Podcast: Torture and the law – G – Human Rights Law Committee

Wednesday 15 February 2023

This episode – ‘G’ for Guantanamo voices – is dedicated to two powerful people: Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Nancy Hollander, who have both helped to shine a light on the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe that is Guantanamo Bay.

‘Just because you are born in Africa or the Middle East, doesn’t mean you don’t have any rights’

In this episode, Mohamedou Ould Slahi recounts his journey from Mauritania to Guantanamo Bay. It started with two FBI officers turning up on his doorstep, effectively kidnapping him and taking him away from his mother, whom he would never see again. When he first arrived on US soil, he was initially optimistic. Having grown up on a diet of American television shows (including Married with Children and Law and Order), he believed that Americans were funny and respected the rule of law. But when the FBI gave him to a torture team and, after he was broken, came back and interrogated him, he learned that only one of these beliefs was true.

‘This is why we became lawyers’

Nancy Hollander describes the path she took that led her to representing Guantanamo detainees, including Slahi and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. While concerned that the participation of defence lawyers could create a false veneer of legitimacy on an illegitimate process, the stark reality was that ‘if we don’t represent them, they will get bad lawyers who will just roll over’. After four years of seeing no civilians other than the Red Cross, Slahi was told that lawyers were coming to see him. He was so happy – he thought that this was his ‘get out of jail card’. He was taken to a room, shackled with a bolt in the floor. When Hollander and her colleague walked into the room, he stood, put out his arms, hugged them and said, ‘my lawyers’.

‘Lawyers are different than plumbers: they don’t just fix a pipe and leave’

Hollander provides crucial advice for lawyers representing detainees in such circumstances. At Guantanamo, lawyers are the lifelines for detainees. Detainees there do not have the same support system as domestic detainees: they receive no visitors other than their lawyers. Consequently, lawyers must wear many caps – they have to be caretakers and not just a person who represents the client in court. Lawyers have to deal with the whole person. For Hollander, it was important to spend time with Slahi, to see him regularly, to listen to him, learn his priorities and make sure he was okay. This included taking steps to address his mental health with the assistance of a psychologist. Hollander also describes their litigation strategy and the difficulties created by the regime of secrecy that pervaded the proceedings. Her attempts to find tangible evidence of torture through freedom of information requests almost stalled due to confidentiality classifications. The fortuitous release of information in public reports, detailing specific torture techniques and the interrogator’s access to Slahi’s medical reports, saved the day and helped them to build a case that Slahi had been tortured.

‘As long as the lion doesn’t write, the story will always glorify the hunter’

When Slahi first arrived at Guantanamo, he borrowed pens and paper so he could write everything down in Arabic, French, German and smatterings of English he was learning from the guards. In 2003, during a cell search, everything he had written was taken and he stopped writing. When Hollander proposed that he start writing again, he was angry at first. He had been interrogated 18 hours a day for months on end over four years. Trying to remember all the details of this torture ‘was like asking Charlie Sheen how many girlfriends he has had’. The government knew every single detail of his life and he had no privacy. To explain everything that happened, Slahi had to expose himself further to lawyers that he wanted to impress, but it was also imperative to get his story out and to be believed. This process – of speaking his truth – was even more important than freedom. The authorities fought tooth and nail to prevent him from telling his side of the story, but Slahi and Hollander persisted. Hollander describes the steps she had to take to try to access Slahi’s writings and how the classification system was used to take punitive actions against her. It took ten years to release the (heavily redacted) ‘Guantanamo Diary’ and when it first came out, the government listed the book as an exhibit against him. Ultimately, the book played a key role in changing hearts and minds concerning Slahi, paving the way to his freedom.

‘You can’t explain freedom to someone who has never lost freedom’

After 15 years of incarceration, Slahi’s dream was to walk on a street that has no end. During those 15 years, he never saw the sun set and never saw the sun rise – his gaze ended at 30 metres. He used to write names of family members on the back of photographs so he would not forget what they looked like. When Slahi was released, it was amazing but he had lost 15 years. His mother and brother had died. Relatives that were children when he was arrested were now adults. He couldn’t sleep because he didn’t know day from night. When Slahi was told that he couldn’t leave Mauritania, that he couldn’t have a passport, he panicked, he felt like he couldn’t breathe. It turned out that even though he had been ‘released’, the taint of Guantanamo was hard to remove: ‘you have to be a writer – you have to have a big mouth – you have to have a movie with an A-list cast to get a passport to leave your country’.

Slali and Hollander continue to advocate for the release of the men who remain detained at Guantanamo and are denied access to basic and fundamental medical care. Their plight is a continuing stain on America’s commitment to justice and principles of decency. As Pradhan queries, if a country of people full of colour had captured 800 Americans and Europeans, tortured them and refused them access to medical care, what would have happened?

We strongly urge everyone to listen to this episode. Slahi is free but there are 35 men who are still there and who should not be forgotten.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this episode reflects the opinion of the US Department of Defense, nor should any content be taken to confirm or deny information that the US government considers to be classified.


  • http://guantanamodiary.com Guardian hosted site concerning Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book, ‘Guantanamo Diary’
  • www.themauritanian.movie Official website for the film ‘The Mauritanian’.
  • Al Nashiri v Poland, ECHR, Judgment 24 July 2014 (judgment addressing Nashiri’s illegal rendition and torture).
  • Department of Justice Reverses Course, Rejects Use of Evidence Obtained by Torture in Guantánamo Death Penalty Case’, Death Penalty Info Post, 15 February 2022 - CIA Office of the Inspector General, Report Regarding Allegations of Torture by Ammar al Baluchi (2008)
  • Joint Statement from Amnesty International, Association for the Prevention of Torture, the World Organization Against Torture, and the International Commission of Jurists Regarding Medical Care at Guantanamo Bay (December 2022).

This is episode 3 of an IBA Human Rights Law Committee podcast series looking at both obvious and overlooked aspects of litigating and documenting torture, in an ‘A-Z’ format.