By Nelda Holder –
Taking a look at torture, the law, and ourselves.
A stark question hovers over the recent release of the film The Mauritanian: Does the “rule of law” remain sacred in the United States of America?
The dramatic but fact-based movie, released just as this country watched its actual seat of government—its literal and symbolic Capitol—physically attacked for the first time in 209 years, has at its heart the meaning of a lawful society. It documents the story of a long-term (14+ years) prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay “black site” (the location of an unacknowledged military operation) called Camp X-Ray, where some 779 individuals were held in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States in 2001. Most were held with no formal charges or trial; a number of the prisoners were tortured.
Mahamedou Ould Slahi was one of those men. He documented his story in an autobiography penned while incarcerated, originally published in 2015 as the Guantanamo Diary (now named The Mauritanian), on which the movie is based. Slahi (played by Tahir Rahim), was swept up in the post-9/11 hunt for terrorists. He was taken from his family home in Mauritania (an Islamic republic in Northwest Africa), and tortured at Guantanamo until his eventual “confession” was obtained under duress. During his lengthy incarceration, he was never charged with a crime.
That’s where the “rule of law” comes in: in 2007, real-life lawyer Nancy Hollander’s decision to represent Slahi was based on that premise. (Hollander is played by actress Jody Foster, who just won a Golden Globe award for this film.). No charges had been filed against Slahi or other such prisoners, so he was being imprisoned without cause—a power the American justice system was designed to prevent, and the abuse of which Hollander found worth challenging.
Even as it chronicles the facts of the case, the film elucidates the character of Slahi—his past, his culture, his family, his character, his heart. Its portrayal of Hollander’s battle on Slahi’s behalf, and the character of the man she is defending, offer stark juxtapositions to the 2021 anemia attacking the soul of this country. Slahi’s story is much more than a recounting of the past; it is a piercing call for accountability in the present.
Hollander’s dedication to the rule of law was subsequently backed up by the decision of Slahi’s prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who chose to leave the case when it becomes apparent that Slahi’s confession was the result of torture. And while the focus on the actual “extraordinary means” of eliciting a confession is mercifully brief, even the “non-extraordinary” details of this man’s capture and imprisonment provide horror enough.
Enter North Carolina’s Quiet Role in the Use of Torture
The film focuses more on Slahi’s endurance and character, and Hollander’s determined pursuit of justice, than on the specifics of his ordeal. But with The Mauritanian’s new availability to the public, civil liberty proponents in this state are using the moment to discuss “The Use of Torture and Race North Carolina’s Role”—a virtual program designed to elucidate the state’s role in the torture of Muslims in such “black sites,” as well as allegedly abusive conditions in this state’s own prison system, which the programs’ sponsors charge with a disproportionate impact on Black Americans.
Nancy Hollander will be one of several panelists on the March 23, 2021 program, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the ACLU Western NC Chapter, and NC Stop Torture Now. The panel plans to highlight the connection between the US government’s torture of Muslims in CIA “black sites” and the “abusive conditions in North Carolina’s prison system, which disproportionately impact Black Americans.”
Additional panelists include James Coleman, professor at Duke Law School and director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility; Robert Thomas, Jr., community liaison for the Racial Justice Coalition of Asheville; Frank Goldsmith, mediator and former civil rights lawyer in Asheville who has represented several Guantanamo detainees and wrongfully convicted NC prisoners; and Christina Cowger, coordinator of NC Stop Torture Now. The moderator will be Kristie Puckett Williams, manager of the Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice for the ACLU of NC.
Cowger stresses that that The Mauritanian has several direct connections to this state, including the following:
- Smithfield, NC-based CIA affiliate Aero Contractors helped the CIA kidnap and “render” Slahi from Jordan to Afghanistan (as documented in the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture report, “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program”)
- Slahi offered his own testimony at the 2018 NCCIT’s hearings in Raleigh
- The torture regime inflicted on Slahi was developed by Fort Bragg personnel
- Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch, the prosecuting attorney played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film, is a Campbell University Law School alumnus
Asking for Accountability
It was no surprise to some North Carolinians that Slahi’s story and this new film help to elucidate a quiet piece of this state’s history. Asked what action she would hope to see the state of North Carolina take regarding torture and its association with the torture flights, Cowger responded that she continues to be appalled at how the state’s highest elected leaders “willfully refuse to acknowledge the problem.” She would like to see the governor or attorney general “either investigate Aero Contractors and prosecute their crimes under state anti-kidnapping statutes, or refer these cases to the FBI and the Justice Department.”
As for the personal take-away for individuals who see The Mauritanian, Cowger declares the movie “shows our tax dollars at work, and it’s a shameful picture. No one has yet been held responsible for the abuses committed against Mr. Slahi, and it’s inexcusable. We must urge Congress and the Biden Administration to finally confront and acknowledge this ugly chapter.
“This reminds us of the way the state has failed to adequately redress other grim chapters in our history,” Cowger concluded, “such as lynchings of Black North Carolinians. The hope [of those responsible] is that the majority will look the other way. So we must push for official acknowledgement and accountability.”
A panel discussion program, “The Use of Torture and Race: North Carolina’s Role,” will be presented virtually on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The program is free to attend, but registration is required. Go to www.acluofnorthcarolina.org/en/events for details and to register.