The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide

30.5.08

Exactly one year ago today, on May 30, 2007, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi prisoner in Guantánamo who, like most of his companions, had been held without charge or trial for five and a half years, died, allegedly after committing suicide. A long-term hunger striker, according to imprisoned al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, who compiled an extraordinary report about the hunger strikes, he was apparently suffering from hepatitis and stomach problems at the time of his death.

Unlike the year before, however, when three prisoners — Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani — died in what was widely reported as a suicide pact (and was, notoriously, referred to by Guantánamo’s commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, as “an act of asymmetric warfare”), there was little media interest in al-Amri’s death.

Largely unchallenged, the Pentagon responded to his death by declaring that he was “a mid-level al-Qaeda operative with direct ties to higher-level members including meeting with Osama bin Laden,” whose “associations included (bin Laden’s) bodyguards and al-Qaeda recruiters.” It was also stated that he “ran al-Qaeda safe houses.”

In response, in my very first articles on my blog following the completion of the manuscript for my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, I pointed out how ludicrous it was that the Pentagon’s assertions were allowed to pass unchallenged:

Quite how it was possible for al-Amri, who arrived in Afghanistan in September 2001, to become a “mid-level al-Qaeda operative” who “ran al-Qaeda safe houses” in the three months before his capture in December has not been explained, and nor is it likely that an explanation will be forthcoming. Far more probable is that these allegations were made by other prisoners – either in Guantánamo, where bribery and coercion have both been used extensively, or in the CIA’s secret prisons. In both, prisoners were regularly shown a “family album” of Guantánamo prisoners, and were encouraged – either through violence or the promise of better treatment – to come up with allegations against those shown in the photos, which, however spurious, were subsequently treated as “evidence.”

As with so many Guantánamo prisoners, the contradictory allegations against al-Amri beggar belief. By his own admission, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, having served in the Saudi army for nine years and four months. US Southern Command expanded on his activities as a Taliban recruit, claiming that, “by his own account,” he “volunteered to fight with local Taliban commander Mullah Abdul al-Hanan, and fought on the front lines north of Kabul”, and that he subsequently “fought US forces in November 2001 in the Tora Bora Mountains.” This may or may not be true, but it is at least within the realms of plausibility. Claiming that he ran al-Qaeda safe houses, on the other hand, is simply absurd, and should alert all sensible commentators to scrutinize with care the allegations made by the US authorities against the majority of those held in Guantánamo without charge or trial (I’ve studied all of them, and allegations that are either groundless or contradictory are shockingly prevalent).

I concluded my article by stating:

If we are to believe this callous attempt to blacken the name of a man who, having apparently taken his life in desperation, appears to have made the mistake of traveling to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban at the wrong time, one question in particular needs answering: when, during the three months that al-Amri stayed in a guest house in Kabul, trained at a “school for jihad” in Kandahar, fought on the front lines, retreated to Tora Bora and crossed into Pakistan, was he supposed to have located the al-Qaeda safe houses that he was accused of running?

In the year since Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s death, the silence that followed the Pentagon’s callous outburst has been broken only once, in October, when Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the senior lawyer on Guantánamo’s management team, stated in an interview that he had personally seen “all four men dead –- each one hanging –- and that the first three men had used sling-style nooses.” Speaking specifically about the death of al-Amri, he said that he had fashioned “a string type of noose” to kill himself.

On this somber anniversary, the best I can do to mark the shameful circumstances of Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s passing (without having been granted an opportunity to present his case in a court of law) is to repeat one of the few statements attributed to him during his imprisonment in Guantánamo, which demonstrates, I believe, how he never presented a threat to the United States or its interests.

Responding to an allegation that he admitted to “carrying an AK-47 while retreating” to Pakistan (which was supposed to suggest militancy against the United States), he pointed out that “Americans trained him during periods of his service” with the Saudi army, and insisted that, “had his desire been to fight and kill Americans, he could have done that while he was side by side with them in Saudi Arabia. His intent was to go and fight for a cause that he believed in as a Muslim toward jihad, not to go and fight against the Americans.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post and CounterPunch.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

One Response

  1. The Third Anniversary of a Death in Guantánamo 31.5.10 « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), [...]

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