My friend and colleague Jeff Kaye, a full-time psychologist who somehow also finds time to conduct research into Guantánamo and America’s post-9/11 torture program, had a fascinating — and disturbing — article published last week on Truthout, in which, after stumbling upon the autopsy reports of two prisoners who died at Guantánamo in 2007 and 2009, reportedly by committing suicide, he “found irregularities, unanswered questions, and startling new facts the government has withheld from the public for years,” as he explained in a follow-up article on his blog, Invictus.
Summing up the core of his findings, he added, “For instance, one detainee, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, was found hanged with his hands tied behind his back. The other deceased prisoner, Mohammad al-Hanashi, was said to have strangled himself to death with a type of underwear not used by detainees at the time.”
I’m cross-posting the article below, as I believe Jeff has indeed exposed some previously unexplored, and genuinely troubling “irregularities, unanswered questions, and startling new facts” regarding these two deaths, which have long troubled me as well.
The most notorious unexplained deaths at Guantánamo are, of course, the three deaths on June 9, 2006, which were officially described as suicides. This explanation was debunked in December 2009 in a detailed Seton Hall Law School report, based on a rigorous analysis of the official investigation conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and was then debunked further in January 2010, when Scott Horton published an article in Harper’s Magazine, in which former soldiers, serving at Guantánamo at the time of the deaths, in guard posts from which they had a commanding overview of all the comings and goings on the base, established that the official story could not have been true — and hinted at a darker truth about the men’s deaths, involving their transportation to and from a secret facility outside the main base, on the night of their deaths, and the implication that they were either deliberately killed, or died as a result of torture sessions that went too far.
Significantly, no new investigation has been undertaken in light of the revelations in the Harper’s article, which I wrote about here, and followed up on here, and this is, to be blunt, a disgrace. For those who want to know more, I recommend the recently released documentary film, “Death in Camp Delta,” by the Norwegian filmmaker Erling Borgen, which I discussed here.
However, the deaths of the three prisoners in June 2006 are not the only suspicious deaths at Guantánamo. In my very first blog posts after completing the manuscript of my book The Guantánamo Files, on May 31 and June 2, 2007, I wrote about the suspicious nature of the death of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi who had allegedly died by committing suicide on May 30, 2007, but who, like the three men who died in June 2006, was a long-term hunger striker, and therefore someone who had been troublesome to the authorities. I also followed up on the story on the first, second and third anniversaries of his death.
The other dubious suicide, also investigated by Jeff, is that of Muhammad Salih (also identified as Mohammed al-Hanashi), whose death was deeply suspicious, as Salih, another long-term hunger striker, was apparently in good health when, shortly after volunteering as a cellblock representative in January 2009, he was suddenly removed from his cell, and taken to the psychiatric ward, where he died four and half months later, on June 1, 2009. I had my own doubts about this death, and these were only reinforced when, the week after, one of his fellow prisoners, the British resident Binyam Mohamed, who was released in February 2009, wrote an excellent op-ed about his friend in the Miami Herald. I also followed up on the story of Salih’s death here, drawing on research undertaken by the author and journalist Naomi Wolf, who had been present at Guantánamo on the day he died (as part of a group of journalists covering pre-trial hearings in the trial by military commission of Omar Khadr).
I hope you have time to read Jeff’s report, below, and at the end I’ve also posted a video of his interview with Russia Today, following up on the story.
Autopsy reports released last year by the Department of Defense raise stark questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of two prisoners at Guantánamo. Both deaths — of Abdul Rahman al-Amri in May 2007 and Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh al-Hanashi in June 2009 — were labeled suicides by Department of Defense (DoD) investigators.
But the details in the autopsy reports show that al-Amri was found dead by hanging with his hands tied behind his back, calling into question whether he had actually killed himself. (He is referred to as Abd al-Rahman al-Umari in the report.) Al-Hanashi was found wearing standard-issue detainee clothing, the undergarments from which he supposedly used to kill himself, and not the tear-proof suicide smock issued to detainees who are actively suicidal. It remains an open question if he were in fact under suicide watch, even though he had been repeatedly banging his head on prison walls, and had made five suicide attempts in the four weeks prior to his death.
Both al-Amri, who was housed in isolation at Guantánamo’s high-security Camp 5, and al-Hanashi, who was resident at the prison’s Behavioral Health Unit, were supposed to be under constant video surveillance, and according to camp officials, someone was supposed to be checking on them every three to five minutes.
A number of outside observers had deemed both prisoners’ deaths suspicious, but the autopsy reports are the first public documentary evidence of what possibly occurred. The autopsies were declassified by the DoD a year ago, but apparently went unexamined, part of a 1,100-plus-page release of documents in response to an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit [PDF].
Al-Amri was a 34-year-old former member of the Saudi Arabian Army. According to his May 2006 Detainee Assessment (released by WikiLeaks), he allegedly had “knowledge about, and connections to many high-level al-Qaida members and operations.” He was also accused of making a film about the USS Cole bombing, a charge he denied. He was reportedly considered a “high-value” detainee, and had been at Guantánamo since February 2002. Al-Amri told the Combatant Status Review Tribunal that examined his case that he had not gone to Afghanistan to kill Americans, and that if it had been his intent, he would have had ample opportunity when he was in the Saudi Army.
Al-Hanashi was a 31-year-old Yemeni national who, as a young man, had left Yemen to join the Taliban side in the Afghan civil war. His father is said to be the leader of the 4,000-member Hanashi tribe in Yemen. Like al-Amri, DoD claims he was affiliated with al-Qaeda, a charge al-Hanashi had denied. Captured after the Qala-i-Janghi prisoner uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif, he was transferred to Guantánamo, arriving two days before al-Amri. According to one prisoner who last saw him six months before his death, al-Hanashi had agreed to be a representative for prisoners’ grievances before camp officials.
Both prisoners had been on long hunger strikes, and at times had weighed at or under 90 pounds. Each had been force-fed while on hunger strike. Both prisoners had never met with an attorney.
“They Covered Up the Crime”
Al-Amri’s autopsy states that the “male civilian detainee” was “found hanging by his neck in his cell with a ligature made of braided strips of bed sheet. By report, similar fabric bound his hands loosely behind him.”
Despite the fact that al-Amri’s hands were bound behind him, the media was kept unaware of this fact. But it apparently was not unknown among some of the other detainees.
In a 2010 letter to his attorney [PDF], released as part of a court filing, longtime Guantánamo hunger striker Abdul Rahman Shalabi told his attorney, “You know what happened to (Abdul Rahman al-Amri) who was killed in camp five two years ago, hanging while his hands were tied behind his back, and he was in solitary confinement … When the Americans released the news of his death, they said that they found him dead in his cell and he was on hunger strike and they covered up the crime.”
Authorities consulted for this article agreed, as one source put it, that having hands tied behind one’s back in a hanging “does not necessarily indicate homicide but certainly requires additional investigation.”
Al-Amri’s relatives, as well, were highly dubious about the suicide verdict and, according to a report in Arab News, demanded an inquiry into his death. A Saudi official involved in monitoring “the condition of Saudi nationals being held in Guantánamo … also ruled out the suicide theory.” A follow-up story for Arab News claimed that a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesperson had indicated “a special medical committee would do an autopsy and then prepare a report that will be sent to US authorities on any particular inquires.” No such report has ever surfaced publicly. A request for comment by the Saudi Interior Ministry had not been returned by press time.
There are other curious aspects to the details surrounding al-Amri’s death. Authorities state that a ligature — the rope or other cord-like devise, in al-Amri’s case possibly torn or cut-up bed sheets, used in strangulation — must be long enough for the purpose of hanging. According to the autopsy report, the ligature in al-Amri’s case was only 22 and one-half inches long, inclusive of the portion around the neck.
Curiously, the ligature also had toward its more distant end “a 4-inch area of dark soiling with attached dark hairs.” The report does not state whose hairs these are or why they are there. Since a DNA test was run to verify the prisoner’s identity, presumably the hairs could have been identified as well, but there is no indication they were so identified.
The autopsy examiners assume that altered bed sheets were used for the hanging. But according to a summarized witness statement (PDF, pg. 7) by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Mike Dunleavy, who became commander of Guantánamo’s interrogation Task Force 170 in February 2002, the sheets used at Guantánamo were “changed” under his order “to the sheets in the federal prison system so they can’t be torn or tied.”
This previously unreported fact calls into question the narrative on al-Amri’s death, as well as that of the three 2006 Guantánamo “suicides,” who were said to have fashioned nooses, in part, out of torn bed sheets. Indeed, former detainees have questioned the suicides of these prisoners, in part, because they did not have “bed sheets that could easily be constructed into a noose.” Harper’s writer Scott Horton and a team of legal investigators at Seton Hall’s School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research have each conducted critical investigations of the 2006 deaths. Another book by former Guantanamo guard Joe Hickman examining the 2006 deaths is due out later this year.
Important information appears to have been kept from al-Amri’s autopsy examiners. The examiners remark that the fact al-Amri’s hands were tied behind his back was something only known to them “by report,” but there should have been photographs taken and available to them.
The autopsy report, which does not provide a timeline for the events it describes, explains the supposed circumstances of al-Amri’s death:
Investigation reveals that a razor blade from a razor was used to cut strips from one or more bed sheets and a ligature was fashioned by braiding these strips together … The free end of the ligature was attached to a ventilation opening, and [redacted] likely stood on his bedroll to place the noose over his head.
But, according to the official 2004 Camp Delta “Standard Operating Procedures” manual [PDF], razors were contraband items. Razors for shaving were allowed only during shower period, but guards were instructed to “Ensure the return of intact razors.” Moreover, detainees in “segregation” units, i.e., isolation, as was al-Amri, are not supposed to be issued razors during shower period at all, raising questions how he ever obtained a blade, if he did at all.
The autopsy report gives no explanation as to how al-Amri obtained a razor blade. It does mention a “superficial, incised wound” on the forefingers of each of his hands, and these could have come from a razor, although the autopsy report does not conclude what their source is. Neither does the report describe the ventilation opening or how the ligature was attached to it.
Finally, in the toxicology section of the report, the examiners note al-Amri was tested “for screened medications (including mefloquine) and drugs of abuse.” It is odd that screening for mefloquine is specially singled out. Mefloquine is a controversial antimalarial drug, which was mass administered to all detainees upon in-processing at Guantánamo. Over a year ago, Truthout examined the use of this drug, which may have been used for abusive purposes or as part of an illegal, secret experiment.
While no drugs were found, it is strange that al-Amri, who had been in Guantánamo for five years, mostly or entirely in solitary confinement, would be possibly thought to have mefloquine in his system. Only a small handful of Guantánamo prisoners were ever found to have malaria, and they came to the prison with the disease. Cuba is not considered to be malaria endemic, and US service personnel and contractors are not routinely administered mefloquine. Interestingly, one of the three purported Guantánamo suicides in 2006, but not the other two, was also tested for mefloquine.
“Stressors of Confinement”
The autopsy report of Guantánamo detainee number 78, Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh al-Hanashi, similarly raises serious questions about the circumstances surrounding his death. The prisoner was said to have strangled himself using elastic bands from his underwear.
The report provides details about the medical and psychiatric condition of the Yemeni detainee at the time of his death. According to the report, al-Hanashi had a “long history” of psychiatric problems at the Joint Task Force penal facility, including “adjustment disorder, anti-social personality disorder and stressors of confinement.” (Emphases added.)
The presence of psychiatric problems is consistent with a reported “history of suicide gestures and multiple failed suicide attempts” going back to 2003. The previous attempts included methods of killing oneself such as hanging, “self-inflicted sharp force injuries and frequent blunt force trauma to the head,” as well as “neck ligature,” which is the kind of self-strangulation that was the manner of death found by the autopsy examiners, whose identities were redacted in both al-Hanashi and al-Amri’s reports.
The autopsy document notes that al-Hanashi made five suicide attempts in the four weeks preceding his death. While the report’s authors describe medical authorities’ diagnoses given to the prisoner, including “anti-social personality disorder,” no diagnosis of depression is given, despite the history of serious suicidal behavior.
According to the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, used by all government medical doctors and psychologists, a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder is only given to individuals who show “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years.” It is difficult to believe that Guantánamo medical staff had this kind of information available to them, raising the possibility the diagnosis was given to taint the prisoner’s behavioral profile.
In addition, the autopsy examiners describe the presence of “dark small raised lesions” on al-Hanashi’s forehead, which they explained were “consistent with reported history of witnessed repeated self-inflicted hitting/banging of the head on the detention facility walls.”
Self-injurious and suicidal behavior are two serious psychiatric symptoms long associated with the kinds of detention conditions found in Supermax prisons, or prisons using special administrative measures, where long-term solitary confinement and forms of sensory and social deprivation are the norm.
Despite the very recent multiple suicide attempts, it is unclear if al-Hanashi was on suicide watch at the time of his death the evening of June 1, 2009, in a cell in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) at Joint Task Force Guantánamo Bay. The autopsy report states he “has been on a suicide watch at BHU, where he is seen daily by medical staff.” (Emphases added.)
But was he on suicide watch the day he died? Multiple email requests for clarification from the DoD on this issue, as well as a number of others — such as what was meant by “stressors of confinement” — have gone unanswered. A Truthout FOIA request for the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) report on his death is pending.
A June 2008 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the procedures used after some Guantánamo suicide attempts. One detainee was “stripped naked, dressed in a green plastic rip-proof suicide smock, and placed in an individual cell under constant monitoring,” after a single December 2007 suicide attempt. Nothing was allowed in his cell that could be used to injure himself. He was questioned by BHU personnel daily, and only released after two months. Another detainee on suicide watch was also dressed in the suicide smock and allowed nothing “other than a mat for sleeping, a Koran and toilet paper” in his cell.
It is not known how long al-Hanashi had been at the BHU, but if he was on suicide watch, he was not wearing the special suicide smock worn by those typically held under special suicide surveillance. The 31-year-old was discovered on the floor of his cell in a fetal position under a blanket, dressed “in khaki shirt and pants without undergarments.” According to the autopsy report, the clothes were “general issue of the detention center.”
The lack of undergarments is unexplained, but since the autopsy posits that al- Hanashi strangled himself using the elastic found in typical underwear distributed to detainees, it is possible that the undergarments are missing because they were used to construct the device by which it is said he asphyxiated himself.
Yet, there is some question about the type of underwear distributed to the detainees at this time. According to an October 17, 2007, article by Carol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald, after the three “suicides” in 2006, camp officials changed “procedures, including more careful monitoring of captives’ belongings, and the changing of captives’ underwear from more elastic briefs to cotton boxers less liable to be used in a hanging.” The report consistently refers to the underwear al-Hanashi supposedly altered as “briefs” or “white briefs.”
The autopsy does not mention any discovery of altered remnants of the undergarments. It says NCIS agents supplied the medical examiners with a replica of the “white brief” issued to the prisoners. The examiners found the ligature on al- Hanashi’s neck to be “identical to the elastic band of the examined brief.”
The autopsy states that “a civilian detainee” (al-Hanashi’s name is strangely redacted at this point in the document) “of unknown age, died from asphyxia due to ligature strangulation by tightly wrapping the elastic band of his underwear around the neck and apparently securing it with a twist on the right side of the neck and a head tilt.” Interestingly, on page 2 of the report, the autopsy examiners state the ligature was twisted “on the left side.” The method of securing the ligature is somewhat obscure.
An expert on asphyxiation, Dr. Steven Miles, told Truthout, “The description of the ligature, suggests garroting of a type that can be done by a person to themself or by another person, i.e., a rod, pen, utensil etc. is put into the ligature and given several twists and then it is removed.” The ligature marks are “consistent with but not conclusive of the use of an underwear band and quite unlike what would be seen with the use of a wire or cord.” Accordingly, along with other medical evidence as reported, Dr. Miles, who criticized the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for “substandard investigations and reporting of prisoners’ deaths” in his 2006 book Oath Betrayed, concurs with the conclusions of the autopsy examiners that the cause of death for al-Hanashi was most likely suicide. He adds the phrase “stressors of confinement” in the report clearly is “a euphemism.”
The autopsy report redacts the date of death, but combining the hourly timeline provided in the report with news accounts, it is almost certain al-Hanashi died sometime in the hour prior to midnight on June 1, 2009.
According to the report, approximately 25 minutes elapsed from the time of the last observation of the prisoner to the discovery of his body on the cell floor. In the examiner’s narrative, at “approximately 2120 hours” (9:20 PM) al-Hanashi asked to speak to a nurse, asking for a “sleeping aid.” Indeed, there were two tranquilizers found in the toxicology reports done post-mortem. Both Lorazepam and the metabolite for clonazepam, two common benzodiazepine drugs commonly known as Ativan and Klonopin, were found in the dead man’s urine and blood.
However, it is not known if this is what al-Hanashi was given for sleep, or what drugs, if any, he was prescribed at this time. No other drugs are listed in the toxicology section of the report, except for acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine.
It was “10-15 minutes later,” after his request for medications, that Guantánamo personnel had their last communication with al-Hanashi. This would have been between 2130 and 2135 hours, or between 9:30 PM and 9:35 PM, when the prisoner asked the guard if he could close his “bean hole cover.” The report opines that this was a “sign he was ready to go to sleep.” (The “bean hole” was the slot through which food was given to prisoners.) According to guards, who presumably were interviewed by NCIS, al-Hanashi was in “in ‘good spirit’ and did not appear upset.”
Only “a few minutes later,” the prisoner was “viewed through the cell window and noted to not be breathing.” The report never states the exact amount of time elapsed, though the autopsy examiners report the time of discovery as “approximately 2155 hours,” or 9:55 PM. This would mean that 20 to 25 minutes elapsed before guards or medical staff checked personally on al-Hanashi in his cell, a period that seems to be more than “a few minutes.”
The efforts at resuscitation apparently lasted approximately an hour, as al-Hanashi was pronounced dead at 2259 or 10:59 PM. Medical intervention included use of an external automatic defibrillator, an endotracheal tube and the placement of a central venous line.
Whatever the timeline of the guards’ observations of al-Hanashi, press reports have stated there is “constant video surveillance” inside prisoner cells in the BHU. Furthermore, Guantánamo spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt told Truthout in November 2009 that, while he couldn’t comment on whether al-Hanashi had been videotaped in his cell, no Guantánamo detainee goes more than “three minutes” without being checked, one way or another. That would be consistent with the “few minutes” noted in the autopsy report, but not with the narrative that presents a lapse of 20 minutes or more. It also tallies with what a prison doctor told journalist Naomi Wolf, who had visited the cells where al-Hanashi had been held in the day or so prior to his death. “They check on prisoners every three minutes,” he told her.
In addition, Wolf reported, “Cortney Busch of Reprieve, a British organization that represents Guantánamo detainees” told her “there is video running on prisoners in the psychiatric ward at all times, and there is a guard posted there continually, too.”
“Tougher Methods” Used on Hunger Strikers
By many accounts, al-Hanashi, like al-Amri, had participated along with other detainees in hunger strikes to protest their situation and treatment. As a result, al-Hanashi, like the other strikers, was forcibly fed at times. Indeed, the autopsy report states, “On January 2009 he started a hunger strike and has been fed enterally,” that is, fed via a feeding tube. According to the autopsy report, al-Hanashi’s stomach was “distended with partially digested food.” The report does not say what this food could have been, or whether it was liquid food, such as would be fed through a tube. Some of this material was vomited up during the attempts to revive him.
While press reports state the Yemeni prisoner was a long-time hunger striker, Lt. Commander De Walt told reporters shortly after al-Hanashi’s death that the prisoner’s hunger strike had ended in mid-May. In an article for the Associated Press, Guantánamo attorney David Remes, who had a client in the Guantánamo BHU at the same time as al-Hanashi, told reporter David McFadden that “all the prisoners in the ward had been force-fed a liquid nutrition mix through a tube inserted in their noses and down their throats and that al-Hanashi had been the only one force-fed in a restraint chair.”
In another Associated Press article, Remes said there were seven detainees total in the BHU at the time of al-Hanashi’s death.
Guantánamo chronicler Andy Worthington noted in a 2009 article on the “shocking statistics of starvation” at the US “war on terror” Cuban camp that, up to and including al-Hanashi’s death, all the supposed suicides at Guantánamo had been hunger strikers.
A February 2006 story by Tim Golden at the New York Times noted, “tougher measures to force-feed detainees engaged in hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay,” implemented by US authorities at the time. This includes the period when al- Hanashi was on his final hunger strike. Military authorities have maintained that force-feeding is conducted “in a humane and compassionate manner.”
Golden wrote, “In recent weeks … guards have begun strapping recalcitrant detainees into ‘restraint chairs,’ sometimes for hours a day, to feed them through tubes and prevent them from deliberately vomiting afterward. Detainees who refuse to eat have also been placed in isolation for extended periods in what the officials said was an effort to keep them from being encouraged by other hunger strikers.”
The “tougher measures” had reduced hunger strikers to only four by December 2005, suggesting that al-Hanashi was one of a handful of hunger strikers. Moreover, it means al-Hanashi initiated his 2006 hunger strike when the harsher methods were already in place. Attorney Elisabeth Gilson, who had a client on the psychiatric ward at the same time al-Hanashi was there, called the force-feeding “abusive and inhumane.”
Testimony From a Detainee Witness
One of the released Guantánamo detainees, Binyam Mohamed, told the press that al-Hanashi had been a leader among the prisoners. In a June 11, 2009, story published at the Miami Herald, he said al-Hanashi, whom he calls Wadhah, weighed only 104 lbs. the last time he saw him in January 2009.
Mohamed stated that he was “force-fed together” with al-Hanashi. According to Mohamed, he last saw al-Hanashi on January 17, 2009, when the Yemeni prisoner “was taken outside Camp 5 to meet with the Joint Task Force commander, Adm. David Thomas, and the Joint Detention Group commander, Col. Bruce Vargo.” According to Mohamed’s account, al-Hanashi had agreed to be a prisoner’s representative “on camp issues such as hunger strikes and other contentious issues.” Al-Hanashi never returned to his cell, and nothing was known of his fate among the detainees outside BHU until his death was announced.
Given what is known of the six months prior to al-Hanashi’s purported suicide, we are to believe that at the same time al-Hanashi restarted his hunger strike, he also became a prisoner’s representative and met with top camp officials. At some point, he was placed in the camp’s BHU. By mid-May, he had ended his hunger strike, but had also began a series of suicide attempts, for which he was placed on suicide watch. On the night of his death, he appears to have not been on suicide watch, since he was not found wearing the regularly issued suicide smock. He was in “good spirit,” yet he supposedly killed himself minutes later, after taking two different sedating tranquilizers, all while under supposed constant or near-constant surveillance.
No medical staff, camp guard or other prison or military official has ever been disciplined for presumed failures of standard operating procedures surrounding any of the Guantánamo “suicides,” at least so far as is known.
Stress and Mental Illness at Guantánamo
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found as early as June 2003 that the conditions of confinement at Guantánamo were “tantamount to torture,” as was documented in a “Memorandum for the Record to Major General Geoffrey Miller” on October 8, 2003. Questions about psychological torture at the Navy base prison were raised by ICRC as early as January 2003. According a New York Times article by Neil Lewis, “the Red Cross team found a far greater incidence of mental illness produced by stress than did American medical authorities, much of it caused by prolonged solitary confinement.”
The stressors of confinement at Guantánamo are many, and include the anxiety and tension associated with indefinite detention, isolation, long bouts of intense interrogation, behavioral controls of reward and punishment, periods of sleep deprivation, lack of access for years to an attorney, separation from family and loved ones, cruel treatment and at times torture.
A two-part series published at Truthout last year raised the question of whether waterboarding occurred at Guantánamo, and documented numerous occasions when similar forms of water torture was, in fact, used.
Other forms of detainee torture at Guantánamo, as documented in a 2006 report by the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, included sensory deprivation and sensory overload, exposure to cold, exposure to extreme violence and cultural and religious harassment.
One particular form of abuse that caused great controversy was the policy, still in place, of force-feeding hunger strikers. A report in the August 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association concluded, “force-feeding at Guantánamo Bay violates the Geneva Conventions, international human rights law, and medical ethics.”
Some of the Guantánamo detainees were persistently force-fed for years. The UN report noted that some forms of forced feeding, including accounts of the practice at Guantánamo, amount to torture.
Why Did al-Hanashi Die?
Whether or not al-Hanashi died a suicide, the question remains why he was driven to such a desperate measure, or why those in charge of his care failed so miserably to keep him alive. While his death may have been due to the stresses of torture and imprisonment, bringing the prisoner to despair and suicide, there may have been other, more distal causes affecting his situation.
Al-Hanashi may have been singled out, along with al-Amri, as a trouble maker. Al-Hanashi’s June 2008 detainee assessment, written as a memorandum for the commander of US Southern Command, labeled him a “HIGH threat from a detention perspective.” The report complained that al-Hanashi’s “overall behavior has been non-compliant and hostile to the guard force and staff.” The report, which was part of a large release of detainee files by WikiLeaks last year, listed “163 Reports of Disciplinary Infraction” up to that date, including “inciting and participating in mass disturbances, failure to follow guard instructions/camp rules, inappropriate use of bodily fluids, unauthorized communications, damage to government property, attempted assaults, assaults, provoking words and gestures, exposure of sexual organs, and possession of food and non-weapon type contraband.”
The report also describes the DoD’s version of al-Hanashi’s connections to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While al-Hanashi admitted in a written response to a Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing that he had associated with the Taliban, he denied any association with al-Qaeda. The DoD relied for that claim on the interrogations of two detainees known to have been repeatedly tortured, Abu Zubaydah and Sanad Ali Yislam al-Kazimi.
A November 2009 Truthout article by this author speculated whether al-Hanashi’s death had anything to do with the possibility that he was a material witness to the 2002 mass killings by Afghan Gen. Abdul Dostum, which possibly included knowledge or participation by US forces. (The Obama administration has refused to investigate the atrocity.) Al-Hanashi had been imprisoned and then wounded at Qala-i-Janghi Prison, where there had been an uprising by Taliban prisoners. (His DoD assessment notes that, in interrogation, John Walker Lindh stated that al- Hanashi had helped negotiate the surrender of the prisoners.) Afterward, he was sent to Sheberghan Prison, where he spent the next four weeks or so recuperating in the prison hospital. In the hospital at the same time were survivors from the mass execution of Taliban prisoners. The bulk of the Taliban POWs had presumably been dumped in mass graves at Dasht-i-Leili.
A major news story by the New York Times on the Afghan mass graves, and a report on the forensic evidence gathered in the case was released in the month after al-Hanashi’s death. The Times report by journalist James Risen noted “several Afghan witnesses” to the slaughter “were later tortured or killed.” Had al-Hanashi talked to survivors of the massacre, and if so, what could he have said about it?
Interestingly, Dostum’s denial of any involvement in the murder of Taliban prisoners was posted just after the Times story broke at the website for the US government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty web site, suggesting the US was actively involved in disseminating misinformation on the war atrocity.
Former detainee Binyam Mohamed, who knew al-Hanashi, found it difficult to believe he would take his own life, and felt a-Hanashi was murdered. “If he did take his life — after being forced into a BHU — what put him there?” Mohamed asked. “Who takes responsibility for making him lose hope after having held on for so many years, despite the inhumane treatment and conditions?”
Al-Amri’s death came almost exactly one year, and al-Hanashi’s death almost three years, to the day after three detainees were found dead on one night in June 2006. Another detainee, former British resident Shaker Aamer, was reportedly also beaten severely and suffocated by Guantánamo personnel on the same night. Aamer’s case has been a focus of British activists seeking his release.
All these deaths were called suicide by the DoD, and the investigations into them apparently proceeded with only the presumption of suicide. Even al-Amri, who had died with his hands tied behind his back, was labeled a suicide by autopsy examiners only days after his death, with no indication of possible investigation into homicide.
In May 2011, a 37-year-old detainee, Inayatullah, also known as Hajji Nassim, was found dead, reportedly hanging by bed sheets, in a recreation yard at Guantánamo. Nassim’s Guantánamo detainee assessment is one of 14 missing from the WikiLeaks Guantánamo release. Nassim’s attorney, federal public defender Paul Rashkind, has told the press that his client had attempted suicide twice before at Guantánamo, and was the long-time victim of “a paralyzing psychosis” that had begun long before he was sent to Guantánamo in September 2007.
According to the US government, Nassim was “an admitted planner for al-Qaeda terrorist operations.” Nassim’s court filings also identify him under the alias “Harun al-Afghani” and “Mohammed Naseem.” Other reports have described him as a father of six, “the owner of a black market cellphone store in Zahedan, Iran,” and someone who, sometime after his capture, stopped cooperating with US authorities under detention because he could not “afford his fellow Afghani detainees to believe that he cooperates with US intelligence.”
Rashkind would not answer Truthout queries about his client’s case, stating, “everything is classified.”
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, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Thanks, Andy, for promoting this important story. Your writing is, as always, powerful.
The more and more I look at the known facts — and I’ll note I am not a forensic specialist — but have been studying what is considered standard autopsy procedures, and the procedures used by the Armed Forces Pathology Institute seems sorely lacking. For instance, it is considered quite important to keep and examine the ligature used in a hanging or (self) strangulation. But where is Al Hanashi’s ligature?? Was it lost or stolen in the middle of Guantanamo? Most likely it was destroyed. But why?
I hope others will take up the call for the sorely needed investigation into these and the 2006 deaths. The amount of irregularities in all the suicides is statistically bizarre. Not many suicides have hands tied behind their back, or try self-strangulation, or have rags stuffed down their mouths. The fact all these suicides have rare components to them seems statistically suspicious, and as a clinical psychologist by training, I do know something about statistics.
You’re more than welcome, Jeff. In introducing your report, I was reminded how long I’ve been writing about suspicious deaths at Guantanamo, but primarily I’d like to commend you for your attention to detail. With this report, you take the reader behind the scenes at Guantanamo, and into places we’re not normally encouraged to think about. I always remember Omar Deghayes telling me how the psych ward was a place where they experimented with torture, which was a haunting description.
Thanks again for all your excellent work!
On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Digging and sharing, Andy.
Gabriele Müller wrote:
Thanks, Andy, shared
Zilma Nunes wrote:
I told you guys something terrible is coming…I’m afraid about the future.Keep going and take care.
Thanks, George, Gabriele and Zilma. Very glad to promote this story, and my friend Jeff’s research.
Allie Mcneil wrote:
Yes indeed, Allie. Thanks for taking an interest.
Andy, Jeff, these deaths have always been shocking.
Andy I am going to take the liberty of repeating a point I made in a comment to another article. I think we have to wonder whether there were other deaths dating back to prior to the DoD being forced to publish a list of captives. Less than a month passed between the publication of that list, on May 15, 2006, and the first three deaths the DoD had to acknowledge to the outside world, which occurred on June 10, 2006.
Thanks, arcticredriver, and yes, you raise a good point. One indication might be if there are gaps in the ISN numbers that can’t be otherwise explained. One of those gaps is ISN 212, who, as was revealed in the WikiLeaks documents, was actually Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was never held at Guantanamo, unless he was briefly held in the CIA’s “Strawberry Fields” prison-within-a-prison between October 2003 and March 2004. My feeling is that it’s more likely that prisoners died elsewhere, but it could be that some of the other missing numbers refer to prisoners who died at Guantanamo.
To arcticdriver and Andy,
In an article back in Dec. 2010, I reported on a little-regarded discussion at an Armed Forces Epidemiological Board meeting in 2002 that discussed briefly the fact of detainee deaths at Guantanamo in the Jan-Feb 2002 period when the detainee camp was opened. The URL is http://my.firedoglake.com/valtin/2010/12/18/unreported-detainee-deaths-at-guantanamo-in-jan-feb-2002/
From the article:
According to the transcript (PDF) of a February 19, 2002 meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (AFEB), “[a] number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with” at Guantanamo. This statement came from Captain Alan “Jeff” Yund, a preventive medicine doctor and the Navy’s liaison officer to the AFEB, as he discussed “mortuary affairs” at Guantanamo, part of a larger discussion on health issues at the new prison facility.
During the meeting, Captain Yund identified himself as working directly with Admiral Steven Hart, the Director of Navy Medicine Research and Development, as well as “a number of other admirals.”
Yund’s full quote is as follows, on pg. 108 of the transcript (bold added):
“Mortuary affairs is an important but hopefully small aspect of the activities of the [Guantanamo] hospital. A number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with. So there’s attention being paid to doing the things with the body that would be appropriate for their culture.”
[Link to that transcript: http://www.health.mil/dhb/afeb/meeting/Transcripts/Day1Transcripts.pdf
Like much of my research, it has been largely ignored. But it is document-based and represents hard evidence, in my opinion.
Thanks for reminding me, Jeff. I had read that, but had forgotten it. I grow old, I grow old …
My apologies for that. I would hate to be one of those people who ignores your research — although you do know that being ignored is a badge of honor these days, don’t you? It means you’re doing something right, but unfortunately the public doesn’t notice sufficiently.
Re “I grow old”.
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled…
That takes me back, Jeff, studying T.S. Eliot for “A” level English, in 1979 or 1980, with the Specials in the charts. young love in first bloom, and Thatcher beginning her reign of destruction.
While I do believe the first three deaths were clearly the result of murder (no one would shove socks down their own throats), I doubt the other four were murdered. If a guard wanted to fake a suicide, he would have untied the hands. The four also had a history of suicide attempts and mental illness.
It’s also not uncommon for some people to tie their hands behind their back if the rope is loose to not back out of the attempt. They put their hands into the the rope just before hanging themselves
Thanks for your thoughts, Martin. A former prisoner told me how depressed al-Amri was, particularly because of sexual abuse to which he was subjected, so it makes sense that the poor man actually committed suicide, but I was never convinced by the story of Muhammad Salih’s suicide, in particular because of the accounts of his fellow prisoners.
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