(Tunis) – Mauritanian authorities should issue a passport without delay to a former Guantanamo Bay detainee or explain the legal grounds for denying his right to travel, Human Rights Watch said today.
The United States released Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of a renowned prison memoir, after he was detained for more than 14 years in Jordan, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, and returned him to his native Mauritania. The authorities now appear to be arbitrarily restricting his rights.
“It is not enough that the United States held Mohamedou Ould Slahi without charges for 14 years,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Now his own government is depriving him of his rights without filing a single charge against him.”
Ould Slahi told Human Rights Watch that he suffers from back pain and pain resulting from an operation at Guantanamo to remove his gall bladder. Without a passport, Ould Slahi, who holds no other nationality, cannot travel abroad for medical treatment that he says is unavailable in Mauritania.
In 2001, Ould Slahi surrendered to Mauritanian authorities for questioning about terrorism-related matters. They handed him to what appeared to be Jordanian intelligence forces, who held him in a Jordanian prison, then transferred him to US custody at Baghram Air Base in Afghanistan. In August 2002, US authorities transferred him to Guantanamo Bay.
In 2015, while still detained, he published Guantanamo Diary, which US authorities permitted after redacting numerous passages. The book describes physical and psychological abuse, primarily by US authorities, that Ould Slahi says he suffered, and has been translated into many languages and published in over 25 countries. In 2017, following his release, Slahi published a new edition, with the redacted passages reinstated.
In July 2016, a US review board approved Ould Slahi for release, and flew him to Mauritania that October. By then he no longer possessed a passport or Mauritanian ID documents. When he arrived, Mauritanian security officers told him that based on a US request, he would not be issued a passport for two years, he told Human Rights Watch.
A New Yorker article of April 15, 2019 cites an unnamed US diplomat as saying that Mauritania had agreed with the US not give Ould Slahi a passport until after an undisclosed amount of time had passed since his return from Guantanamo Bay.
Several weeks after his return, Ould Slahi applied for a new national ID and card, the first step toward obtaining other key documents relating to civil status, including a passport. He did not receive a national ID card until July 2017, he said.
Ould Slahi formally applied for a passport in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, on January 2, 2019. Ould Slahi and his lawyer, Brahim Ebety, said that he has received neither a passport nor any response to his application.
On February 25, Ebety submitted a petition to the Interior Ministry, saying that Ould Slahi has a legal right to a passport and asking the ministry to instruct civil registration authorities to issue him one. The ministry has not responded, Ebety said.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Mauritanian authorities on May 13 to ask them to explain Ould Slahi’s civil status and the basis for having declined to act on his request for a passport. At the time of publication, we had not received a response.
Article 10 of Mauritania’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to enter and leave the country freely. Article 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee the same right, subject to restrictions as provided by law. Mauritania is party to both treaties.
Ould Slahi was born in Rosso, in southern Mauritania, and grew up in Nouakchott. After high school, he won a scholarship to study engineering in Germany, and lived in Germany, Canada, and Mauritania before his detention in 2001. In the early 1990s, he joined Afghan Mujahideen forces to support their fight against Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government. At that time, he swore allegiance to Al-Qaida, but has said that in 1992 – the year of his last visit to the country – he cut all ties with the organization. Ould Slahi is married and the father of a young son.
“The human right to travel is fundamental,” Fakih said. “If the government has a legitimate basis to deny one of its citizens a passport, it needs to provide, in writing, a compelling reason, and allow that citizen to challenge the refusal.”