Remembering the Season of Death at Guantánamo

13.6.15

Yasser-al-Zahrani, photographed at Guantanamo before his suspicious death on June 9, 2006.On June 9, Joseph Hickman, a former guard at Guantánamo, posted the following tweet: “9 years ago today I was at Guantánamo Bay. Three detainees were murdered while I was on duty. All should remember those three men today.”

It was a poignant message, and a reminder of how, at Guantánamo, the years may pass but the injustices — horrible injustices involving unexplained deaths, torture and indefinite detention without charge or trial — remain or are inadequately addressed.

On June 9, 2006, as Joe Hickman pointed out, three prisoners died at Guantánamo — 37-year old Salah Ahmed al-Salami (aka Ali al-Salami), a Yemeni, 30-year old Mani Shaman al-Utaybi, a Saudi, and 22-year old Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, another Saudi, who was just 17 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan at the end of 2001. The Bush administration claimed that they died in a suicide pact, by hanging themselves, but that always seemed unlikely. How were men who were scrutinized incessantly supposed to get the materials to hang themselves and then do so without anyone noticing? And could it really not be relevant that all three men had been long-term hunger strikers, and a thorn in the side of the authorities at Guantánamo?

I wrote regularly about the men who died in June 2006 — on the second anniversary of their death, when no one in the mainstream media noticed, and in August 2008, after an official and unsatisfactory statement based on the NCIS investigation of the men’s death was released  — and then, in January 2010, came a dark and powerful revelation: “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides,'” an article in Harper’s Magazine by the law professor and journalist Scott Horton, based on interviews with former guards, including, in particular, Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, who had been in charge of the guard towers on the night the men died, and who swore that the official story could not have been true. My immediate response to Horton’s article is here.

Hickman observed vans coming and going on the night in question, which, he thought, had taken the three men to another location — a secret site he and his colleagues identified as “Camp No” — where, he thought, some sort of torture session had gone wrong, and they had died. They were then returned to the main camp, where the suicide story was swiftly concocted by the authorities.

Two compelling facts also emerged to cast doubts on the official narrative: the men who died all had rags stuffed down their throats, which would have been impossible for them to do themselves — and was a detail that was suppressed in official reports — and another prisoner, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who is still held despite having been approved for release in 2007 and 2009, said that, on the night of the men’s deaths, he too was subjected to horrible abuse, and thought that he would die.

Scott Horton was eventually awarded a prize for his story, but it never led to an official inquiry. I and others continued to raise it over the years — in June 2010, I wrote Murders at Guantánamo: The Cover-Up Continues, in June 2011 I promoted the work of Jeff Kaye relating to the men’s deaths, in June 2013 I first coined the phrase “The Season of Death at Guantánamo,” and in June 2014 I covered additional information covered by Scott Horton.

However, it was not until January this year that it resurfaced in a notable manner when Joe Hickman’s account was published as a book, Murder at Camp Delta, which I spoke about in a radio show at the time, and mentioned here.

Below I’m making available the interview that Joe Hickman did with Jason Leopold of Vice News when his book was published, and check out Jason’s article, How Guantánamo Became America’s Interrogation ‘Battle Lab’, which looks at the book’s closing chapter, and its suggestions that Guantánamo was “the ideal long-term interrogation facility, a ‘battle lab’ where detainees would be subjected to untested interrogation methods and ‘exploited’ for their intelligence value in what turned out to be a massive ‘experiment.'” This was based on a report by the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, where Hickman now works — and is just one of many important reports produced since 2006.

Please also see the coverage on Democracy Now! and an article in Newsweek.

The other deaths

The three deaths in June 2006 are not the only suspicious deaths to have taken place in the “season of death.” My very first articles, in May/June 2007, were written in response to the alleged death by suicide, on May 30, 2007, of a Saudi prisoner, Abdul Rahman al-Amri. Former prisoner Omar Deghayes later told me that al-Amri had been profoundly upset by the sexual harassment at Guantánamo — enough, perhaps, to lead him to take his own life — but Jeff Kaye (psychologist and journalist) later looked into the investigation into his death and found another murky story, as he did for Muhammad Salih (aka Mohammed al-Hanashi), another long-term hunger striker and agitator who died on June 1, 2009.

The sixth death in this period came on May 22, 2011, when Hajji Nassim (an Afghan known in Guantánamo — and only in Guantánamo — as Inayatullah), who was a prisoner with profound mental health issues, and was also a case of mistaken identity, committed suicide. In his case there is no reason to suspect foul play, but it is disturbing and disgraceful that a profoundly troubled man, who was not who the authorities pretended he was, died instead of being released.

That is also true of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni with mental health problems, repeatedly cleared for release, who died outside of the “season of death,” in September 2012, and it is also worth remembering the other deaths — Abdul Razaq Hekmati, a profound case of mistaken identity, who died of cancer in December 2007, and Awal Gul, an Afghan who died after taking exercise in February 2011.

It is, I think, rather bleakly remarkable that no one has died at Guantánamo since September 2012, but as the men age, and their ailments multiply, it must be the case that there is little room for complacency at the prison these days. One very ill man still held is Tariq al-Sawah, an obese Egyptian who was approved for release in February by a Periodic Review Board, and, in addition, an independent expert who was allowed to visit Shaker Aamer in December 2013 concluded that he has a host of physical and psychological problems and should be freed. The safest way forward for the administration would be to release the men approved for release — 51 of the remaining 116 men now held, including al-Sawah and Shaker Aamer — as swiftly as possible, and to review the cases of the others (all but the handful of men facing trials) to ascertain if there is any good reason why they too should not be released before they, in turn, become grim statistics at a prison that should never have existed.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, when I published this article, I wrote:

    My latest article, remembering the three men who died at ‪‎Guantanamo‬ on June 9, 2006, allegedly by committing suicide, and the three others who died in what I call the “season of death,” on May 30, 2007, June 1, 2009 and May 22, 2011. I always think of the deaths at this time of year, but this time round I was prompted by a tweet by Joe Hickman, the former guard who has established a powerful case that the 2006 deaths cannot possibly have been suicides.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When Anjum Anwar shared this, he wrote:

    Andy Worthington’s latest article! Please do share!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Anjum. It’s important, I think, to remember these men who were robbed of their lives at Guantanamo, far from their families.

  4. Anna says...

    Yes, I remember them, even if I did not remember the exact date. Their horrendous fate was one of the first things I consciously registered about Guantanamo. In fact it was Colleen Graffy’s flippant remark quoted in world press, about this just being a clever PR move to draw attention, which made me realize that something was very wrong over there.

    “As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. State Department she travelled to over 40 countries to communicate U.S. policy, values and culture.” (from her Pepperdine Uni. profile). One of those infamous GWOT lawyers become university professors, teaching kids lawlessness.

    It was evident that there was no way even one person could have killed himself in that manner, let alone three all at the same time. I much admire Joseph Hickman’s courage and may all these combined efforts not only keep the victims’ memory alive, but also one day lead to the truth being officially acknowledged and acted upon. May they rest in peace after their unspeakable ordeal.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. The deaths took place while I was researching my book, and were, I also recall, deeply troubling from the very beginning. I recall former prisoners writing poignantly about the men for Cageprisoners, and one of them talking about how sweet Yasser’s voice was when he recited from the Koran. I’m honored to know Joe. He and I spoke before Scott Hortons Harper’s piece came out, and I’m very glad that he got his book published, and also managed to leave the military and get a job at Seton Hall – although like you and I, I’m sure it’s appropriate to say that we’d all prefer to settle for justice and the truth above all else.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Jason Leopold wrote:

    This is a really hard-hitting report, Andy. Well done!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Jason, and thanks for the supportive words. Writing this article made me aware of just how long I’ve been doing this work – and how much injustice remains. I’m delighted to see your FOIA terrorism has now got you in a smart suit talking to Congress, but, like me, you must wonder sometimes if the Gitmo beat will ever come to an end.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Joseph Hickman wrote:

    Great article Andy! All the horrors I witnessed at GTMO, and especially what I witnessed the night of June 9th, changed my life forever. We can never let people forget the deaths (murders) of those three men. You have never forgotten, Thank You!

    FREE SHAKER!!!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Joe. It’s good to hear from you again. It’s so many years since we first spoke, and so long that these men’s families have sought justice. I will keep remembering them, and we must hope that one day there will be justice. I was given a copy of your book in January, while I was in the US, and I read it during my trip. I thought it was compelling, but of course the mainstream media felt they’d been there and done that. I hope it’s been selling OK. My book took seven years to shift 3,500 copies, but I was reassured when a lawyer told me that some very well-thumbed copies were at the Pentagon secure facility where the classified materials are kept! Thanks for your pursuit of the truth, Joe. A pleasure to know you – and on my next trip I hope we get to meet!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Anjum Anwar wrote, in response to 3, above:

    Absolutely Andy, I am passionate about justice, and justice must be seen to be done, full stop, and unless we the mere mortals do not speak up in our own capacity we would have failed. I will be in touch and would love you to come and speak in the North West after Ramadan!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anjum. I agree about the need for us to strive against injustice. It was deeply engrained in me in my upbringing – as the child of northern Methodists. I would love to come and talk – are you in the Manchester area? I feel it’s my spiritual home, and have been intending to pay a visit for many years. I was born just outside Manchester, but we moved to Hull when I was three, and I grew up there until uni, and have been in London ever since. However, I do feel that I am essentially from Lancashire!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Jason Leopold wrote:

    Long overdue that we catch up, Andy! It must be at least 10 years that you have been covering Guantanamo. I have a feeling we’ll be covering Guantanamo for a long time.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s nearly ten years since I first began doing some research, Jason, into who might be held there, in the hope of writing a third book, following my two previous books on the British counter-culture. At that time there were two lists of potential prisoners, one put together by the Washington Post, and the other by Cageprisoners, because, at that point, the Bush administration had not even deigned to tell the world who it was holding at Guantanamo!
    I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get the the West Coast during my US visit in January and connect with you – not like the year before, when I visited LA for the first time, and it was, alarmingly, 90 degrees in January! This time round I was in Massachusetts, in the snow.
    When I get the time – hopefully in the fall – I want to do a book of my collected writings that will enable me to do a bit of a tour of places in the US I haven’t yet visited. Let me know if you can think of anyone who’d be interested. After all, as you note, Guantanamo’s not immediately coming to an end, even though there remains some drive within the administration to get it closed before the end of Obama’s presidency.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Anjum Anwar wrote:

    Not far from Manchester, Andy, I have a unique job as a Muslim teacher working for an Anglican Cathedral developing/ facilitating difficult conversations between Christians and Muslims, in particular, in fact Moazzam has been our speaker twice! I Would love you to come and speak one day!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    I would love to, Anjum. Your job sounds fascinating. Bridges between different groups need to be built to facilitate greater tolerance and understanding. Let’s stay in touch regarding a possible visit.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Ammara Riaz wrote:

    It is great to see people like you working for justice. You’re the voice of those whose cries are unheard and God bless you for this Andy! I have read most of your works and it helps me keep faith in the good that remains in this world

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the supportive words, Ammara. Great to hear from you.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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