Remembering Guantánamo’s Dead

16.6.16

Campaigners with Witness Against Torture remind President Obama of the nine deaths that have occurred at Guantanamo at a protest in April 2013.Every year, I publish an article remembering the men who died at Guantánamo in what, in 2013, I first described as “the season of death” at the prison — the end of May and the start of June, when six men died: three on June 9, 2006, one on May 30, 2007, another on June 1, 2009, and the last on May 22, 2011.

Of the six, only the last death — of Hajji Nassim, an Afghan known in Guantánamo as Inayatullah — appears very clearly to have been a suicide. Nassim had profound mental health issues (as well as being a case of mistaken identity), but although there was no reason to suspect foul play, it is, as I explained last year, “disturbing and disgraceful that a profoundly troubled man, who was not who the authorities pretended he was, died instead of being released.”

Doubts have also been raised about the deaths in 2007 and 2009, as I also explained last year, when I wrote:

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.

Muhammad Salih had been a cell block leader, who stood up against the injustice to which the prisoners were subjected (see former prisoner Binyam Mohamed’s article about him here), and as such his case contained eerie parallels to the cases of the three men who died on June 9, 2006, who had also been long-term hunger strikers and were well-known to their fellow prisoners.

According to the US authorities, the three men — Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni, and Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi — committed suicide, but that always seemed implausible, as the prisoners were meant to be constantly monitored, and were not supposed to have access to sheets with which to hang themselves, even without factoring in the fact that all three were thorns in the side of the authorities.

However, although I covered the story with skepticism over the years — including when the NCIS produced a half-hearted report justifying the official line — the story only really blew wide open in January 2010, when Harper’s Magazine published “The Guantánamo Suicides” by the journalist and law professor Scott Horton, in which, drawing on testimony by a number of former military personnel — in particular, Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, who was in charge of the guard towers and was on duty on the night the men died — a chilling new narrative emerged: that, on the night the men died, vehicles had driven in and out of Camp Delta, to a shadowy facility known to the soldiers as “Camp No,” and later revealed to have been a secret facility called “Penny Lane,” where, it would appear, they had been tortured and killed, and where, it was also to be presumed, the rags had been stuffed down their throats that contributed to their deaths. Mention of the rags was removed from the official reporting, and, of course, it is implausible that men hanging themselves in their cells could, as well as tying themselves up, also stuff rags down their own throats.

Although widely praised, Hickman and Horton’s story hit a brick wall in the Obama administration, and has never been adequately investigated. In January 2015, Hickman’s book about the deaths, Murder in Camp Delta, was published by Simon & Schuster, but that too failed to dent the wall of official silence shielding the deaths from further scrutiny.

18 months on from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s witheringly critical report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, and with a whole new trove of CIA documents just released through FOIA legislation revealing new and shocking details about torture, murder and cover-ups in the “war on terror,” it is surely time that the events of June 9, 2006 are officially revisited.

Below, I’m cross-posting a short op-ed Joseph Hickman wrote for Shadowproof (formerly FireDogLake), the excellent investigative site run by Kevin Gosztola, in which, on the 10th anniversary of the three deaths, Hickman wrote about how the deaths and their cover-up constituted a war crime, and called once more for transparency and justice.

I can only echo his words, and, to explain a little more of the story from Hickman’s perspective, I’m also posting excerpts from the interview Hickman did last February with Brooklyn-based blogger The Talking Dog, who has been conducting interviews with people intimately connected to the Guantánamo story for many years.

An excerpt from Joseph Hickman’s interview with The Talking Dog, February 2015

The first thing that matters [about the circumstances surrounding the three deaths on June 9, 2006] is that the NCIS immediately asserted that I was “only” a perimeter guard and not in a position to see what happened. That was, of course, a half truth. Half of my duties were inside Camp Delta. I was in a position to see what happened from inside the camp, and this “perimeter guard” characterization irritates me.

I was on duty. I was a reconnaissance soldier, which means you are trained in observation and what you see is important. That night I visited a number of positions. I was in charge of the solders at all of the towers inside Camp Delta. Tower 1 was only thirty-five feet from the medical clinic … it is also less than 50 yards from the walkway in Camp 1, with a clear view of it. I was also next to the entrance to Camp Delta. In the tower, I saw the white paddy wagon (which, of course, could pass without inspection or having to sign in) … I saw it back up to Camp 1, and I saw two guards get out and put a detainee in the vehicle. And then I saw the van make a right, and then a left — leaving Camp America. And then I saw the van return around twenty minutes later, and repeat the process with a second detainee.

Now this was a Friday night — there were no commissions scheduled, and there wasn’t a different camp outside the perimeter to take them to … but where were they going?

And then the van returned a third time. This time, I went to ACP [access control point] Roosevelt, the exit from Camp America, and watched. If the van went right, it would be going to the main part of the Guantánamo base — where the McDonalds, the PX and other facilities were. But if it went left, that led only to the beach (for personnel’s recreation) or to Camp No — the road led nowhere else. And the van went left. I knew it wasn’t taking detainees to the beach. This made me curious, as my only conclusion was that the van was going to Camp No. And so, I continued to do my duties of making rounds of my men’s positions.

At 11:30 pm that night, the van returned to Camp Delta. I was back in Tower 1. The van backed up to the medical clinic. I was back in Tower 1, with a clear view of the medical clinic. The van backed up to the medical clinic — my view was obstructed by the van’s doors — but I watched the guards take stretchers into the clinic. Twenty to thirty minutes later, the lights in the camp all went on, and all hell seemed to be breaking loose.

I got down from the tower, and found a Navy corpsman (or medic) who I knew, and she told me that three detainees had stuffed rags down their throats and killed themselves. I knew something horrible was happening.

I asked the guards under my command for their observations. Three guards were stationed 20 feet from the medical clinic, and they reported that no detainees had come from Camp 1 — the only movement of detainees had been the paddy wagon. In fact, none of the guards in my command, who were watching the camp all night, saw anyone transported from any camp — other than the paddy wagon.

The next morning, of course, Col. Bumgarner gave us his talk about what “actually happened” — the detainees choked to death on rags — and what we would see in the news: that they simultaneously hanged themselves and were found that way in their cells … and we were ordered not to talk about it. Nonetheless, I was sure we would be asked about what we observed, by someone. Again, I asked the tower guards in Camp 1 — was anyone transported? The answer was consistent — no. And so, if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. And they did not see detainees taken from Camp 1 (where they supposedly hanged themselves in their cells) to the medical clinic. It did not happen.

And the NCIS did not contact me, or my men — ever.

At the time, I tried to put this behind me. But some details stick with you: it is just so hard to kill yourself at Guantánamo. I am aware of the suicide attempt during an attorney visit you described [of Juma al-Dossari] … that was a gap in security that was solved — and even the detainee in that situation still failed in his attempt. It’s just so hard to do it.

But the biggest thing is what just couldn’t add up: three men simultaneously (in non-contiguous cells) tying their hands together, putting masks on, forming nooses, shoving rags down their throat, and then managing to hang themselves simultaneously while being watched by soldiers every three minutes.

I should also note than I came forward to speak to the Justice Department — it was not just me. Seven guards came forward to tell them what we observed.

And finally, I can tell you that the way I ended the book — noting that I can’t name names, but nonetheless, from all I know, I consider what happened on June 9, 2006 “murder” (notwithstanding that a clever lawyer might characterize it as something else) — I put out the evidence I found. This is what I believe, but the reader can decide. I still think it was murder.

Ten Years Ago, I Saw the Real Guantánamo and it Changed My Life
By Joseph Hickman, Shadowproof, June 9, 2016

Ten years ago today, I was on duty as the sergeant of the guard at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). While I was standing in a watchtower inside Camp Delta overlooking the detainees, I saw something that would radically change my life.

I witnessed three detainees leave the camp in a white van and be transported to a top secret CIA facility, only to return to the camp a few hours later, dead. Over the next few hours, after the bodies returned to Camp Delta, I watched a cover-up being orchestrated by the GTMO Command. My commander flat-out lied to the media about what happened, claiming the detainees committed suicide in their cells as a form of asymmetrical warfare.

That day ten years ago shook the foundation of all I thought to be true. Prior to that night, I was a “true believer” — I was a proud soldier in the U.S. Military, I was one of the good guys in the Global War on Terror. After that night, I began to question those beliefs.

When I first arrived at GTMO a few months prior to that evening, I had my doubts about whether GTMO was a humane place. I was appalled at the conditions of the camp and the treatment of the detainees. But somehow I always found a way to rationalize what I saw. The treatment of the detainees was harsh and their living conditions inhumane. They looked more like poor farmers than the “worst of the worst” terrorists in the world; but my country told me they were and I believed them.

On June 9, 2006, all of that changed. Three men died on my watch. I knew the three detainees did not die in their cells. I knew they were murdered outside of the camp at a top secret CIA facility that the U.S. government denied existed. This was inexcusable. It was a war crime.

Even though going against the U.S. military’s official story of what happened that day would most assuredly end my military career, it was my duty as a soldier to report it. I went to the U.S. Army Inspector General and the Justice Department and reported what I witnessed. After I reported it to the Justice Department, they opened an official investigation and the FBI spent almost a year looking into my allegations.

They finally contacted my attorney and told him that while “the gist of what I reported was true,” they were closing the case, and were not going to pursue any charges against those involved.

Shortly after the Justice Department decision, I left the military. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that night. I have spent years investigating the deaths and other issues concerning GTMO. I wrote a book laying out all the facts about what happened that night, hoping that one day another investigation will be opened and truth and justice will prevail. Though my hope for that is fading, I will never give up.

Since that night, a lot has changed at GTMO. Most of the detainees have been released and sent home or sent to different countries to try to start a new life. Unfortunately, there are still dozens of people being detained in GTMO with no evidence against them, living the nightmare of being held without charge or due process.

GTMO needs to be closed. Yet it remains open, and the GTMO command claims it is transparent and has nothing to hide. They even set up VIP tours for reporters, politicians, and attorneys. The tours are rehearsed for weeks prior to the VIPs’ arrival on the Island. They show the VIPs only what they want them to see, making it appear as if they are hiding nothing.

In reality, GTMO is shrouded in secrecy. No reporter, politician, or attorney, has ever seen the real GTMO. The only people that have seen it are the detainees, the guards, and the GTMO command. If they ever did see the real GTMO, maybe then justice would be served.

Note: In remembering Guantánamo’s dead, I also want to make sure that I acknowledge the three other men who died — Abdul Razaq Hekmati, who died of cancer in December 2007, and who was a profound case of mistaken identity, as I explained in a front-page New York Times story with Carlotta Gall in February 2008, Awal Gul, an Afghan who died after taking exercise in February 2011, and Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni with mental health problems, repeatedly cleared for release, who died in September 2012 (and whose death is also a disputed suicide).

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, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, remembering the six men who have died at ‪Guantanamo‬ in a three-week period in May and June – 3 in 2006, 1 in 2007, 1 in 2009 and 1 in 2011. All but one are disputed suicides, the most well-known being the deaths of three men on June 9, 2006. This article includes a cross-post of former Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman’s recent op-ed remembering the deaths that he sacrificed his career to expose as murders – or war crimes as he calls them – and an excerpt from an interview with Hickman last year.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Lubna ‘Bonnie’ Karim wrote:

    Bless you Andy

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lubna. I was shocked that it was ten years. I was researching my book The Guantanamo Files when it happened, and I recall how unjustifiable it was that the commander of the prison at the time, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, had the nerve to refer to the deaths as “an act of asymmetric warfare.”My first article about the deaths was eight years ago, when I also included the passages about the men’s deaths from my book: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/06/10/second-anniversary-of-triple-suicide-at-guantanamo/

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. When looking back on the stories of the nine men who have died at Guantanamo, I also recall the extraordinary – and extraordinarily sad – story of Abdul Razak Hekmati, who had helped senior opponents of the Taliban escape from a Taliban jail, but who ended up at Guantanamo because of US incompetence, and whose story I wrote about for a front-page New York Times story back in February 2008: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/world/asia/05gitmo.html

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    Nothing less than contemptible. Thank you Staff Sgt Joseph HIckman. Thank you, Andy, for remembering the Guantanamo Dead. How deplorable that you have to do that — and do it for us, cuz most Americans don’t know

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for appreciating what Joe Hickman, myself and others are doing, Rose. It’s very sad, of course, that so many US citizens don’t care, but everyone who does is important. With these kinds of anniversaries, it seems me, we are creating a living memorial to the injustices, as they continue, year after year after year after year.

  7. Adam says...

    I honestly don’t think Abdul Rahman al-Amri, Muhammad Salih and Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif were murdered. They all suffered from mental illness. It just doesn’t make sense to systematically murder detainees. The first three detainees are another story. Why commit suicide shortly before being transferred from Guantanamo?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    One of the prisoners approved for release who died in June 2006 didn’t know he’d been approved for release, Adam. That was what was particularly sad if he did commit suicide – he hadn’t been told.
    However, I have always found the official stories for the June 2006 deaths and Muhammad Salih’s death to be particularly troublesome – less so with Abdul Rahman al-Amri and Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, although both men were supposed to have been watched closely.

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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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