Another Sad, Forgotten Anniversary for Guantánamo’s Dead

10.6.17

Yasser-al-Zahrani, photographed at Guantanamo before his suspicious death in June 2006.

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Today, June 10, is an important date in the Guantánamo calendar — the 11th anniversary of the deaths, in dubious circumstances, of three men at Guantánamo in 2006: Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni.

According to the US authorities, the three men committed suicide, hanging themselves in their cells, after having stuffed rags down their own throats, but that explanation has never seemed convincing to anyone who has given it any kind of scrutiny. Even accepting that the guards were not paying attention, how did they manage to tie themselves up and stuff rags down their own throats?

An official investigation by the NCIS yielded an inadequate statement defending the official narrative in August 2008, and then, in January 2010, an article in Harper’s Magazine by Scott Horton presented the US authorities with a powerful critic of the official suicide narrative, Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, who was in charge of the guards in the towers overlooking the prison. On the night of June 9, 2006, just before the deaths were acknowledged, Hickman had noticed unusual movements by vehicles traveling to and from the prison, in the direction of a secret facility he and his colleagues identified as “Camp No,” where, he presumed, they had been killed — whether deliberately or not — during torture sessions.

There were certainly good reasons for the US authorities to have had a grudge against al-Zahrani, al-Utaybi and al-Salami — because they were long-term hunger strikers who had been persistently uncooperative, and not, it should be noted, because they were terrorists of any kind, as, in common with the overwhelming majority of the men held at Guantánamo, that does not appear to be the case. One of the three, al-Utaybi, had been approved for release before his death, although he had not been told about it, and, in al-Zahrani’s case, the last recommendation before his death was that, “If a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allows access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence, detainee can be Transferred Out of DoD Control.”

Over the years, I have written extensively about the deaths — firstly, in my book The Guantánamo Files, and then in a number of articles. See, for example, Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (in 2008), Murders at Guantánamo: The Cover-Up Continues (in 2010), The Season of Death at Guantánamo (in 2013), New Evidence Casts Doubt on US Claims that Three Guantánamo Deaths in 2006 Were Suicides (in 2014), Remembering the Season of Death at Guantánamo (in 2015) and, last year, Remembering Guantánamo’s Dead. On the third anniversary of the men’s deaths, in 2009, I produced a report about hunger strikes and the strikers’ devastating weight loss in Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation, and in 2011 I cross-posted a detailed defense of Scott Horton by the psychologist Jeff Kaye.

Some of these articles feature comments made by the dead men’s fellow prisoners, and in conducting research this year I revisited some of the accounts from 2006, finding David Rose’s account for the Observer, based on a visit to Guantánamo that he undertook the week after the deaths, and discussions with former prisoners, and lawyers for men still held.

Tarek Dergoul, a British citizen released in 2014, told him, “I was next to or opposite [Mani al-Utaybi] for weeks, maybe months, and like me his morale was high. He was always up for a protest: a hunger strike or a non-co-operation strike. He used to recite poetry, not just Arabic, but English — he knew chunks of ‘Macbeth’ and he taught me how to read the Koran correctly. When you go through that sort of experience with someone, you really get to know them. I just can’t believe he would take his own life. He would have had to be really desperate. Dergoul also said that Yasser al-Zahrani was “a person everyone loved,” adding, “It’s offensive to me to say he could have killed himself.”

Rose noted that, “Apart from anything else, all three men would have been deeply aware of Islam’s prohibition of suicide,” although Shaker Aamer, the British resident who was only finally released in October 2015, told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, that a guard told him just before the men’s deaths, “They have lost hope in life. They have no hope in their eyes. They are ghosts and they want to die. No food will keep them alive right now.” Aamer said the three men who died — and other hunger strikers — “were so ill whenever their feeds contained protein that it went ‘right through them’ causing severe diarrhoea.”

Ali al-Salami, one of the three prisoners who died at Guantanamo in June 2006, in a photo originally made available by Cageprisoners.Nevertheless, the reasons for doubting the official narrative remain as compelling as ever. In January 2015, Simon & Schuster published a book by Joe Hickman about the deaths, entitled, Murder at Camp Delta, a powerful account of what his publishers described as “his search for the truth, an odyssey that would lead him to conclude that the US government was using Guantánamo not just as a prison, but as a training ground for interrogators to test advanced torture techniques.” For further information, see him interviewed on Democracy Now! and Vice News, and read “To Live and Die in Gitmo” in Newsweek

In the last year, little has been heard about the cases of Yasser al-Zahrani, Mani al-Utaybi and Ali al-Salami, although in July Brooklyn-based blogger The Talking Dog published an interview with Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney Pardiss Kebriaei that he had conducted in May, which contained the following update about CCR’s efforts to hold the US government accountable for the men’s deaths.

The Talking Dog: Please tell us the status of your cases involving the alleged prisoner suicides in 2006 (I note that last year I did my own interview with Joseph Hickman, a soldier who called into question the “official story” of those events), both in U.S. federal courts (to the extent still extant) and to the extent applicable, other fora, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. To the extent you can answer this, have the events of that night — which I also understand may have involved now released UK resident Shaker Aamer — resonated with the public (be it the American public, or any other public)?

Pardiss Kebriaei: The status of that case is that it was first brought as a Bivens action in the D.C. District Court. We first alleged that the deaths were unlawful under the military’s own publicly disclosed theory. It was dismissed on national security grounds. There was then a good deal of new information disclosed by Joe Hickman’s observations, that the “suicides” may well have actually been murder. We alleged this in a second amended complaint, which was also dismissed.

What the families we represent want is a meaningful inquiry — an accounting of how their children actually died. This has yet to happen. There are military investigations, and some redacted reports of those have come out, but they raise more questions than they answer, and thus far, only the military has been permitted to investigate. Whether the men were actually murdered or took their own lives because of depression or despair over the conditions of their confinement is an open question. There has been no accountability of any kind for anything associated with these deaths.

We appealed the dismissal of the civil case to the D.C. Circuit, which affirmed the dismissal. We did not take this any further in U.S. Courts.

We filed a petition in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and that body’s decision on admissibility (i.e. whether it can or will even hear the case) is still pending. There is a huge backlog of cases before that body, and it often takes substantial time before it decides if it will even hear a case at all.

The families we represent just want to know why their children are dead. The father of Yasser al-Zahrani still carries around a picture of his son, and he has been waiting for ten years to know what happened to his son. Yasser, who was only 17 when he was taken into custody, was actually about to be transferred.

These deaths were right after the long “incommunicado” period — secrecy enabled the brutality of the early years at Guantánamo to largely still be unknown. Neither of the families of the two men we represent (the second is the family of Salah Al-Salami from Yemen; the family of the third deceased detainee did not want to litigate) know the real details of their sons’ death. The two men had not even met with a lawyer at the time they died — the only information we know about them has been provided by the government itself. We at least know some more details thanks to Joe Hickman and a few soldiers who said they needed to speak out and clear their consciences.

Other dubious deaths at Guantánamo

As well as remembering Yasser al-Zahrani, Mani al-Utaybi and Ali al-Salami at this time, it is important that those of us who care about the injustices of Guantánamo also remember Abdul Rahman al-Amri and Muhammad Salih (aka Mohammed al-Hanashi), who also died in this “season of death.” Al-Amri’s death prompted me to begin writing articles about Guantánamo on a full-time basis after completing the manuscript for The Guantánamo Files in May 2007 (see here and here), and I wrote about Salih’s death here (and here and here), and followed up on it in 2010, after the author Naomi Wolf had taken an interest in the case, and the psychologist Jeffrey Kaye had begun to investigate it.

Kaye continued to investigate the death of Salih — and of al-Amri — and in February 2012, as I explained in an article at the time, he “had a fascinating — and disturbing — article published … on Truthout, in which, after stumbling upon the autopsy reports” of the two men, 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.

Since then, Kaye has doggedly continued to pursue the story, resulting in the publication last year of Cover-up at Guantanamo: The NCIS Investigation into the “Suicides” of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri, an e-book (also available as a paper copy, and available via Amazon in the UK here), that I wholeheartedly recommend. A detailed interview with Kaye — again by The Talking Dog — can be found here, or in my cross-post with my own commentary.

It must also be remembered that these are not the only deaths at Guantánamo, and not the only suspicious deaths either. In September 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who had had mental health problems, died, reportedly by committing suicide — although, again, serious doubts have been expressed about the official narrative.

Before that, Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, a case of mistaken identity — an Afghan who had actually aided significant individuals opposed to the Taliban and al-Qaeda — died of cancer in December 2007, in February 2011 an Afghan, Awal Gul, died after taking exercise, and in May 2011 another Afghan, known as Inayatullah (although that was not his name, and he too appeared to be a case of mistaken identity) also died, reportedly by committing suicide.

More deaths at Guantánamo?

In closing, I’d like to mention other men who have died at Guantánamo, but whose identities are, shamefully, unknown. In December 2010, in an article entitled, Unreported Deaths at Guantánamo?, Jeffrey Kaye discussed a meeting of the Armed Force Epidemiological Board (AFEB) at Guantánamo on February 19, 2002, in which Capt. Alan “Jeff” Yund, a preventive medicine doctor and the Navy’s liaison officer to the AFEB, stated, “Mortuary affairs is an important but hopefully small aspect of the activities of the [Guantánamo] 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.”

In an email exchange with Kaye, Capt. Yund, who, by then, had retired, could not remember where he heard about the deaths. “I did not make that statement from personal or direct knowledge,” he stated, adding that he thought it may have come from a presentation by Capt. Albert J. Shimkus, commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantánamo at the time, “or possibly from conversations or meetings with other Navy Preventive Medicine personnel colleagues.” Crucially, he said, “It is not the type of statement I would have made without having learned it from a source I considered reliable.”

Kaye also spoke by phone to Shimkus, an Associate Professor in National Security Decision Making at the U.S. Naval War College, who “expressed shock over the claims there were any deaths at Guantanamo while he was there,” and “could not offer any explanation for what Captain Yund reported.”

Unfortunately, efforts by Jeffrey Kaye and others to encourage further investigation into the reported deaths have not been followed up by the US authorities, so I’m glad to have this opportunity to put the story out there again on the sad anniversary of deaths that we do know about for certain, but that have also been shamefully dismissed by those in charge of Guantánamo.

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). 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.

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19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Exactly eleven years ago, three men died at Guantanamo, reportedly by committing suicide, although that explanation has been disputed from the beginning, and gained prominence in 2010, when Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, who had been in charge of the guard towers, suggested that the men may have been killed in a secret facility away from the main camp prior to the suicide story being invented to explain their deaths. No proper investigation has taken place, and in this “season of death” at Guantanamo, two other men died in mysterious circumstances at the end of May and the beginning of June – Abdul Rahman al-Amri in 2007, and Muhammad Salih in 2009. I hope you find this anniversary, which has received no the media coverage today, to be of interest, and that you will share this article if you do.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Sharing

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your interest, Pauline!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevi Brannelly wrote:

    Thank you Andy for all you do to keep the memory alive and the fight for freedom going

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kevi. Your kind words are very much appreciated.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Hear hear!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    RIP

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for remembering the men who lost their lives at Guantanamo, Javier!

  9. Jeff Kaye says...

    Thanks so much for all your work on this, when so many want to forget and/or cover-up. A special thanks for noting the allegations of Captain Yund about those early deaths at Guantanamo. It is well-known that a number of the earliest prisoners at Guantanamo came directly from the battlefield. it would not be surprising if some of them died, even with medical care. But back in 2002, those deaths would have been very controversial and endangered the Guantanamo project by DoD and CIA. I believe they covered them up, and now they have to keep the cover-up intact. We shall see if future events don’t prove this correct.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Jeff. Yes, I’d meant to mention your discovery of the 2002 deaths for some time – shocked to realise that you wrote it so long ago. But that’s Guantanamo now. The 2006 deaths were eleven long years ago. It seems like history rather than part of an ongoing scandal and disgrace – which is what it is and always has been, and will be until the wretched place is closed once and for all.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Neece wrote:

    Thank you for your dedication and compassion, Andy. I read your book which opened my eyes to these men and the nightmare of Guantanamo. I will continue to hold these men and their families in my heart. Do you have any recent information about Omar Khadr? I saw the documentary which was so powerful. His attorney, like you, has fought so hard to bring these horrific stories to the attention of the world…a very noble endeavor…

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Susan. So glad to hear about you reading my book,and how it opened your eyes. I haven’t seen any news recently about Omar. I know he had surgery back in march, after his long years of neglect in Guantanamo (and then back home in Canada), when his shrapnel wounds were not adequately dealt with. I have no doubt he is doing well. He appears to be a lovely young man, and Dennis Edney is an extraordinary surrogate father for him.

  13. the talking dog says...

    Thanks for observing this gruesome anniversary, Andy. Perhaps the public should know the simple numbers that nine men, or just over 1%, of the nearly 800 men cycled through Guantanamo have died (seven officially by suicides, which we can describe as “often controversial”), while only eight have been “convicted” of war crimes by the “often controversial” military commissions, and over 700 men, including the majority of those “convicted” have been released. Of the 41 men left, five are actually “cleared” for release and the majority of the rest are not subject to war crimes charges.

    While the Bush Administration set this up, keeping it going has, sadly, been a bipartisan effort, and, contrary to my “contrarian” hopes about Trump, what you see is what you get and it would seem that he’s not going to be helpful toward ending this nightmare.

    Thanks for keeping this in our consciousness, and doing what can be done to hold those in power accountable

  14. glasto says...

    RIP

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, TD. Great to hear from you on this sad anniversary. I was thinking that your summary of where we’re at would make a useful infographic – particularly for social media. I should look into it. Of course, ideally, our major media would regularly publish infographics highlighting the facts about issues that need highlighting, but that’s not their way of operating.
    You support is always appreciated, and as you know this is one of those troughs in interest in Guantanamo – as happened with Obama between 2010 and 2013 – when it become difficult to keep people interested. Trump, as you note, has not shown any interest in getting rid of Guantanamo, despite its gargantuan cost.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, glasto. Great to hear from you.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Neece wrote:

    Thank you for mentioning Dennis Edney by name. I just found this!
    ‘After Guantanamo: Dennis Edney on defending Omar Khadr’
    http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/after-guantanamo-dennis-edney-on-defending-omar-khadr-1.3961508
    “Behind that door is light!”

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    That is such a powerful quote from Dennis, Susan. I was privileged to take part in an event with him in London a few years ago. That quote in full:
    “In all the years I went to Guantanamo, he was always chained to the floor. And so I saw my job as trying to keep him alive, and I talked to him about hope. And I used to keep pointing to the steel door and I said ‘behind that door is light.'”

  19. Andy Worthington says...

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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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