Relatives of Disputed Guantánamo Suicides Speak Out As Families Appeal in US Court

14.6.11

Late on Sunday evening, I publicized a conference call taking place on Monday to discuss an appeal in a court case brought by the families of two of the three men who died at Guantánamo on June 9, 2006 under mysterious circumstances. The supposed triple suicide of the three men — Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, Salah Ahmed al-Salami and Mani Shaman al-Utaybi — was questioned when it took place five years ago by former prisoners who knew the men, as I reported in an article last year, Murders at Guantánamo: The Cover-Up Continues, and the official story was challenged in the most spectacular manner last January, when law professor and Harper’s columnist Scott Horton drew on the testimony of four soldiers who were manning the watch towers on the night in question. Their accounts indicate that the men could not have committed suicide, as alleged, and that there must be some other explanation — possibly that they were killed either by accident or design during torture sessions at a remote facility, identified as “Camp No,” located outside the main perimeter fence of the Guantánamo prison.

Despite the gravity of these allegations, there has been no independent investigation into the soldiers’ claims, as aired in Harper’s Magazine, and the families’ attempts to have their questions about the deaths answered in a US court have also been thwarted. Although the families of Yasser al-Zahrani and Salah al-Salami launched a case in January 2009, and later resubmitted it with new material from the Harper’s story, a judge in the District Court in Washington D.C. — Judge Ellen Huvelle — declared last September that she was unable to proceed with the case, because existing legislation (the Military Commissions Act) prevented a court from “‘hear[ing] or consider[ing] any other action against the United States or its agents relating to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial, or conditions of confinement’ of an alien detained and determined to be an enemy combatant,” and also because the courts have accepted the government’s arguments that judges must not intrude on national security issues.

In seeking to overturn Judge Huvelle’s ruling, the families have appealed, and, announcing the appeal yesterday, CCR staff attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, lead counsel in the case (which also includes William Goodman of Goodman & Hurwitz, P.C. and Johanna Kalb of the College of Law at Loyola University), said:

The new evidence is not the result of the wild speculations of the families, or their attorneys, or a journalist. It comes from the eye-witness accounts of four decorated soldiers who were compelled to come forward by their consciences, out of a sense of duty, and at great personal and professional risk. In this context, where the only people who know the truth are our clients’ dead sons and individuals within the government, the information these four men have brought forward is critical. It must give these families a chance to reopen their case. It is shameful that this information hasn’t been given greater consideration by the court.

As well as appealing in court, the Center for Constitutional Rights also “called on supporters to demand an independent investigation into the deaths and to ask the Obama Justice Department to change course from the prior administration’s policy of attempting to block every torture and abuse case, including Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld, from proceeding,” noting, “In all these cases, the victims and their families seek accountability, justice and answers.”

Monday’s conference call, to publicise the appeal, also featured eloquent and compelling testimony from Talal al-Zahrani, Yasser al-Zahrani’s father, Nashwan al-Salami, the brother of Salah al-Salami, and Tarek Dergoul, a British former prisoner who knew all three men well in Guantánamo.

Talal al-Zahrani said:

My son Yasser was 17 when he was taken to Guantánamo and 21 when he died there. I have waited for five years for meaningful answers to my questions about how my son died, but the US government has never contacted me. Not when my son died, not in response to my questions afterwards and not to this day. And the fact that the government has not only failed to properly investigate his death but is also attempting to block review by the courts is both hard to believe and very painful for my family. We just want the truth and for those responsible to be held accountable.

Nashwan al-Salami said:

For five years the US government and courts have blocked my family’s efforts to know the truth about how my brother died. My father died without ever learning what happened to his son, and I continue to hope for real answers and justice.

Tarek Dergoul said:

I knew Yasser, Salah, and Mani personally, for a long period of time, and I knew of their deep will to resist being broken by Guantánamo and to live. These were beautiful men, and Yasser and Mani used to sing songs and recite poetry to lift the spirits of the other detained men. They always fought for the rights of all of us to be free from the abuses we were tormented with, and they were repeatedly subjected to harsh treatment because of this. I have never believed these men committed suicide as the government claims.

Note: For more information on the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ legal case page.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m sharing and Digging this, Andy. I just noticed it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s only been up for 40 minutes, George! I’m staying at the house of an Amnesty International activist in Bishop’s Castle, in lovely rolling hills in Shropshire, near the Welsh border. I was showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo” this evening, and it was a very successful evening, but afterwards, when I managed to get online, I wanted to put something up on the site. This will probably be my last commentary for now on the “season of death” at Guantanamo — the period from mid-May to June 9, when all six alleged suicides have taken place — but it always disturbs me.

  3. arcticredriver says...

    When I first placed some google news alerts on the camps, in 2005, I found it surprising that there hadn’t been any deaths in the camps — given how harsh the conditions were

    I wonder whether the DoD started reporting deaths in June 2006 because they had been forced to publish an official list of captives a month earlier, in May 2006. Prior to the publication of the official lists on April 20th, 2006 and May 15, 2006, the DoD could silently not report deaths in custody.

    Andy, I think you noted when we learned that Abu Zubaydah had spent over half a year in Guantanamo, in 2003 and 2004, that his name had not been on what the DoD had claimed was a full official list of captives.

    Many of the captives names on the recently published detainee assessment briefs don’t match any of the names on those official lists. I think it would be worth checking whether estimated birth dates and places of birth match those recorded on the official list of names published on May 15, 2006.

    What would it mean if the name, date of birth and place of birth on a DAB don’t match those we would explect from the official list of May 15, 2006. Andy, I am willing to check these details for some of the captives. Perhaps some of your other readers would volunteer to check a block of captives?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi arcticredriver,
    Thanks for that. It sounds like an interesting research project, and I would certainly be happy to hear about the results.
    As for others taking part, I can only put out a shout for encouragement. Anyone interested in doing this?

  5. nancy says...

    so, let me get this straight-there is a law that usa courts are not allowed to hear a case where there is evidence, including eye witness testimony, that 3 prisoners were murdered. that means that any detainee can be tortured to death and the murderers will never be charged or have to go to trial. what good are laws against murder if the gov can murder with impunity? why doesnt the usa just make murder of anyone it deems an enemy legal?
    i’d be happy to help with arcticredriver’s project, tho i bet that the birth dates are very inaccurate. i’ve met many asians who dont know when they were born and, since they use different calendars in many countries, it should make their birthdate, even birth year, arbitrary and confusing.
    {i’m not even sure i understand the project, but u have my permission to give arcticredriver my email address]

    PS Andy-i hope u r still working on the aafia siddiqui case.
    http://www.dawn.com/2011/04/16/pakistani-consul-general-visits-dr-aafia-in-texas.html
    WASHINGTON: On the instructions of ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, Pakistani consul general in Houston Aqil Nadeem visited detained Pakistani scientist Dr Aafia Siddiqui in Carswell detention facility in Texas on Friday….

    [i dont know if i had anything to do with it, but i kept pushing for this visit. i wrote on every site that i thot Paks might see that, under the vienna conventions, she was entitled to consular visits. i kept writing that every Pak sd contact their embassy immediately and demand that a pak official visit her in order to ensure her humane treatment cuz i think she got a ROTTEN trial. i wrote the pak consulate myself, but they never answered-except i did get a visit from some guy at the DoJ. it was a pleasant visit-we went out for chinese food!]
    anyway, maybe u can contact this aqil nadeem and find out more about her condition and what she had to say. not that i expect he will say anything of substance. but her brother in texas will now supposedly be able to visit. i am surprised at how quiet he seems to be]
    i wd have written all this mess in an email to you, but the email contact link didnt work

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Nancy, Very good to hear from you. I haven’t forgotten about Aafia Siddiqui, but I just haven’t had any time to look into her story recently.
    I’ll also put you in touch with arcticredriver. Thanks for offering to help.

  7. The season of death at Guantánamo | Happily Natural says...

    [...] it ever since, as the families tried and failed to secure justice in the U.S. courts (see here and here) and when my friend, the Norwegian film director Erling Borgen, made a documentary about the [...]

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