On June 2 last year, the Pentagon announced that a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, Mohammed al-Hanashi (also known as Muhammad Salih) had died, reportedly by committing suicide. He was the fifth reported suicide at Guantánamo, following three deaths on June 9, 2006 and another on May 30, 2007, and he was the sixth man to die at the prison, following the death, by cancer, of an Afghan prisoner, Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, on December 26, 2007.
All of these deaths were, in one way or another, suspicious, except for Hekmati, a 68-year old Afghan, whose story, instead, hinted at medical neglect, and also revealed, on close examination, the callous cruelty of the regime at Guantánamo. A quiet hero of the anti-Taliban resistance, who had helped free three important anti-Taliban leaders from a Taliban jail, he had discovered at Guantánamo that no one in authority was interested in ascertaining whether or not there was any truth to his story, and he went to his grave without having been able to clear his name.
This ought to be a source of undying shame for those who failed to investigate his story — and who may well have not acted decisively to prevent the spread of his cancer — but, unlike the other five men, his death does not carry with it the suspicion that he was deliberately killed, whereas all the others do. Last week, I recalled the Saudi prisoner Abdul Rahman al-Amri, on the third anniversary of his death, and was unable to come up with an adequate explanation for why he would take his own life.
A devout man, who had traveled to Afghanistan to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance, he was deeply troubled by the kinds of sexual humiliation to which he and other prisoners were subjected, and this could, perhaps, have tipped him over the edge, but he was also a long-term hunger striker, and may, therefore, have been in such a weakened state at the time of his death that a round of particularly aggressive questioning may have been enough to kill him.
In addition, the deaths of the three men on June 9, 2006 — all long-term hunger strikers, like Abdul Rahman al-Amri — have long been contentious, and became more so in January this year when, in a compelling article in Harper’s Magazine, Scott Horton drew on eye-witness accounts by former soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, to paint a vivid and genuinely disturbing picture of how the alleged suicides of the three men in question — Salah Ahmed al-Salami, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani — were announced shortly after a vehicle had returned from a secret prison outside the prison’s main perimeter fence, where prisoners were reportedly tortured, and how there was, according to the soldiers, an official cover-up on an alarming scale.
I’ll be returning to Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman’s story in the near future, but in the meantime I want to shift the focus onto Mohammed al-Hanashi, to mark the first anniversary of his death, to ask why questions raised at the time have not been answered, and to bring readers up to date on further questions asked in the last year by the author and journalist Naomi Wolf and the psychologist and blogger Jeff Kaye.
Shortly after his death, the released British resident Binyam Mohamed, who knew al-Hanashi in Guantánamo, provided an explanation of the circumstances of his death that was deeply shocking. In an article for the Miami Herald, he stated that he and al-Hanashi, who, at the time, weighed just 104 pounds (and at one point had weighed just 86 pounds), had both been on a hunger strike at the start of 2009, which had involved them being force-fed daily, strapped to restraint chairs while tubes were pushed up their noses and into their stomachs.
The man described by Binyam Mohamed was someone who stood up to the unjust regime at Guantánamo and “was always being put into segregation because of his determined insistence in pointing out the realities of what had happened to us all.” Mohamed continued:
The fact is, US authorities didn’t like him talking about words and practices they were only too familiar with: kidnap, rendition, torture, degradation, false imprisonment and injustice. But, while [al-Hanashi] opposed the policies and treatment in Guantánamo, he didn’t have problems with the guards. He was always very sociable and tried to help resolve issues between the guards and prisoners. He was patient and encouraged others to be the same. He never viewed suicide as a means to end his despair.
However, as Binyam Mohamed explained, when the officer in charge of Camp 5 (a maximum-security block) sought out a volunteer “to represent the prisoners on camp issues such as hunger strikes and other contentious issues,” al-Hanashi agreed. On January 17, 2009, he was taken to meet with the Joint Task Force commander, Adm. David Thomas, and the Joint Detention Group commander, Col. Bruce Vargo, but he never returned to his cell. “[T]wo weeks later,” Mohamed wrote, “we learned that he was moved to what we called the ‘psych’ unit — the behavioral-health unit (BHU).” He added:
There has yet to be any explanation as to why he was sent there or even what was the cause of death. The BHU was built as a secure unit to prevent, among other things, potential suicide attempts. Everything that someone could use to hurt himself has been removed from the cell, and a guard watches each prisoner 24 hours a day, in person and on videotape. In light of this, I am amazed that the US government has the audacity to describe [al-Hanashi’s] death categorically as an “apparent suicide.”
Instead, Binyam Mohamed explained that he thought al-Hanashi’s death was “a murder, or unlawful killing, whichever way you look at it,” and wondered whether “he was killed by US personnel — intentionally or otherwise” or whether his long years of hunger striking “led to some type of organ failure that caused his death.”
Last August, following up on the story, the author and journalist Naomi Wolf, who had been present at Guantánamo on the day al-Hanashi died (as part of a group of journalists covering pre-trial hearings in the trial by military commission of Omar Khadr), revealed that she had been deeply troubled by his death, and the “terse announcement” by the press office of his “apparent suicide.”
Her unease heightened when, on her trip back to the States, she “happened to be seated next to a military physician who had been flown in to do the autopsy on al-Hanashi.” “When would there be an investigation of the death?” she asked, receiving the reply, “That was the investigation.” As she described it, “The military had investigated the military.” She added:
This “apparent suicide” seemed immediately suspicious to me. I had just toured those cells: it is literally impossible to kill yourself in them. Their interiors resemble the inside of a smooth plastic jar; there are no hard edges; hooks fold down; there is no bedding that one can use to strangle oneself. Can you bang your head against the wall until you die, theoretically, I asked the doctor? “They check on prisoners every three minutes,” he said. You’d have to be fast.
Wolf also noted that the story “smelled even worse after a bit of digging.” After discovering that al-Hanashi had volunteered to represent the prisoners in Camp 5, she noted that this would have meant that he “knew which prisoners had claimed to have been tortured or abused, and by whom.” She also raised doubts about whether it was possible for a prisoner to kill themselves in the psychiatric ward, asking Cortney Busch of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent dozens of Guantánamo prisoners, who explained, as Binyam Mohamed had, that “there is video running on prisoners in the psychiatric ward at all times, and there is a guard posted there continually, too.”
Shorn of these options, Wolf noted that al-Hanashi could have been killed during the force-feeding process, reflecting on “how easy it would be to do away with a troublesome prisoner being force-fed by merely adjusting the calorie level. If it is too low, the prisoner will starve, but too high a level can also kill, since deliberate liquid overfeeding by tube, to which Guantánamo prisoners have reported being subjected, causes vomiting, diarrhea, and deadly dehydration that can stop one’s heart.”
In an attempt to discover exactly what happened to Mohammed al-Hanashi, Wolf spent several months putting pressure on Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, the head spokesman for the Guantánamo press office, but never received a satisfactory answer, even though she pointed out that “[a]n investigation by the military of the death of its own prisoners violates the Geneva Conventions, which demand that illness, transfer, and death of prisoners be registered independently with a neutral authority (such as the ICRC), and that deaths be investigated independently.” As she explained, “If governments let no outside entity investigate the circumstances of such deaths, what will keep them from ‘disappearing’ whomever they take into custody, for whatever reason?”
In Yemen, where al-Hanashi’s body was repatriated, the government “announced only what the US had — that al-Hanashi had died from ‘asphyxiation.’” Wolf added, “When I noted to DeWalt that self-strangulation was impossible, he said he would get back to me when the inquiry — now including a Naval criminal investigation — was completed.”
Wolf never heard back from DeWalt, but in November Jeff Kaye took up the story. Although he noted that self-strangulation was “rare,” but “possible,” he had other reasons for doubting the official story. The first is that al-Hanashi, who was seized in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, survived a massacre in a fort in Mazar-e-Sharif and subsequent imprisonment in a brutal Northern Alliance jail in Sheberghan, where he would have met survivors of another massacre, involving mass asphyxiation in containers, and may, therefore, have “hear[d] tales of US Special Operations soldiers or officers involved.”
The second, which drew on my work, involves the fact that, in his tribunal at Guantánamo, the Pentagon inadvertently revealed that a false allegation made against him — regarding his presence in Afghanistan before he was even in the country — had been made by Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a “high-value detainee,” held in secret CIA prisons for over two years before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006. In every other instance, the names of the “high-value detainees” were redacted from the transcripts, but in al-Hanashi’s case, Ghailani’s name slipped through the censor’s net.
Last May, Ghailani was transferred to New York to face a federal court trial for his alleged involvement in the 1998 African embassy bombings, and, as Jeff Kaye pointed out, al-Hanashi’s “possible testimony at a trial in New York City, establishing that Ghailani’s admissions were false, and likely coerced by torture, may have been a hindrance to a government bent on convicting the supposed bomber.”
Whether it was his knowledge of massacres in Afghanistan, his eligibility as a damaging witness in the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, or his knowledge of dark secrets in Guantánamo, it seems probable that, one way or another, Mohammed al-Hanashi knew too much, and what makes this suspicion even more alarming is the fact that he died just weeks after he was finally assigned a lawyer.
A review of the cases of all the alleged suicides reveals not only that all the men were long-term hunger strikers, but also that none of them had spoken to attorneys before their deaths, and that therefore any incriminating knowledge they may have had went to their graves with them. This may only be coincidental, but it is worth noting that, after the deaths in June 2006, the Pentagon initially reported that none of the three men had legal representation, but that, within days, officials were obliged to acknowledge that, in fact, two of the men did have legal representation.
In the case of the first man, Salah Ahmed al-Salami (also identified as Ali Abdullah Ahmed) it was also revealed that, at the time of his death, his lawyers had not been cleared to visit him, and in the case of the second man, Mani al-Utaybi, his lawyers had not been able to see him. Speaking at the time, his legal team complained that they had waited over nine months for the Pentagon to grant them clearance to see their client, and that, in the meantime, they had not been allowed to correspond with him at all, because of confusion over the spelling of his name. They also explained that, during a visit to Guantánamo just weeks before his death, they had been told that he wouldn’t see them, and that they had, therefore, been unable to tell him that he had been cleared for release.
This has always struck me as a particularly bleak commentary on Guantánamo — that no one told Mani al-Uyaybi that he had been cleared for release before his death — but in the bigger picture of the five unexplained deaths the most important thing is for these men not to be forgotten, and for calls to be made — loudly and regularly — for an independent inquiry into how they died.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes and deaths at Guantánamo, see Suicide at Guantánamo: the story of Abdul Rahman al-Amri (May 2007), Suicide at Guantánamo: a response to the US military’s allegations that Abdul Rahman al-Amri was a member of al-Qaeda (May 2007), 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), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), The Pentagon Can’t Count: 22 Juveniles Held at Guantánamo (November 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), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Forgotten: The Second Anniversary Of A Guantánamo Suicide (May 2009), Yemeni Prisoner Muhammad Salih Dies At Guantánamo (June 2009), Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation (June 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo Suicide? (June 2009), Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger Strikers (for ACLU, June 2009), Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes the Truth about the 2006 “Suicides” (January 2010), Torture in Afghanistan and Guantánamo: Shaker Aamer’s Lawyers Speak (February 2010), The Third Anniversary of a Death in Guantánamo (May 2010), Omar Deghayes and Terry Holdbrooks Discuss Guantánamo (Part Three): Deaths at the Prison (June 2010).
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).
Thanks for the important review on this terrible anniversary, Andy.
Re the realization that none of these men had really had a chance to speak to an attorney, or were just about to meet with one at last, it occurred to me that this was the case with Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. If I remember correctly, he was waiting to finally meet with an attorney (was this from Reprieve?) some weeks after he met with his untimely and mysterious death.
Great to hear from you — and thanks again for all your work on this.
You know, with al-Libi, I think it’s even worse. What happened was that representatives of Human Rights Watch happened to see him on a prison visit in Libya. He refused to speak to them, but he died just weeks later — and I’m guessing that both the Libyan and US government realized that HRW had got too close, even though al-Libi was thoroughly uncooperative, and that he had to be removed from the picture.
Apart from the legal representation, though, it’s very similar to what we’ve ended up presuming about Mohammed al-Hanashi’s dangerous knowledge, so thanks for pointing that out.
And for readers who don’t know al-Libi’s story, check this out: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/18/world-exclusive-new-revelations-about-the-torture-of-ibn-al-shaykh-al-libi/
[…] claim that the men committed suicide simultaneously, two other alleged suicides in May 2007 and June 2009, and the death by cancer of an unrecognized hero of the anti-Taliban resistance in December 2007 […]
Andy, it has been a couple of years since you wrote this article.
I came across something yesterday — another killing, from 1961, with some parallels to the recent cover-ups.
The USA employs several thousand guest workers on Guantanamo — mainly Philipinos, although the several dozen firemen are Jamaicans.
But, prior to the 1959 Cuban Revolution the base employed several thousand Cuban workers. Contractors brought them in by speed-boat every day. After the Revolution no new Cubans were hired. The current Cuban workers had to make their way to the base on foot, but existing Cuban workers got to keep working. In the early 60s there were still large numbers of communters. The last two Cuban commuters retired last December.
Well, several Cuban workers died under mysterious circumstances.
The Idaho Statesman published an article in the last couple of days about a former hero who spoke for the first time about shooting one of those Cubans — and then trying to hide the body. The former hero was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor when he was a private during World War 2. By 1961 he was a captain in the USMC.
Apparently the Marines thought they knew which Cuban workers were spies — just as that foolish security officer thought he could tell that the chaplain Captain James Yee and airman Ahmed al-Halabi were al-Qaeda spies.
The former hero is 88 years old and is named Arthur J Jackson. The Cuban bus driver he killed was Rubén López Sabariego —
The executive officer of Jackson’s company was a William Szili. Jackson, Szili, and two other officers who helped cover up the killing, were quietly told to resign. But no charges were laid.
To my thinking it was a clear case of murder. Earlier on the evening of 1961-09-30 Jackson and Szili approached Sabariego at the Officer’s Bar, and warned him not to park his bus near their compound. According to Szili, they then each consumed at least six Martinis. Szili said he went back to his quarters sleep, leaving Jackson still drinking. His account is that the Provost Marshall, a kind of cop, phones him and wakes him around 11:30 pm.
Apparently Jackson had run into Sabariego again, after Szili went to his quarters, decided he was spying, and phoned the Provost Marshall to lock him up. The Provost Marshall, who is sober, tells Jackson to just take Sabariego to one gate that remained in use, and tell him to go home. But either Jackson and Szili don’t do this in a timely manner, or the Provost Marshall has forgotten that the last ferry to the rest of the base has already left.
So Jackson decides they will drive to a small gate that has been officially locked since the revolution, and dump Sabariego into the desert on the other side — in the middle of the night.
Then drunken Jackson and drunken Szili can’t get the rusty lock unlocked. Jackson decides he will stay at the gate with Sabariego, while Szili goes to get a sledge hammer to smash the lock. As Szili returns he hears a gun-shot. Jackson comes running, in a panic. He says he managed to get the gate unlocked, got Sabariego to the Cuban side of the fence — but he claimed Sabariego then attacked him, and he had to shoot him.
Jackson then threw Sabariego’s body over the cliff that lined the seashore.
Jackson and Szili leave Sabariego’s body lying on the cuban beach all day October 1st. On the evening of October 1st they decide they will cross into Cuban territory and cover Sabareigo’s body with beach rocks.
But on October 2nd Jackson decides that instead they should drag Sabareigo back to the top of the cliff, carry him back on to the base, and bury him. They drag Lopez’s body partway up the 25 foot high cliff, over sharp rocks, only to have their rope fray and break, dropping the corpse to the bottom of the cliff again. Their second attempt, with a stronger nylon rope, succeeds. and they bury the corpse on the base, 800 feet from the fence.
In the course of hiding his crime Jackson involves three other officers, in addition to Szili, and six enlisted men, at least three of whom were senior NCOs, his own age.
Since eleven men know of the hidden grave, rumors circulated, and, with Sabariego’s widow paying visits to ask what happened to her husband, camp authorities ordered a search.
The search finds the grave on October 15th. Sabariego`s widow is shown his decomposing body “lying in a ditch”.. Sabariego’s body is returned to his widow, at the gate, on October 21st. She returns the $50 compensation the Navy offers her for his death.
Cuban pathologist look at the broken bone and other wounds, and conclude Sabariego was subjected to torture and brutal beatings, that, ultimately, proved fatal.
Jackson gets a royal chewing out from Commandant of the Marine Corp — the highest ranking officer, but he is allowed to resign “voluntarily,” with no explicit blemish on his record. Szili and two of the other officers are forced to resign.
No charges are laid.
It is hard to believe Navy officials didn’t give the body an autopsy, but there is no record they performed an autopsy.
If Szili’s account is to be believed Jackson would have been too drunk to drive during the capture, interrogation, attempted deportation, and killing of Sabariego.
Was it murder, manslaughter? Of course. Even if he were a spy, Jackson still wouldn’t have been authorized to shoot him.
Was Sabariego a spy? Szili said, that of all the Cuban commuters Sabariego was regarded as the 16th most important. Cuban sources said he had supported Fidel’s forces, prior to the revolution — mainly through fund raising. But that wouldn’t make him a “spy”.
If Naval Intelligence had been operating professionally ordinary staff wouldn’t know which Cuban workers they suspected of being spies.
So, fifty years have passed. Almost all the US sources describe Sabariego as a “spy” who was shot in self-defense. None of those sources mention that the heroic shooter was seriously intoxicated. All the Cuban sources assert Sabariego had been tortured and beaten.
Personally, I doubt he was a “spy”. I doubt drunken Captain Jackson’s judgment that Sabariego was caught spying. Some Cuban sources say Jackson found Sabariego “in a rest area” at 10:40 pm — ie about 30 to 45 minutes before the Provost Marshal phoned and woke Szili. Most likely Sabariego also had his own serious drinking problem, and planned to sleep off his drinking, and skip the long commutes home and back to the base. The Cuban commuters had to walk to the base every morning — a walk that might take hours. And they woke up very early and arrived at the base early.
During the evening of October 1st Jackson told Szili that the struggle may have been because Sabariego feared being shot by Cuban militia patrols if he was left on the Cuban side of the fence.
If Szili’s account is correct, and Jackson did shoot Sabariego on Cuban territory, it was murder, as he had no authority to carry a gun or to give orders to Sabariego, on Cuban territory.
Why did the Provost Marshall allow the obviousl drunk Jackson and Szili continue to drive? Another age — when drunk driving was tolerated?
Why didn’t the Provost Marshall take Sabariego to the brig to dry out? Why didn’t he take Sabariego to the NE gate himself? Why did he release him back into the custody of drunken Captain Jackson?
You would think the camp authorities would have a sign-in list, so they only let in Cubans on the list of workers. You would think they would keep track of who signed in every day, and would notice if some Cuban workers stayed on base after their shift was over?
The most important parallel here? Continuing the face saving deceit put public safety at greater risk. This incident occurred approximately a year prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban belief that the US Navy kidnapped, tortured, and beat to death, one of their citizens, with the prior approval of the chain of command would make them more alarmed than what I think was the actual situation: (1) The killer was an incompetent, reckless drunk, acting on his own authority; (2) that the horrible wounds on the body were from the tragicomic attempts to hide the body — and were not signs of torture.
Jackson should have been tried in a Cuban court. The US Military should have provided as many witnesses as needed, and should have tried to get them to fully cooperate with Cuban authorities. If Jackson gets a stiff sentence, trade him for some Cuban spies.
I don’t care if Jackson won a Medal of Honor, protecting him wasn’t worth letting this incident help ratchet up the tension that brought the world as close as it ever came to an all-out nuclear war.
A fascinating story, arcticredriver, very well told. It made me think of all the blood and sorrow associated with Guantanamo over the years, since it was first stolen from the Cubans. I was also thinking of when it was used to hold Haitian refugees in the early 1990s. From Wikipedia:
“Following the September 30, 1991 overthrow of democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a military coup d’etat, a large-scale exodus of Haitian boat people ensued. The United States Coast Guard rescued a total of 41,342 Haitians during 1991 and 1992, more than the number of rescued refugees from the previous 10 years combined. Just days after the coup d’état, the administration of US President George H.W. Bush ordered the Coast Guard to stop bringing fleeing Haitians to the US, and instead to redirect their boats to the US military base at Guantanamo. There, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ruled that more than half of these refugees were economic migrants, not political refugees, and had them deported back to Haiti. Others were deemed political refugees, but before being allowed entry to the United States, the INS tested them for HIV. Those who tested positive were denied entry under a 1987 law barring emigration of HIV positive individuals into the US. In all, 267 Haitian refugees were held at Guantanamo, making Camp Bulkeley the world’s first detention center for people with HIV/AIDS.”
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. 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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