Two years and two months after three prisoners at Guantánamo died, apparently as the result of a coordinated suicide pact, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which has been investigating the deaths ever since the three long-term hunger strikers were found dead in their cells on June 10, 2006, issued a 934-word statement on Friday that purported to draw a line under the whole sordid affair.
The deaths of the three men — Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani — have been controversial from the moment that they were first announced, when Guantánamo’s then-Commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, attracted international opprobrium by declaring that they were an act of “asymmetric warfare,” and Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, had similar scorn heaped upon her when she described the men’s deaths as a “good PR move.”
As I have explained previously, the administration soon assumed a slightly more placatory role, when Cully Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, declared, “I wouldn’t characterize it as a good PR move. What I would say is that we are always concerned when someone takes his own life, because as Americans, we value life, even the lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country.”
In keeping with the unjustified rhetoric that concluded Stimson’s “apology,” the Pentagon proceeded to pump out propaganda portraying the men as terrorists, even though, like all the prisoners in Guantánamo, the majority of the information against them had come from interrogations in which torture and coercion were widespread, and none of the men had ever been screened adequately to determine whether or not there was any basis for their automatic designation as “enemy combatants” who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Al-Zahrani (left), who was only 17 years old at the time of his capture, was accused of being a Taliban fighter who “facilitated weapons purchases,” even though this scenario was highly unlikely, given his age. In al-Utaybi’s case, he was declared an “enemy combatant” because of his involvement with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, a vast worldwide missionary organization whose alleged connection to terrorism was duly exaggerated by the Pentagon, which had the effrontery to describe the avowedly apolitical organization as “an al-Qaeda 2nd tier recruitment organization.” The administration also admitted that al-Utaybi had actually been approved for “transfer to the custody of another country” in November 2005, although Navy Commander Robert Durand said he “did not know whether al-Utaybi had been informed about the transfer recommendation before he killed himself.” In the case of al-Salami, who was captured in a guest house in Pakistan with over a dozen other prisoners, most of whom have persistently claimed that they were students, the Pentagon alleged that he was “a mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operative who had key ties to principal facilitators and senior members of the group.”
Sadly, the NCIS statement (published in full here) does little to address long-standing concerns about the circumstances of the men’s deaths. The investigators unreservedly backed up the suicide story by reporting that “Autopsies were performed by physicians from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Naval Hospital Guantánamo on June 10 and 11. The manner of death for all detainees was determined to be suicide and the cause of death was determined to be by hanging, the medical term being ‘mechanical asphyxia.’”
Their major contribution to the story of the men’s deaths was to revive claims that they had left suicide notes. They wrote that “A short written statement declaring their intent to be martyrs was found in the pockets of each of the detainees,” and that “Lengthier written statements were also found in each of their cells.”
The contents of the alleged suicide notes were not revealed in the NCIS statement, but were part of “more than 3,000 pages of military investigative documents, medical records, autopsies, and statements from guards and detainees” obtained by the Washington Post. According to the NCIS, the “case file will be posted in its entirety on the DOD FOIA web site in the near future.”
As the Washington Post described it, Ali al-Salami (left) wrote, “I am informing you that I gave away the precious thing that I have in which it became very cheap, which is my own self, to lift up the oppression that is upon us through the American Government,” adding, “I did not like the tube in my mouth, now go ahead and accept the rope in my neck.” He also apparently criticized the International Committee of the Red Cross, accusing its representatives, who secure access to some of the world’s most notorious prisons primarily on the basis that they will not publicly disclose their findings, of “conspiring in the detainees’ suffering” because it had been “covering the American Government repugnance since the first day.”
In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg reported that the other two prisoners had left notes that stated, “I turned in my Koran not insult … Now I’m turning in my body and sacred are so you not insult it,” and “I left out of the cage despite of you,” and wondered, with some justification, whether the report had “quoted awkward Arabic-English translations of the detainees’ notes,” or if the men had, in fact, “written in crude English.”
The rest of the NCIS statement essentially explained the long delay in submitting the report. “Due to similarities in the wording of the statements and the manner of suicides, as well as statements made by other detainees interviewed,” the investigators wrote, “there was growing concern that someone within the Camp Delta population was directing detainees to commit suicide and that additional suicides might be imminent. Representatives of other law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation were later told that on the night in question, another detainee (who did not later commit suicide) had walked through the cell block telling people ‘tonight’s the night.’”
They added, “The cells of other detainees were searched during the week following the suicides in an attempt to find evidence regarding whether the suicides had been part of a larger conspiracy which might result in additional detainees also taking their lives,” and explained that the searches produced 1,065 pounds of documents, including “additional handwritten notes found in cells other than those where the suicides took place.” These, they wrote, were then subjected to translation and analysis, and they went on to explain that the process was particularly time-consuming because a separate body had to be set up to ensure that documents relating to confidential correspondence between prisoners and their lawyers was not included.
Rather disturbingly, reporting on the story has been noticeably muted. In the Washington Post, Josh White painted a vivid picture of how the men apparently committed suicide, but was content to parrot the NCIS’s line about the deaths, noting that the NCIS investigation “and other documents reveal that the men took advantage of lapses in guard protocol and of lenient policies toward compliant detainees to commit what suicide notes described as an attack on the United States.”
He added, “Investigators found that guards had become lax on certain rules because commanders wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but were not supposed to be able to obscure their cells while sleeping. Guards told officials that it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells and that they did not think twice when they passed several cells on the night of June 9, 2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. Authorities believe the men probably hanged themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.”
White’s most explosive revelation was reserved for the end of his article, where he explained that the documentation revealed that the military’s Criminal Investigation Task Force had “decided years earlier” that Ali al-Salami, “who was arrested near his college in Pakistan in March 2002 and was turned over to U.S. authorities on May 2, 2002, in Afghanistan, was not someone they could prosecute.” Far from being “a mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operative who had key ties to principal facilitators and senior members of the group,” as the Pentagon alleged after his death, what was described as “a previously ‘secret’ document” revealed that investigators had concluded instead that “Although many of the individuals apprehended during the raid have strong connections to al-Qaeda, there is no credible information to suggest Ahmed received terrorist related training or is a member of the al-Qaeda network.” This, of course, is a shockingly belated vindication of al-Salami’s innocence, which deserves far more publicity than it has so far received.
If Josh White was rather soft on the administration, Carol Rosenberg was more challenging, writing that the NCIS statement “shed little light” on the circumstances of the men’s deaths. She spoke to a “senior Pentagon official who read the report and provided details in exchange for anonymity,” who, she wrote, noted, as if reading from a script prepared by Dick Cheney, “that the Navy investigation found the simultaneous suicides to be acts of ‘defiance and martyrdom,’” and she pointedly asked why the report “left unexplained one key question — why guards had not checked on the men for two and a half hours before they were discovered hanging in their cells.” “For years,” she added, drawing on her long experience as Guantánamo’s most frequent visiting journalist, “tours of the prison camps have described a strict doctrine that had guards check on each detainee every few minutes.”
Perhaps when — or if — the full case file is released publicly, the documents it contains will shed more light on the deaths of Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, but for now the investigation has the appearance of a whitewash. As al-Salami’s lawyer, David Engelhardt, explained to the Washington Post, “It’s simply astounding that it took the government over two years to conclude a so-called investigation of three men who died in a small cage under the government’s exclusive control. The investigation itself is what needs to be investigated, along with the people who’ve perpetrated the disgraceful, extra-constitutional detentions.”
Not mentioned in the current round of discussions are two of the most convincing explanations of the men’s apparent suicide, which I have also reportedly previously. In my book The Guantánamo Files, which features a chapter on the suicides and hunger strikes at Guantánamo, I cite an article by Tim Golden from the New York Times Magazine in September 2006, in which Guantánamo’s warden, Col. Mike Bumgarner, explained that the British resident Shaker Aamer had told him that “several of the detainees had had a ‘vision,’ in which three of them had to die for the rest to be freed.” As I also reported in a previous article, Aamer also seemed to endorse the view that the men had committed suicide, explaining that a guard had told him before the men’s deaths, “They have lost hope in life. They have no hope in their eyes. They are ghosts, and they want to die. No food will keep them alive now. Even with four feeds a day, these men get diarrhea from any protein which goes right through them.”
Even so, other burning questions about the men’s deaths remain unanswered. In an environment in which cell searches are notoriously frequent and access to pens and paper is strictly rationed, is it really plausible that the three men could actually have written and secreted the suicide notes they were alleged to have written? And, as Carol Rosenberg asked, is it also plausible that the regime had become so lax that three men who had been on painfully long hunger strikes would have been left unmonitored for at least two hours?
One person who is not convinced is Murat Kurnaz, the German-born Turkish citizen and German resident, who was released in August 2006. In his extraordinary account of his experiences, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo, Kurnaz wrote about the men’s deaths, specifically addressing these questions, providing a view of the prison’s security that is completely at odds with the blanket-shrouded cells and lax security described by the NCIS, and reaching a far darker conclusion.
Kurnaz was not present in the cell block — Block Alpha in Camp 1 — on the night the men died, but several weeks later some prisoners who were moved to cells near him explained their take on what had happened. These prisoners, who had been in Block Alpha, “said that dinner had come early that evening and that everyone in the block suddenly got tired and had fallen asleep — even though it was never quiet in the block at that hour, even when the guards left us in peace. There was always someone who couldn’t fall asleep, who wanted to pray or who kept waking up throughout the night.” Kurnaz added that Yasser’s last neighbor also noted, “The metal shutters in front of the windows had also been closed from the outside … as if a storm were approaching.”
This man explained that, although “he had been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud bang” and had seen a team of guards entering Yasser’s cell, he had thought nothing of it, as this was a regular occurrence. Some time later, however, the guards woke everyone up, and Yasser’s body was carried out of his cell on a stretcher, with a piece of sheet in his mouth, other pieces binding his arms and legs, and “more sheet around his neck, like a noose.”
The guards proceeded to explain that Yasser “had hung himself,” but, the man explained, “we didn’t think that could be true. He would have had to attach the noose to the sharp metal lattices with his hands and feet tied and with no chair to stand on. That was nearly impossible.” In addition, as Kurnaz noted, “It seemed highly unlikely that the guards would have failed to catch him in time.” Reinforcing Carol Rosenberg’s doubts, he explained, “They barely let us out of their sight for a minute.”
Kurnaz also noted, “The guards claimed he had covered the walls of his cage so that they hadn’t seen him do it. But what was he supposed to have used to cover the cage? The same sheets with which he allegedly hung himself?” He added, taking exception to the official claims that, at the time of the deaths, “it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells,” “And what about the rule prohibiting us from hanging anything on the walls of our cells?”
He continued: “It seemed too much of a coincidence that the other two dead men had hung themselves at exactly the same time in exactly the same way in the same block, while all the other inmates had been sleeping like babies. When the guards were patrolling the corridors, it never took long before other guards came to ensure we were following the rules. The guards never took a break since they, too, were kept under surveillance to ensure that they too were carrying out their duties.” While this could, in theory, be explained by the report’s conclusion that security had slipped on the night in question, no one in authority addressed the next question posed by Kurnaz: “And what about the sharpshooters in the watchtowers? Hadn’t they noticed anything?”
After noting, poignantly, that Mani al-Utaybi had indeed been informed “a few days earlier” that he was going to be released — and that he was “[o]verjoyed,’ that he “had told everyone about it,” and that, consequently, he “didn’t seem to have much of a reason for killing himself” — Kurnaz presented the prisoners’ unavoidable conclusion about the men’s deaths: “No, we prisoners unanimously agreed, the men had been killed. Maybe they had been beaten to death and then strung up, or perhaps they had been strangled.”
He added that no one knew why, but that he and many others believed that it may have been because many of the guards in Guantánamo “were afraid of being sent to Iraq,” and that some of them thought that “if prisoners died in Guantánamo, it would create trouble for the Bush government, and they wouldn’t have to take part in the war.”
This strikes me as a far-fetched interpretation, but it’s clear that, although we may never know the truth about the deaths of Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, the NCIS’s insistence that the investigation into the deaths is now closed is premature, despite the long delay in its production. Scorned in death, and hacked up and shipped home like packages of meat, these three men deserve much more than has so far been delivered in the way of justice.
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.
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), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 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).
After this article was published on Antiwar.com, Dianne Foster sent the following message:
“Scorned in death and hacked up and sent home like pieces of meat, “ these men who died at Guantánamo are the export side of the Iraq War, while the bodies arriving at Dover are the import. The idea that three amateurs could all so efficiently die, like three buildings imploding into their footprints, will always make me wonder. Now that there are Gitmo detainees on the outside, the story of the drugged sleepers comes out to give the lie to the official story, carefully crafted after so many years’ creation. Perhaps like the story of Tillman and Lynch, it too will become another example of the flimsy lie to cover a host of official misconduct, while advancing the narrative of the Iraq and Afghan wars the administration wants us to believe.
I am now a piece of stony ground on which such stories cannot easily take root. Nor should they. This should not be a faith-based government, and those feisty people who resist it (like the Tillman’s) are the ones who will ultimately write our history in these years, not the current liars. I feel very sorry for the poor “al-Qaeda, ‘worst of the worst’” bastards caught up as extras in this movie. So much for the promises of the American dream shipped overseas. Whether they committed suicide at Gitmo in a kind of Ghost Dance (a la the plains Indians in their tribal death throes) or whether they were drugged and murdered in a plot whose main motive was to increase the importance of the positions held by their guards (so they could claim they were engaged in asymmetrical warfare and did not need any sending into another, less cushy war zone), it will take some time to know. But it can be known.
Dear Mr. Worthington,
Thanks for your reply to this letter. If truth is the first casualty of war, skepticism must be the grieving relative.
The three men were found dead in June, 2006. In October, 2005, I happened to be at a friend’s induction into the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. On one of the days of the ceremonies, there was a luncheon held for doctors who were interested in the problem of physicians at Guantanamo. I cannot remember exactly how the invitation to the sign-up for the luncheon put it – certainly no admissions of facilitating torture by anyone in the medical profession. At any rate, this gathering confined its interest to the cases where physicians assisted in force-feeding of “attempted suicide” hunger strikers. I recall that one elderly fellow, with a Southern accent, stated that if force-feeding was torture, he had, in his medical practice, done it (presumably on anorexics – nobody asked him when or why). At the time, as a guest, I felt it was out of order for me to say anything. I just wanted to find out what was going on. And I found the group more interested in consuming their lunches than in asking questions of this man or others, even though everyone there had self-selected to be there. Clearly, force-feeding was regarded as a problem to be reckoned with. Even if the doctors were not activists, it may be that they had begun to balk at their role in Guantanamo, or the perceived roles of those serving there. I am not a doctor myself and I have declined to return to these annual affairs in Washington, nor do I know what this committee is up to these days.
The comment above was in response to my reply to Dianne’s comment to Antiwar.com, in which I stated, simply, “Thanks for the excellent comments, Dianne. I too hope that one day the truth will be revealed.”
This was my reply to Dianne’s second comment, above:
”If truth is the first casualty of war, skepticism must be the grieving relative.”
Nicely put. Your dinner sounded disturbing, but I find all reports of professionals turning a blind eye to what’s going on to be so. Throughout history, tyrants need their workers – even those on the frontline of horrific experiences – just to get on with their jobs and not raise murmurs of dissent in their minds that would lead to corrosive self-doubt and sleepless nights. It’s why the mission of those combating the cruel and illegal practices of the “War on Terror” has to constantly focus on humanizing the prisoners involved. It appears, unfortunately, to be far too easy to abuse a dehumanized enemy.
With best wishes,
Now that we have had Sarah Palin, Republican nominee for Vice President, state to a cheering Republican convention audience that “Obama (when taking ‘people who want to destroy America’ – paraphrase-) wants to read them their rights,” it’s probably time to remind the Republicans that many innocent people have been swept up in the renditions around the world which have led to their torture and other human rights violations which in any other nation (Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, present-day Russia) we would, with justification, deplore. Unfortunately, the good and evil concepts are distorted at the moment, in the minds of some. Good is what they are, evil is what others are. Fear is a potent motivator. Nothing like 9/11 had ever happened in the US. It is a frequently used thought stopper. Whenever the shock is applied, by those confident and smug that its effect will grant them ever greater powers to intimidate and control, few seem to question why these “brave” souls do not include themselves in the definition of those who could be hurt by false moves, the hauling in of the wrong suspects (while the guilty are permitted to commit further harm). No, there is no quality control on their actions. They are playing the oldest games, where power is based on force, faith and common blood. Knowledge, understanding and communication would interfere with that. Victory is what they say they seek, and at least at the ballot box, they mean to have it by fair means or foul. Tomorrow, they say, belongs to them, and anyone who equivocates or advocates for the weak and falsely accused is a traitor. And yet, as some have pointed out, the whirlwind is empty. Governor Palin is riding high, and it is hard to accuse her of hypocrisy – her own son is being deployed to Iraq on 9/11/08. Has no one told her that the Iraqis did not do 9/11? I don’t think she would find that useful to believe. It would get in the way of the symbolism.
In response to another message I sent to Dianne, in which I stated, “I noticed that you mentioned the ‘Ghost Dance’ of the Plains Indians and wondered if you knew that I had made the same analogy in my book “The Guantánamo Files,” Dianne wrote:
Actually, not having read your book, I think I just drew on the universal unconscious or something to come up with Ghost Dance. And perhaps it is something in my own history. I grew up in a (then) sparsely populated (by whites, that is) Southern California, and went to a public elementary school attended in large proportion by “Mexicans”, which may have included local Indian tribes so designated by the ignorant. The treatment of them by Midwestern school-teachers was interesting — I cannot get the sullen faces of some of the boys out of my mind. In fact, they look a lot like “al Qaeda” suspects. My first thought of the “attack” on 9/11 was of being beset by “Indians” attacking “civilization.” This was where my American mind lived in deep denial of its origins. So my Ghost Dance analogy may have come as a feeble attempt on my part to acknowledge our own power of destruction and stupidity, as a nation.
I won’t go as far as Reverend Wright of Obama fame. But I will say with Michelle Obama that if I am proud of something America does, the occasions for pride are few and far between. Like a Midwestern schoolteacher, I might just say that right now “I am very disappointed” in her (my country’s whites and their suck-ups like Gonzales and John Yoo). Owning up to the bad stuff is going to be rough sledding, but if this is to be an “ownership society” we must (pace Obama’s nomination speech).
This was my reply:
What a fascinating account, Dianne, reminding me of how many different Americas make up the United States. I agree with you about how difficult it will be to address all the injustices of the past seven years, but it is, of course, absolutely imperative for all of us. I can, however, see how taxing it is for the many Americans who simply cannot bear to look in the mirror, and look at their country’s warmongering history, with any honesty. We have the same problem in the UK, of course, which is why it’s easier for people to criticize America than wondering why “terror suspects” are being held without charge or trial in the UK too.
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[…] – and particularly in the last six months – have demonstrated. The first of these was the publication, in August 2008, of the official report into the deaths, conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The report – […]
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[…] up to 200 prisoners. The three men, Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, who passed away in the prison in 2006 were being force fed at the time. The same is true of Abdul Rahman al-Amri […]
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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