The Season of Death at Guantánamo

9.6.13

Seven years ago, late in the evening on June 9, 2006, three prisoners — Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni, and Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, both Saudis — died at Guantánamo, in what was described by the authorities as a triple suicide, although that explanation seemed to be extremely dubious at the time, and has not become more convincing with the passage of time.

At the time, the prison’s commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., attracted widespread criticism by declaring that the deaths were an act of war. Speaking of the prisoners, he said, “They are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”

I described the deaths in my book The Guantánamo Files, published in 2007, after a fourth death at the prison, of Abdul adman al-Amri, a Saudi, on May 30, 2007 (see here and here), and I wrote my first commemoration of the men’s deaths on the second anniversary of their supposed suicide, followed, in August 2008, with a skeptical analysis of the report of the deaths by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which took over two years to be made available.

The next year, 2009, the anniversary was overshadowed by the death of a fifth prisoner, Muhammad Salih, another Yemeni.

I call this the season of death because all five men died in a two-week period at the end of May and the start of June, and to this day none of the deaths have been adequately explained. It is also, I believe, significant that all five men had been long-term hunger strikers.

Although doubts had been expressed at the time about the deaths of the three men who died in June 2006, and doubts were also expressed about Muhammed Salih’s death, by his friend, the British resident Binyam Mohamed, who was released just four months before Salih died, it was not until January 2010 that the alleged suicide story was blown wide open when, in Harper’s Magazine, Scott Horton wrote a major feature, based on statements made by soldiers who had been at Guantánamo on the night that Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani died, who insisted that the triple suicide story had to be false.

The main witness was Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, who had been stationed in one of the watchtowers close to the block where the men allegedly committed suicide. Hickman, a former Marine who had reenlisted in the Army National Guard after the 9/11 attacks, was deployed to Guantánamo in March 2006, with his friend, Specialist Tony Davila.

On arrival, Davila was briefed about the existence of what Horton described as “an unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound” outside the perimeter fence of the main prison, and he explained that one theory about it was that “it was being used by some of the non-uniformed government personnel who frequently showed up in the camps and were widely thought to be CIA agents.”

As I explained in my analysis of Horton’s article at the time:

Hickman and Davila became fascinated by the compound — known to the soldiers as “Camp No” (as in, “No, it doesn’t exist”) — and Hickman was on duty in a tower on the prison’s perimeter on the night the three men died, when he noticed that “a white van, dubbed the ‘paddy wagon,’ that Navy guards used to transport heavily manacled prisoners, one at a time, into and out of Camp Delta, [which] had no rear windows and contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner,” had called three times at Camp 1, where the men were held, and had then taken them out to “Camp No.” All three were in “Camp No” by 8 pm.

At 11.30, the van returned, apparently dropping something off at the clinic, and within half an hour the whole prison “lit up.” As Horton explained:

Hickman headed to the clinic, which appeared to be the center of activity, to learn the reason for the commotion. He asked a distraught medical corpsman what had happened. She said three dead prisoners had been delivered to the clinic. Hickman recalled her saying that they had died because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised. Davila told me he spoke to Navy guards who said the men had died as the result of having rags stuffed down their throats.

Despite the compelling narrative of a cover-up — which was also backed up by “Death in Camp Delta,” a detailed report produced by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey — the US government shut the door on an investigation.

On the fourth anniversary of the deaths, I wrote a follow-up article, “Murders at Guantánamo: The Cover-Up Continues,” and I have tried to publicize it ever since, as the families tried and failed to secure justice in the US courts (see here and here) and when my friend, the Norwegian film director Erling Borgen, made a documentary about the deaths, also called “Death in Camp Delta,” which I reviewed here.

Since then, another friend, the psychologist Jeff Kaye, discovered the autopsy reports for Abdul Rahman al-Amri and Muhammad Salih, the prisoners who died in 2007 and 2009, and wrote a skeptical article about their alleged suicides for Truthout, and, last September, there was another disputed suicide — of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a mentally troubled Yemeni who had reported hoarded medication, in order to kill himself by taking an overdose, even though this appears to have been impossible given the obsessive scrutiny to which the prisoners are subjected.

As a prison-wide hunger strike rages at Guantánamo, which is now in its fifth month, the anniversaries of the deaths of the long-term hunger strikers in 2006, 2007 and 2009 continue to provide a disturbing reminder of how troubling the US authorities response to long-term hunger strikers has been in the past, and how the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo — 41 of whom are now being force-fed — must not be forgotten.

17 days ago, President Obama promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo — a process that has largely been blocked by Congressional obstructions for the last two years. He needs to do so, and he needs to begin immediately, to address the despair felt by the hunger strikers (103 of the remaining 166 men, according to the US authorities, and 130, according to the prisoners themselves), and to make sure that no more men die while deprived of justice in a prison that he described, in his speech 17 days ago, as “a facility that should never have been opened.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

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12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Thanks Andy. Sharing. Px

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Pauline. Please note that, if anyone wants to know more about the court cases involving the prisoners’ families and the Center for Constitutional Rights, see the page here: http://ccrjustice.org/ourcases/current-cases/al-zahrani-v.-rumsfeld
    The most recent submission is to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: http://ccrjustice.org/files/Talal%20Al-Zahrani%20et%20al%20%20v%20%20United%20States_Petition%208-21-12.pdf

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Immediately off to the CAAB fb page – thank you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elizabeth and Lindis. Seven years. I remember the reports as though it was yesterday. I was just three months into the research for my book “The Guantanamo Files,” and my son was just six years old. I’m tired of all the lies and hypocrisy and indifference towards Guantanamo by the various branches of the US government, while 166 men are still held in the same hell-hole. If I’m tired, how exhausted must they be? I’m sick of America’s refusal to do the right thing. Obama, Congress, the D.C. Circuit, the Supreme Court – they all have reasons to be very profoundly ashamed.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natashja de Wolf wrote:

    thank you for posting

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    You are welcome, Natashja. I always remember Guantanamo’s dead at this time of year, because five of the nine men who have died at Guantanamo died at this time. Some of you may not know that I wrote about one of the two men who died, but who didn’t supposedly commit suicide, with Carlotta Gall, in a front-page story for the New York Times in February 2008. Also check out the Editor’s Note: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/world/asia/05gitmo.html

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy.

    I too was thinking of this anniversary.

    I first read about a specific case of violence at Guantanamo when I read about Sean Baker, the GI beaten so severely he was left with brain damage, severe seizures and other mental health issues.

    Baker had been assigned to act as a captive in what he was told would be a “training exercise”. He was told to put on the orange coveralls of a non-compliant captive over his uniform. He was told “red” was his safe-word, and he had only to utter it to terminate the training exercise early.

    However the riot squad was not told anything about a training exercise, so they didn’t expect a safe-word. They were told a non-compliant captive had attacked a female GI and had to be extracted from his cell.

    The leader of the riot squad caused the brain damage by repeatedly banging his head against the cell’s concrete floor. He wasn’t resisting, he kept shouting the safe word, to no effect. The riot squad continued the beat-down until it had started to rip the coverall to pieces. That is when they recognized that he was wearing a GI uniform underneath.

    When I read how brutal the riot squad was I thought to myself that it would be amazing if they hadn’t beaten captives to death.

    Andy, weren’t there about 400, or 450 captives remaining in the camp in June 2006 — with over 300 men sent home? Since those deaths were made public less than a month after the DoD published its first official list of all captives I am going to take the liberty of repeating a suspicion I have voiced before.

    Prior to the publication of that first official list on 2006-5-15 the DoD could brush deaths in custody under the carpet. That was the plan with the “iceman” who died under brutal interrogation at Abu Ghraib. He had been rushed to the interrogation room after he was brought to the prison, without even seeing a medic to see if he had been injured during capture and transportation — and without first being entered on the prison roster.

    After he died those in charge of the prison thought they could skip the step of reporting his death — since he had never been registered as a captive they thought they could keep him on ice for a day or so until they made arrangements to smuggle his body out.

    There has been about one death reported per year, since the official list was published — but no deaths reported in the four and a third years prior to the publication of the list? No deaths reported even though the camp held more captives in its first four years? No deaths reported even though some captives arrived with serious wounds? No deaths reported even though guards and interrogators had a more brutal set of rules to follow?

    I have found it hard to believe there were no deaths prior to the publication of that official list.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, as ever, for your thoughts, arcticredriver. I don’t dispute your logic, but I do wonder whether some prisoners might not have noticed that certain prisoners had disappeared, and I also don’t think there’s that much leeway in the numbering. As you know, there are missing ISN numbers, but I believe that almost all those referred to, who were given the numbers while in prison in Afghanistan, were never transferred to Guantanamo. I concede, however, that I might be mistaken …

  10. arcticredriver says...

    You are correct about the numbering. There is an underlying meaning to the numbering. It is fairly easy to guess why ISN 10007 shares a range of numbers with ISNs 10001-10006 — the “Algerian Six”. They were apprehended by snatch teams, outside of the AfPak region, probably by the CIA. But why weren’t Bisher al-Rawi and his friend, also apprehended by the CIA, in Gambia, listed in the same range?

    ISN’s 1453, 1456, 1457, 1458, 1460, 1461 and 1463 were all transferred to Guantanamo on 2004-9-20. I think we figured out they were transferred from CIA custody. So what happened to ISNs 1451, 1452, 1454, 1455, 1459, 1462?

    One of the last captives to arrive at Guantanamo, in 2007 or 2008, had his ISN renumbered from the range ISN 1002x to somewhere in the 3xxx range, so they do issue new ISNs to some captives, or at least to one captive.

    Well, maybe we will figure out more details of this numbering some day.

  11. arcticredriver says...

    I had forgotten I had seen some declassified memos to the Red Cross, including at least one telling them that there were certain captives, including Abdurahman Khadr, who they wouldn’t be allowed to see, for national security reasons. I’d forgotten that the very first commandant, described favorably in Karen Greenberg’s “the least worst place”, invited the Red Cross to visit the captives, on his own authority. He may have suspected doing so would piss off Rumsfeld, but he hadn’t been ordered not to invite them, and it seemed like it would have been a standard step, so he did it.

    Well, the Red Cross would have been keeping track. They may even have been entrusted with the secret list.

    So, this reduces the number of deaths they could have hidden. But the Red Cross only visited periodically. Would they have bothered to tell the Red Cross when wounded men, succumbed to a combination of their wounds, being interrogated while still trying to recover from their wounds, having their pain medication withheld so it wouldn’t interfere with their interrogation.

    Would the captives have known when men died? The camp swelled to 600 or so in the first year, kept in a dozen or more distinct cell blocks, with constant moves, for softening up or punishment purposes.

    Some of the captives were imprisoned in cell blocks next to captives with whom they couldn’t communicate.

    Jeff or Jason quoted the first camp doctor, who said something that implied there had been some early deaths of captives who arrived with serious wounds, during the camp’s first year or so.

    Captives could have died in Camp Strawberry Fields without either the Red Cross or the regular captives learning of it. We only learned of it a few years ago.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    All very good points, arcticredriver. Thanks. It’s times like these that I particularly recall how few people there are in the world with whom I can have this sort of conversation!
    On the subject of the ISNs in the 1450s and 1460s – those transferred from “black sites” on September 20, 2004 – there was one you missed – 1452 – but as for the others, yes, there are clearly stories we haven’t been told. that said, some of the missing numbers came to light in a UC Davis study here, which will interest you, I’m sure: http://humanrights.ucdavis.edu/reports/skipped-numbers-folder/skipped-internment-serial-numbers

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