fruits of torture.
Slahi’s decision to voluntarily show up for another round of Mauritanian police questioning in November 2001 led to his self-described rendition world tour: Jordan, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the human hellhole reserved for “the worst of the worst” which, by the time Slahi arrived in 2002, was found by an LA Times investigation to detain “no big fish,” but instead hundreds of innocents who had been turned in by Afghan bounty hunters seeking rewards from Americans who paid good money and never confirmed the truthfulness of the hunters’ allegations. Indeed, as Associated Press reported in 2013, there were ongoing efforts between 2002 and 2005 to recruit Gitmo detainees as spies and double agents. Slahi himself describes a facility where intelligence agents came from around the world – including Canada – to interrogate their “nationals” or refugees who had escaped their clutches.
The basis for Slahi’s detention appears to be two-fold: in U.S. eyes, he fit the profile of an alleged threat because be fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1991-92 with a little-known, U.S.-funded group called Al Qaeda. Although Slahi left in 1992, a distant cousin, Abu Hafs, became a member of the group’s shura council; opposing the 9/11 attacks, Abu Hafs served some time under Iranian house arrest, and is now a free man.
With those two links providing no traction, it appears that the sole basis for his detention is the alleged Millennium plot connection, even though the plot’s singular member, Ahmed Ressam, never implicated Slahi when he freely cooperated with U.S. authorities (and later recanted about those he did try to implicate). Canadian security agencies notoriously lost track of Ressam, who was only caught because of an attentive U.S. border guard.
“Canadian intelligence wishes I were a criminal, so they could make up for their failure when [NAME REDACTED, but clearly Ressam] slipped from their country to the U.S. carrying explosives,” Slahi writes. “The U.S. blamed Canada for being a preparation ground for terrorist attacks against the U.S., and that’s why Canadians Intels freaked out. They really lost their composure, trying everything to calm the rage of their big brother, the U.S. They began watching the people they believed to be bad, including me.”
As in most cases of Canadian targeting and profiling over the past two decades, Slahi is the victim of alleged guilt by association, no matter how many degrees of separation. Like Ottawa’s Maher Arar, who was the subject of a massive data dump of inflammatory falsehoods that, shared with the Americans, led to Arar’s being branded a threat and a target for Syrian torture, Slahi writes: “I stayed less than two months in Canada, and yet the Americans claimed that the Canadians provided tons of information. The Canadians don’t even know me!” Notably, the Germans provided nothing for Slahi’s interrogations.
“All the Canadians could come up with was, ‘We have seen him with x and y, and they’re bad people.’ ‘We’ve seen him in this and that mosque.’ ‘We have intercepted his telephone conversations, but there’s nothing really.’ The Americans asked the Canadians to provide them the transcripts of my conversations, but after they edited them.” Without providing the full conversations – which Slahi believes Canada should have refused anyhow – there is no opportunity to provide context, and so the Americans fixated on what they believed were two code words in his phone calls: tea and sugar.
One interrogator tells Slahi “your only problem is your time in Canada. If you really haven’t done anything in Canada, you don’t belong in jail.” He is also interrogated by one of the men who interrogated Canadian teenager Omar Khadr after the youngster had been “softened up” by weeks of torture.
The Canadian Slahi file must be bulging with references to Canadians who may have unwittingly suffered surveillance, interrogation, and detention. To cite one of many possible examples – he describes writing out over 1,000 pages of false confessions to try and end the torture at Gitmo – Slahi agreed that he planned to blow up Toronto’s CN Tower, even though he had no clue what it was. Did this “confession” lead to RCMP/CSIS targeting of Canadian Kassim Mohamed after this father of five took photos of the landmark to share with his children, then living in Egypt? That targeting certainly caused Mohamed’s harrowing two-week detention in Egyptian custody during a 2004 family visit.
How many other people in Canada had cases built around such tortured “confessions? Slahi continues, “Whenever they asked me about somebody in Canada I had some incriminating information about that person even if I didn’t know him,” noting that use of the phrases “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” only invited more torture. Threatened with being disappeared forever, he “took the pen and paper and wrote all kinds of incriminating lies about a poor person who was just seeking refuge in Canada and trying to make some money so he could start a family. Moreover, he is handicapped.” He feels horrible, taking solace that “I didn’t hurt anybody as much as I did myself [and] that I had no choice [and] I was confident that injustice will be defeated.”
The torturous act of “confession” about things and people he knows nothing about was the culmination of endless rounds of sleep deprivation, sexual assault, beatings, immersion in severe cold, humiliation, degradation, and a starvation diet. The psychological war – informing Slahi his mother is detained at Gitmo and likely to be violated in the all-male environment – is all-pervasive, but throughout, he maintains a combination of defiance (refusing to speak or throwing snarky replies at his interrogators) and spirituality, even though he is forbidden to pray and punished when he tries to do so. “I hate torture so much,” he writes, adding waiting for torture is worse than torture itself.
Remarkably, Slahi maintains a sense of ironic humour, comparing his huge number of interrogations to the list of women Charlie Sheen has dated, and likening the repetitive nature of interrogation to the Hollywood film Groundhog Day. He develops relationships with his guards, debating religion and popular culture; one guard cries shamefully when he leaves Guantanamo, believing that he will go to hell because he prevented Slahi from praying. Others have Slahi fix their VCRs and PCs. Slahi’s ocean of tears is one day interrupted with paroxysms of laughter when he reads what he declares “such a funny book”: The Catcher in the Rye.
Over 6 years, Slahi estimates 100 different interrogators, including Canadian agents, had a go at him. “You know that I know that you know that I have done nothing,” he tells one American. “You’re holding me because your country is strong enough to be unjust. And it’s not the first time you have kidnapped Africans and enslaved them.”
Is Slahi still at Gitmo 13 years after because Canadian intelligence agencies don’t want him released? Could holding him be quid pro quo for Canada accepting Omar Khadr and taking that PR nightmare off American hands? Unfortunately, Slahi’s attempt to secure disclosure of his RCMP/CSIS files, as well as notes from Canada’s Gitmo interrogations, was turned down by a Canadian Federal Court judge, who ruled the Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not extend to him, even though it was two months in Canada that led to Slahi’s nightmare. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear Slahi’s subsequent appeal to find out what Canada actually has on him, if anything.
Canadians wondering what the future will look like with passage of new anti-terrorism legislation, C-51, have another frightening roadmap with Slahi’s must-read memoir.