New Evidence Casts Doubt on US Claims that Three Guantánamo Deaths in 2006 Were Suicides

11.6.14

Eight years ago, on June 10, 2006, the world awoke to the news that three men — Yasser Al-Zahrani, Ali Al-Salami and Mani Al-Utaybi — had died at the Bush administration’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The authorities claimed that the three men had committed suicide, and, notoriously, as I explained in an article last year, “The Season of Death at Guantánamo,” 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.’”

Doubts were immediately expressed about whether it was possible, in a facility well-known for the persistent monitoring of the prisoners, for three men to manage to kill themselves without any guards noticing, and questions were also asked about how, even if the men had evaded surveillance, they had actually managed to kill themselves when they were allowed almost no possessions in their cells.

It took until August 2008 for the official report on the deaths, conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), to be made available, but as I explained in an article at the time, the investigators “unreservedly backed up the suicide story” by reporting that “Autopsies were performed by physicians from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Naval Hospital Guantánamo on June 10 and 11. The manner of death for all detainees was determined to be suicide and the cause of death was determined to be by hanging, the medical term being ‘mechanical asphyxia.’”

The investigators also claimed that the three men had left suicide notes — although these have never been made available.

It took until January 2010 for the story of the deaths to resurface in a spectacular manner, when Harpers Magazine published “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides‘” by New York-based attorney and Harpers columnist Scott Horton, based on the testimony of several guards at the time, and, in particular, Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman. The men worked in the towers at Guantánamo, and, based on the movement of vehicles on the night of the men’s deaths, they concluded that the suicide story was implausible, and that the men had been transported to and from their cellblock — to what was described as “Camp No,” a secret facility outside the main prison, which, last year, was revealed as a facility known as “Penny Lane,” where prisoners “turned” by the CIA were held.

Without a thorough independent investigation, it was impossible to know what the truth was, although a major problem with the official suicide story, which was later hidden — the fact that the men had rags stuffed down their throats at the time of their death — suggested that they had been taken to “Camp No” and subjected to some sort of torture that went too far.

All three men, it should be noted, were long-term hunger strikers, well-respected by their fellow prisoners, and, as a result, it is readily apparent that they may well have aroused the hostility of parts of the military, and, perhaps, of some of the other shadowy groups operating at Guantánamo — perhaps the CIA, perhaps some other unidentified organization.

The authorities have persistently shut the door on calls for an independent investigation into the deaths, but the story refuses to go away, and in June’s issue of Harpers Magazine, it resurfaced again. In “The Guantánamo Suicides, Revisited” (only available to subscribers), Scott Horton wrote about “a statement by Master-at-Arms Denny, a member of the escort team that transferred the three detainees to the hospital,” which was Exhibit 25 in the NCIS report, although it was “missing from the version of the report that was released to the public following a Freedom of Information request,” and was only found “in a separate report prepared by the staff judge advocate assigned by the Navy to investigate the case.”

Denny’s statement dealt with Yasser Al-Zahrani, referred to as 093, his Internment Serial Number (ISN). As Horton explains, he “was a Saudi who had been seized at the age of seventeen in northern Afghanistan. No charges were brought against him, and he appears to have been slated for release and repatriation, a process interrupted by his death.”

Denny explained that, sometime after midnight on June 10, 2006, he and another member of the escort team “were instructed to transport a detainee suffering ‘life threatening symptoms’ from a cell block in Camp 1 to the camp’s clinic.” However, on arrival at the entrance to Camp 1, they were “informed that the detainee had already been moved to the clinic, a highly unusual violation of standard operating procedure.” Denny stated that it was “for this reason” that he “had a feeling something was wrong.”

When the two men entered the clinic, they “found Al-Zahrani on a stretcher, his feet blue and his body limp.” Horton notes that the NCIS report claimed that all three of the men who died “used their bedsheets to fashion restraints for their hands and to make nooses,” but Denny stated that Al-Zahrani “was handcuffed when he first saw him, and only later did a soldier wrap ‘an altered detainee sheet, that looked like the same material ISN 093 used to hang himself,’ around the detainee’s right wrist.”

Denny also stated that the prison’s Combat Camera team “began documenting the scene — again, standard operating procedure — but were ordered to stop filming by Colonel Michael Bumgarner,” the prison’s warden, and Horton also notes that “video that would have provided documentation of movements into and out of the cell block, as well as of events that transpired at the detainee clinic, does not appear in the materials released by the NCIS, although the existence of the footage has been confirmed in a memorandum from the staff judge advocate dated June 15, 2006.”

Horton then notes that emergency medical technician (EMTs) “arrived in ambulances to transport the three prisoners to the base’s hospital, and “immediately started chest compressions on Al-Zahrani, because, the master-at-arms stated, ‘medical was not doing it.’”

As Horton asks, “One wonders why medical personnel at the clinic had not attempted to resuscitate the patient, who at this point was still alive.”

Denny was then “ordered to accompany Al-Zahrani to the hospital,” and traveled with the EMTs, who “resumed the chest compressions.” At this point in time, Denny explained that the monitor showed that Al-Zahrani’s heart was still beating, and he also “noted that the cloth Al-Zahrani allegedly used to hang himself was still wrapped tightly around [his] neck.”

As Horton notes, “The application of CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] with the cloth still in place, while the patient’s neck was ‘swollen, puffy,’ and ‘a purple color,’ is not only an unlikely resuscitation method but might have done Al-Zahrani further harm.”

After arriving at the hospital, Denny was called by Col. Bumgarner , who told him that the other two men were dead and asked about Al-Zahrani. Horton explains how one of the medical staff looked at Denny and “held his thumb and index finger about an inch apart and said, ‘He’s that close to death.’” He was pronounced dead about 75 minutes after Denny’s escort team was first ordered to report to Camp 1.

As Horton proceeds to note:

The government’s insistence that Al-Zahrani died by hanging himself in his cell, having fashioned a rope from bedsheets and bound his own hands, is highly improbable. How, then, did he die? The tower guards I interviewed suggested that Al-Zahrani was moved to Camp No on the night of June 9. According to an Associated Press report from November 2013, this facility, which the CIA called Penny Lane, was used to “turn” prisoners into intelligence assets prior to their release. (It was shut down following the three deaths.) The interrogations there most likely involved “dryboarding,” a conditioning technique in which a rag or a sock is stuffed down a detainee’s throat, which can result in ashyxiation.

Horton also explains that Denny’s statement initially “took up three pages of the original NCIS report,” but that, in the version made public, “duplicates of other pages from the report were renumbered to stand in their place — strongly suggesting that the exclusion of Exhibit 25 was deliberate.”

That, I think, is something of an understatement, and I note that, on June 4, Harpers published a Q&A between Scott Horton and Professor Mark Denbeaux of the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, with some much stronger language. Seton Hall has played a major role in investigating the deaths, publishing a hugely detailed report, “Death in Camp Delta,” a month before Horton’s article, and, in May this year, publishing a follow-up report, “Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death in Camp Delta,” that led to Horton’s update.

Denbeaux explained how the document was found, which made it clear that the NCIS had “destroyed crucial contradictory statements and concealed the existence of other contradictory evidence,” and had also “reconstructed the ‘crime’ scene and fabricated still other evidence.”

As he stated:

Three Seton Hall students looked into a previously unexamined file that was explicitly not part of NCIS’s investigation, but rather an internal military inquiry into the guards’ conduct that night — the Staff Judge Advocate’s (SJA) report. That inquiry was closed in August of 2006. Buried inside was the medical escort’s statement.

One student, guided by a senior fellow, found this three-page document amid the jumble of the SJA file. She read it, puzzled over it, and then, along with two other students, began to understand that it related to one of the three deaths. At first, all three of the students were skeptical — the facts that the document described so completely contradicted the NCIS’s conclusions. Another investigator from the Center for Policy and Research [which worked with Seton Hall on the report] independently reviewed the SJA file and came to the same conclusion.

An upset student came to me, saying, “I think that we have found something horrible. At least one of the detainees was alive hours later than reported. He was left to die. First in the detainee clinic, where he lay unattended on a gurney with ropes tied around his neck. He was later found in an ambulance with faint vital signs because the ropes were still around his neck. When they cut the ropes off, his vital signs improved. But when he arrived at the hospital, he lay there while Camp Delta kept calling, asking if he were dead yet. And finally he died. This is more horrible than I could possibly have imagined.”

Denbeaux added:

It got worse. The NCIS investigators not only removed a damning document, they took steps to hide its existence. It belonged in the NCIS report. Three other students found that the investigators had taken the escort’s sworn statement; it had originally been stamped with NCIS notations and placed with the proper exhibit numbers into the file. But it was no longer there! In its place were three random, disconnected pages — photocopies of other pages already in the file. NCIS had attempted to destroy this chilling statement. No one reading the file would ever have known that it once included a three-page statement from a sworn eyewitness that sharply contradicted the NCIS’s conclusions.

Denbeaux also provided Horton with other discoveries that, as Horton put it, “raised red flags”:

The medical history of one detainee was missing from the NCIS file, but we found it in his medical records. His history contained a description of the cause and manner of his death by the senior medical officer who declared him dead at the clinic. The officer’s report did not mention hanging. It stated that the cause of death was asphyxiation caused by clogged airways. That would be consistent with having rags stuffed down their throats, but not hanging.

The computer logs showing who entered and exited the cells show that an unknown number of people came and went in the hours after the men were declared dead and before the NCIS investigation began. And they show that during those trips objects were brought in, and others removed, several times.

A guard on the previous shift had reported that the contents of the cells, which he had searched just before the detainees supposedly died there, were inadequate for the purpose for which the prisoners supposedly used them: to hang themselves and conceal what they were doing.

The students also noted the absence of evidence. Where were the suicide notes? Where were the biographies of those supposedly suicidal men? And, most tellingly, where were the initial statements of the guards from that night? The only recorded guard statements were given four days after the deaths, long after the guards made their first statements.

As I remember the three men who died — which I do every year — and as I also remember the other men who died in the “season  of death” — Abdul Rahman Al-Amri, who died on May 30, 2007, and Muhammad Salih, who died on June 1, 2009 (both of whom had the dubious natures of their deaths examined by Jeff Kaye in 2012) — I only hope that one day there will be an independent investigation into the deaths of Yasser Al-Zahrani, Ali Al-Salami and Mani Al-Utaybi, for the simple reason that the official story is horribly unsatisfactory, and the families of the deceased men, as well as the American people, deserve the truth.

Note: Please also see Jeff Kaye’s analysis of the Seton Hall report and its findings on Firedoglake, and also see this Star-Ledger interview with Mark Denbeaux and Adam Kirchner, one of the Seton Hall students who worked on the report.

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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8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Safia Jassim wrote:

    How could he commit suicide in the presence of highly alert guards?? Another made up story..

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Safia. There are so many inconsistencies in the story, not least how we are supposed to believe that the three men managed to tie themselves up prior to hanging themselves – and that’s without even mentioning the rags stuffed down their throats, which they couldn’t possibly have done to themselves. A thoroughly independent investigation is the only appropriate way for this unending story to be dealt with, but it’s difficult to see that happening anytime soon.

  3. Jeff Kaye says...

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for picking up this story (somehow I knew you would!), as the rest of the press is ignoring clear evidence of the cover-up. In my story, which you link at the end of your piece, I concentrate more on the report of the Senior Medical Officer (SMO) present, and how that report was totally left out of the NCIS report and associated documents. But it did, as you note, show up in a Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) investigation of the same matter. In my opinion, the suppression of the SMO report, which indicated the detainees’ “suicide” were due not to hanging, but to blockage of the airway, is as important as the Denny document. The SMO report also confirms the presence of some kind of rags stuffed down the mouth and larynx of the detainee he examined. The latter is corroborative evidence of 1) claims contemporaneous with the murders that the detainees had had socks or some other cloth stuffed down their throats; and 2) that the prisoners may have been victims of “dryboarding,” which was a theory proposed by UC Davis academic Almerindo Ojeda a few years back.

    The deeper look into the SJA materials inspired me to look into the documents more closely as well, and I found some material that I believes relates to the Al Amri “suicide” — or was it murder? — a year after the deaths of the three prisoners in 2006. I’m going to write that up quite soon.

    All credit really must go to the Seton Hall investigators, who dug out all this stuff, their lead investigator, Joseph Hickman, who was also a key figure in the earlier Scott Horton-Harper’s articles on Camp No, and Mark Denbeaux, who continues to give the government hell after many decades! Thanks again, Andy!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeff. I apologize, because I meant to include information from your article, but it was getting late (I wrote the article last night), and the article was already really long, and it never happened. However, I’m sure some people will follow the link, and I also note that you got some good social media responses – 300 tweets!

    So thanks again, Jeff, and here, for further elaboration, are a few excerpts from your article:

    The Senior Medical Officer (SMO) at Guantanamo who attended at least two of three high-profile “suicides” at Guantanamo nearly eight years ago concluded at the time that, contrary to the conclusions of a later government investigation, the detainees did not die by hanging but by “likely asphyxiation” from “obstruction” of the airway. Moreover this SMO found a prisoner he examined and pronounced dead had “cotton clothing material in [his] mouth and upper pharynx.” [...]

    Yet, unaccountably, the SMO was never formally interviewed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which had the Department of Defense mandate to investigate the supposed suicides. Furthermore, the SMO’s account was not included in the NCIS final report. [...]

    Other findings in CPR’s new report either ignored or overlooked in previous investigations include the fact that guards who searched the deceased’s rooms only hours prior to their deaths did “not discover anything that a detainee could hang himself with … in the manner of the rumors” of their death by hanging.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Cahide Sen wrote:

    Guantanamo has to be closed, those people need fair trial or release.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Cahide. That is what everyone who believes in justice and truth has been saying for many years. It is unacceptable to hold people without rights, neither as criminal suspects (who must receive speedy trials), nor as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions.

  7. arcticredriver says...

    I wonder what retired Colonel Bumgarner is doing now? The military picks senior Colonels, about to retire, for the gig of being the Warden. It leaves them in place for several years, while the Commandants rotate out once a year.

    The Geneva Conventions require the USA to use the same courts, to apply the same laws and procedures to its own suspected war criminals as it applies to foreigners suspected of war crimes. If the USA were following its obligations, Bumgarner, Miller, Joshua Claus, and the current warden, Bogdan, would all be facing war crimes charges. If the USA were following its obligations to use the same courts and procedures, they would also be in a Kangaroo Court system, like Guantanamo’s military commissions.

    It is hard to believe the CIA thought they could torture men into risking their lives as moles.

    I wrote recently about an unrepentant Brazilian torturer, Paulo Malhães. When he died recently, during a home invasion, there was speculation that sympathizers of his victims had finally gotten even with him. But the coroner concluded he died of a heart attack, that he was an elderly man, and experiencing a routine home invasion that frightened him to death. Through writing about him I learned about Brazil’s Casa da Morta — its “House of Death” — Brazil’s equivalent to Penny Lane. An unknown number of suspected dissidents passed through the house. The nominal goal was to turn the suspects into moles. But only one dissident was considered reliable enough to be put back into the field, as a mole. Inês Etienne Romeu. She was soon re-apprehended, but was lucky enough to end up in an official prison. Her interrogators didn’t only torture Romeu, they raped her and sexually humiliated her.

    At least 22 other dissidents — the exact number is unknown — were killed during their secret detention.

    In Romeu’s case the point that the torturers may have thought would ensure her loyalty to them was their threat that if she defected they would kidnap her sister, and torture her in Romeu’s stead.

    The reason I bring their case up is that, as at Guantanamo, while covered by protection from punishment for their crimes by layers of secrecy, the Brazilian interrogators also thought they could use torture to turn captives into double agents.

    I wonder whether the initial DIA claims that the first recidivists “tricked” their way out of Guantanamo, fooled their interrogators into thinking they were simple poverty-stricken farmers, was all spin — and that those men, or at least some of them, had been individuals the DIA believed were Taliban leaders, who they also believed they had recruited to serve as moles. I wonder whether they only claimed the men “tricked” them, when their inherently tricky plan to use them as double agent failed?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for the fascinating comments. I know fascist states are always terrible, but I don’t always know the details, so thank you for the relevant information about the shocking attempts to create double agents through torture in Brazil. I looked up Inês Etienne Romeu, and she was seized in 1971 during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985.
    It is genuinely difficult to guess what the CIA and the Bush administration thought they were doing regarding “turning” prisoners at Guantanamo. I think you may well be correct, and that some of the alleged recidivism relating to Guantanamo may involve men who the authorities thought they had “turned,” but who had tricked their captors.
    I wonder if we’ll ever find out – or how we might go about doing so.

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