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'The Mauritanian' explores torture, abuse of former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, took its first 20 detainees in 2002. Despite various calls to shutter it, almost 20 years later, it still stands.

A new movie now tells the story of a man who spent more than 10 years within its walls.

Amna Nawaz takes a look at "The Mauritanian," playing in select theaters and now available to rent on demand.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Amna Nawaz: In 2016, Mohamedou Slahi was allowed to return home to Mauritania after being held for 14 years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He was never charged.

His book, comprised of letters to his lawyer, was read by millions worldwide.

Tahar Rahim: I am innocent. I am innocent.

Amna Nawaz: Now millions more can watch his story in the movie "The Mauritanian."

Mohamedou Ould Slahi: Not in my wildest dreams have I ever dreamed that my story would not only be known in a book, but also that book is turned into a major motion picture.

Amna Nawaz: Slahi, played by actor Tahar Rahim, was picked up by Mauritanian police two months after 9/11. In August 2002, he was moved to Guantanamo Bay, one of hundreds detained by the U.S. as an enemy combatant.

Carol Rosenberg: I think there were some people who were hungering for the message: We got them.

And I think that for those who think about Guantanamo and see it as men in orange jumpsuits on their knees, the message that we got them was very raw at the time.

Amna Nawaz: The New York Times' Carol Rosenberg has covered the prison for years.

Carol Rosenberg: Guantanamo is more than a place in some ways. It is the idea that you can pick people up and move them halfway around the globe, and hold them as indefinite detainees in this war on terror, in this war that has nobody on the other side to end it.

Amna Nawaz: The U.S. accused Slahi of recruiting the 9/11 hijackers and supporting al-Qaida. They cited a phone call he once received from Osama bin Laden's spiritual adviser, a relative of Slahi's.

Slahi, who fought with the U.S.-backed rebels in Afghanistan in the 1990s, says he never supported al-Qaida, and he didn't know that phone call was from bin Laden's satellite phone.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi: I always told myself, at the end of the day, I didn't do wrong to anyone.

Amna Nawaz: He was tortured by his American interrogators, subjected to solitary confinement, physical beatings, and sexual humiliation. They threatened to kidnap, rape, and kill his family.

For actor Tahar Rahim, playing Slahi came with extraordinary pressure.

Tahar Rahim: I was scared because I knew he was watching the movie. And, of course, he was the first audience member I wanted to please.

Woman: Tahar Rahim for "The Mauritanian."

Amna Nawaz: But the role, which has earned him Golden Globe and British Academy Award nominations, also meant a chance to challenge stereotypes.

Tahar Rahim: It's very rare to read a script, so to see a movie with a Muslim sympathetic character at the center of a Hollywood movie. I don't want to be typecasted. And I don't want to be an instrument to tell those type of stories.

You think I'm guilty.

Amna Nawaz: To prepare, Rahim lost 20 pounds. He learned two new Arabic dialects. He had the set temperature turned down to the freezing cold Slahi endured, and insisted on real shackles.

Why was that important to you?

Tahar Rahim: To convey authenticity to the director, to the audience, and especially to Mohamedou, out of respect to him.

Amna Nawaz: Inside Guantanamo, Slahi endured months of brutal interrogations. And, eventually, he broke, signing a false confession. The government used it as evidence, but Slahi never saw the case against him.

In 2005, with the help of lawyer Nancy Hollander, played by Jodie Foster, he filed a writ of habeas corpus.

Slahi's lawyer, Nancy Hollander.

Nancy Hollander: There was no case. But it took us a long time to show that there was nothing.

Amna Nawaz: To help his defense, Hollander says she urged Slahi to write down his story.

Tahar Rahim: You're asking me to set fire to this place, but I'm still sitting...

Jodie Foster: Then write it down, right? That's what the pages are for. Write it down. You need to tell me the truth. You need to tell me what happened to you. I can't defend you. Do you understand that?

Tahar Rahim: I don't need to tell you nothing. Whatever I say, it doesn't matter. This (EXPLETIVE DELETED) island, I will die here. Outside, my family, my brother, their lives go on. Teri's life goes on. But me here, I'm like a statue.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi: I was so scared and so afraid, and I didn't feel like my lawyer appreciated how much fear I was in.

Amna Nawaz: Despite the fear, he wrote, trusting Hollander with his story, and with his life. Over years, their bond grew.

Tahar Rahim: What do you want me to sign, Nancy? Who am I suing today? God?

Jodie Foster: No one today.

Tahar Rahim: Then why are you here?

Jodie Foster: No reason in particular. I just didn't want you to be alone.

Nancy Hollander: We loved each other. We cared about each other. We had become family.

Amna Nawaz: In 2010, a judge ruled the government had no grounds to hold Slahi. He was ordered released. But an appeals process kept him at Guantanamo another six years.

Nancy Hollander: There was a time when Mohamedou said to me, "If this is what Allah has for me, I can do it, as long as they're not torturing me."

And I said to him: "I will be here. I will be here until we get you out."

Amna Nawaz: Why did you make that promise to him? How did you know you could keep it?

Nancy Hollander: I knew that I would never give up with him.

Amna Nawaz: Slahi was released in October 2016. Today, he says he holds no ill will towards his captors.

Tahar Rahim: I expected to meet someone maybe with resentment, anger. And none of that. He goes, like, when you come to realize that forgiving people who did bad things to you as a treat you give yourself, you set your mind free.

Amna Nawaz: Some, like Hollander, hope the power of this story helps propel change long overdue.

Nancy Hollander: We want this film to make a change. We want it to be part of what closes Guantanamo, that brings us back to the rule of law. We cannot have indefinite detention anywhere, any time in the United States.

Amna Nawaz: Despite pledges by Presidents Obama and now Biden to close it, Guantanamo Bay remains open. Forty men are held there today in what's become the world' most expensive prison, at an annual cost of $13 million per prisoner.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi: Guantanamo Bay is a complete insult to the dignity, not only of those in Guantanamo Bay, but of American people, because American people, by and large, are good people, and they deserve better than Guantanamo Bay.

Amna Nawaz: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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