Slahi and Machado–American Injustice.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi voluntarily turned himself in for questioning in Mauritania in November of 2001 regarding a foiled terrorist plot in Canada in 1999. He was renditioned to Jordan at the request of the US government and has been detained since. He is currently being detained indefinitely in Guantanamo where he has written a 466 page memoir about his detention and interrogation. It was recently de-classified and Slate has been running a series releasing bits of it.

It is a pretty disturbing account of Slahi’s life in the hands of the US government. I highly recommend it, though I warn you it is a total downer. On the positive side it gives a little humanity and dignity back to the detainees. When I read part one of Slate’s coverage, the thing that immediately jumped out at me was Slahi’s faith in the US justice system. In particular this passage:

I considered the arrival to Cuba a blessing, and so I told my brothers, “Since you guys are not involved in crimes you need to fear nothing. I personally am going to cooperate, since nobody is going to torture me. I don’t want any of you to suffer what I suffered in Jordan.” I wrongly believed that the worst was over, and cared less about the time it would take the Americans to figure out I am not the guy they are looking for. I trusted the American justice system too much, and shared that trust with people from European countries. We all have an idea about how the democratic system works…With every day going by, the optimists lost ground, and the interrogation methods worsened considerably as time went by. As you shall see, those responsible in GTMO broke all the principles upon which the U.S. was built.

Some people want us to believe that “they” (a widely cast net) “hate our freedom”. I am not sure how many people are genuinely convinced by that catchphrase but Slahi reminded me that the promise of something (freedom, justice, liberty) later denied does real damage to our reputation abroad. It is hard to hate “freedom” as a general category. It is not hard to hate hypocrisy, especially if you fall victim to it. Unfortunately, it is not only in Gitmo that basic principles of American justice are broken–though it is clearly the most extreme case.

In some ways the wrongs committed in Guantanamo are a magnification of our own system of detention. Amnesty International released a report condemning California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs or solitary confinement). California alone holds over 3,000 inmates in SHUs. An estimated 2,000 of these prisoners are held “indefinitely” for being affiliated with a gang, not for actually committing specific offenses. For decades, prisoners can be held in isolation with limited access to other humans, sunshine, and medical treatment. The notorious Pelican Bay prison is in a remote location making it difficult for prisoners to receive outside visitors. This is exacerbated by the restrictive visitation policy–1.5-2 hours on weekends through a glass panel–no physical contact. They are denied access to phone calls, further limiting contact with family and friends. The psychological torture leads to long term mental and physical health problems. It is often too much for prisoners to take; the suicide rate in California prisons is high. One family is suing after their relative, Alex Machado, committed suicide in Pelican Bay while serving an indefinite term in solitary. He showed serious signs of mental deterioration but was repeatedly denied treatment.

Machado was facing indefinite solitary confinement based on loose allegations of gang affiliation. Alex Machado, like Slahi, started to hear voices. He reported feeling harassed by the guards. His death, and the overall frustration with the situation in California prisons, prompted a hunger strike. This hunger strike also seems to be a smaller scale version of Guantanamo, in terms of scale and media attention. Instead of trying to figure out why so many people “hate us” we should focus more on living up to our own standards of justice–in Guantanamo and at home.


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