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'Forever Prisoner' Writes Book About Guantanamo; He's One Of 107 Still There


President Obama might be getting closer to meeting a goal he set when he first took office - emptying the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One hundred and seven captives remain there. Fifty or so have no immediate chance of getting out. And let's hear about one of Guantanamo's so-called forever prisoners. It's a case that's drawn support from celebrities and human rights activists. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: These words were written by the man U.S. officials once considered their highest-valued detainee at Guantanamo.

NICK CAVE: (Reading) When I arrived in the camp in August, 2002, the majority of detainees were refusing to cooperate with their interrogators.

WELNA: That's Australian musician Nick Cave. He is reading from "Guantanamo Diary." It's a book published in January that a Mauritanian named Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote by hand while held captive in Guantanamo. Words and entire pages have been blacked out by government censors, but much of Slahi's tale remains intact.

CAVE: (Reading) Like me, every detainee I know thought when he arrived in Cuba it would be a typical interrogation and after interrogation he would be charged and sent to court. And the court would decide whether he is guilty or not.

WELNA: But after nearly 14 years of imprisonment, Slahi, like most other detainees in Guantanamo, has never been charged, much less tried. He has also not seen his book. Nancy Hollander is Slahi's personal attorney.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Guantanamo has denied him and everyone else who has tried to get the book in - they have refused it.

WELNA: On what grounds?

HOLLANDER: We don't ever get grounds. They just refuse it.

WELNA: Slahi has acknowledged serving allegiance to al-Qaeda in the early 1990s while fighting a communist regime in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say he recruited three men involved in the 9/11 attacks. But Hina Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, says Slahi's detention is entirely unjustified.

HINA SHAMSI: He wasn't captured on a battlefield. He voluntarily turned himself over to authorities in his native country of Mauritania for questioning. He never fought against the United States. He was subjected to one of the most brutal torture regimes at Guantanamo.

WELNA: A lot of Guantanamo detainees were subjected to harsh interrogations, but what Slahi went through was extraordinary. In 2003, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally approved what was called a special interrogation plan for him. It used so-called enhanced methods. According to a Justice Department investigation, he was beaten, sexually throttled, put in extreme isolation, shackled to the floor, stripped naked and put under strobe lights while being blasted with heavy metal music.


DROWNING POOL: (Singing) No. Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor.

WELNA: This particular music, called "Bodies" by the group Drowning Pool, was fond by the Justice Department. It had been used frequently by Guantanamo interrogators. Slahi writes he reached his limit after interrogators threatened to detain his mother and lock her up with Guantanamo's all-male inmates. He decided to tell his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. He insists it was all fabrications, but it was enough to satisfy his interrogators. It was also why a Marine colonel and Pentagon attorney named Stuart Crouch ultimately refused to prosecute Slahi. Here is Crouch describing that decision two years ago on public radio station WNYC in New York.


STUART CROUCH: And in my legal judgment, the information that he gave up after he broke under interrogation was so intertwined with whatever quantum of evidence there would have been of his guilt. That's why as a legal matter and an ethical matter I resolved that he had been tortured and would not be able to be prosecuted.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Because that's a form of torture...

WELNA: Ever since then, Slahi has remained stuck in Guantanamo. His decision a dozen years ago to break his silence does not appear to have improved his chances of leaving the island prison camp. That puzzles Ben Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who edits a national security legal blog called Lawfare.

BEN WITTES: You get somebody who has provided really useful information, who has in some meaningful sense broken with his past, and what's the endgame for that person?

WELNA: Five years ago, Slahi used the writ of habeas corpus to challenge his detention in federal court, and he prevailed. A District Court judge ordered his release. But the Obama Justice Department appealed. A circuit court vacated the district judge's ruling and sent the case back to be retried. Slahi's attorney, Nancy Hollander, says even if he were to win again in the lower court, the government would likely appeal it again.

HOLLANDER: They have fought his habeas. They are not moving on this case at all and fight it tooth and nail. At the same time, they say they want to close Guantanamo. And it's simply inconsistent. If they want to close Guantanamo, they should send Mohamedou home today.

WELNA: Just before leaving Washington for the holidays, President Obama reaffirmed his desire to close Guantanamo. The way he plans to do that, he said, is steadily chipping away at the numbers there.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have a review process for those who are eligible for transfer. We locate in countries that have accepted some of these detainees.

WELNA: That review process is carried out by senior security officials from six federal agencies, all of whom sit on what's called the Periodic Review Board, or PRB. It's a parole hearing-type panel ordered up by Obama nearly five years ago to determine whether Guantanamo captives still pose what's called a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States. But the PRB has moved very slowly. Only 21 detainees have had their cases reviewed. Of them, 15 were cleared for release. Lawfare editor Wittes considers a PRB hearing the best bet for Slahi's lawyers. Problem is Slahi's never been told when he'll have a hearing with the PRB even though he was promised two years ago he'd get one. A federal judge rejected Nancy Hollander's plea for his court to order a hearing date. Hollander says she's not sure now what she's going to do.

HOLLANDER: I don't know why they're holding onto him. I wish I knew. It makes no sense.

WELNA: Government officials contacted by NPR gave no specific reasons why Slahi remains a forever-prisoner. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.