Never Forget: The “Season of Death” at Guantánamo

10.6.20

Four of the five prisoners who died at Guantánamo between May 30 and June 9 in 2006, 2007 and 2009, hence my description of it as the “season of death.” The top row shows Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami, two of the three men who died on the night of June 9, 2006. No photo exists of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi. The bottom row shows the only photo of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, who died on May 30, 2007, and Mohammed al-Hanashi (Muhammad Salih), who died on June 1, 2009. All the deaths were described by the authorities as suicides, but these claims are disputed.

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There are days in your life when events take place and everyone remembers where they were. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are one example; and, depending on your age, others might be the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela being freed from prison, and the “shock and awe” of the opening night of the illegal invasion of Iraq.

One of those occasions for me is June 10, 2006, when it was reported that three prisoners at Guantánamo had died, allegedly by committing suicide — two Saudis, Yasser al-Zahrani, who was just 18 when he arrived at Guantánamo, and Mani al-Utaybi, and Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni. The authorities’ response was astonishingly insensitive, with Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the prison’s commander, saying, “This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us.”

While it remains deeply shocking to me, 14 years on, that suicide could be described as an act of war, this was not the only problem with the authorities’ response to the deaths. The Pentagon’s PR machine swiftly derided the men as dangerous terrorists, even though none of them had been charged or tried for any offence. In fact, one of them, Mani al-Utaybi, had been approved for transfer back to his home country — although the authorities were unable to say whether or not he had been informed of this fact before he died.

Moreover, as I was able to establish from my research at the time for my book The Guantánamo Files, the authorities’ allegations didn’t hold up.

Yasser al-Zahrani, as I explained in my book, “was accused of being a Taliban fighter who ‘facilitated weapons purchases,’ but it was apparent that he was only 17 years old at the time of his capture, and that this scenario was highly unlikely.” In the case of Mani al-Utaybi, meanwhile, “the only ‘evidence’ that he was an ‘enemy combatant’ was his involvement with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, the vast worldwide missionary organization whose alleged connection to terrorism was duly exaggerated by the Pentagon, which had the effrontery to describe it as ‘an al-Qaeda 2nd tier recruitment organization.’”

The third man, Ali al-Salami, was accused of being what the Pentagon described as “a mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operative who had key ties to principal facilitators and senior members of the group,” although these allegations were all made by shadowy, unidentified individuals, including some who had evidently been held in CIA “black sites” and subjected to torture, and were therefore extremely untrustworthy.

What was apparent instead, to anyone who dug a little deeper into the story, was that all three men had been long-term hunger strikers, and, as such, had been a thorn in the side of the authorities.

Describing them, former prisoner Ahmed Errachidi, a bipolar Moroccan chef and longterm British resident, who was released in 2007, wrote in his memoir, The General: The Ordinary Man who Became One of the Bravest Prisoners in Guantánamo, published in 2013, ”Those three had been amongst the finest. They were always ready to help their fellows and they were brave as well. They were men of the highest morale: in the forefront of every protest, they weren’t given to despair. In fact, they kept on smiling even in the most difficult circumstances.”

He added that, although the authorities claimed that they had “found the three hanging in their cells” at 1am on June 10, 2006, “We prisoners refused to accept that the three had killed themselves. We couldn’t understand how it could possibly have happened given that four soldiers were supposed to always be patrolling the block and monitoring us … We believed their deaths were a direct result of torture and were enraged when the administration said they’d committed suicide as part of their war against the USA, which once again made America look like the victim and us look like the aggressors.”

The prisoners were not the only ones to doubt the official narrative. In 2010, Harper’s Magazine published “The Guantánamo Suicides,” a detailed article by Scott Horton based on statements made by Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, who had been in charge of the guard towers on the night the men died — as well as statements by some of his colleagues. Studying the movement of vehicles on the night, Hickman believed that the men had been killed, whether by accident or design, at a secret facility elsewhere on the base, before being brought back to the main prison, but although he later wrote a book, Murder at Camp Delta, providing even further details about the men’s deaths, the establishment closed ranks and no proper inquiry ever took place.

Other deaths

The three men discussed above were not the only men to die at this time of year at Guantánamo under suspicious circumstances — hence my description of it as the prison’s “Season of Death.”

Last week, I posted on Facebook the only known photo of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi who died on May 30, 2007, taken from his classified military file, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011 — a black and white photocopy that is quite disturbing.

Al-Amri’s death kickstarted my career as an independent journalist, because I had just completed and submitted the manuscript for The Guantánamo Files to my publisher, and, when I read about his death, contacted the Guardian to see if they would be interested in me writing something about him, as I knew his story from my research. They said no, adding that they’d just go with whatever the Associated Press wrote, and so I posted an article about al-Amri’s death on my website — the first of over 2,300 articles that I have now published about Guantánamo on my website — and followed it up with another article about him two days later.

A soldier in the Saudi Army for nine years, al-Amri had traveled to Afghanistan to support the Taliban just before the 9/11 attacks, and was held in Camp 5 at Guantánamo, reserved for the “least compliant and most ‘high-value’ inmates,” according to a US military spokesman. He didn’t have an attorney, and so little was known about him, but the former prisoner Omar Deghayes later told me that he was extremely devout, and had been deeply disturbed by interrogations that had involved sexual abuse. He had also been a long-term hunger striker whose weight had dropped to 90 pounds during the prison-wide hunger strike in 2005, and was apparently still hunger striking before his death.

Omar Deghayes gave me no reason to think that al-Amri’s death wasn’t suicide, but in 2012 the investigative journalist Jeffrey Kaye wrote that “autopsy reports show[ed] that Al Amri was found dead by hanging with his hands tied behind his back, calling into question whether he had actually killed himself,“ and in his book Ahmed Errachidi, noting that al-Amri was “one of the veteran hunger strikers in Camp 5,” also cast doubt on the suicide story, stating, “My experience of Camp 5 told me that it would be impossible for anyone to hang themselves there. The cells there had been designed to prevent suicide or self-harm — the walls were made of concrete and there was no hoop, ring or opening to which a prisoner could tie anything.”

Jeffrey has since written much more about al-Amri’s death — and that of Mohammad al-Hanashi (aka Muhammad Salih), the other prisoner who died during Guantánamo’s “Season of Death” — on June 1, 2009. Another longterm hunger striker, with leadership abilities, like the three men who died in June 2006, he had been spirited away to the prison’s ‘psych’ unit — the behavioral health unit (BHU) — before his death, but as his friend, the released British resident Binyam Mohamed explained after his death, “The BHU was built as a secure unit to prevent, among other things, potential suicide attempts. Everything that someone could use to hurt himself has been removed from the cell, and a guard watches each prisoner 24 hours a day, in person and on videotape. In light of this, I am amazed that the US government has the audacity to describe [his] death categorically as an ‘apparent suicide.’”

In the years since, Jeffrey has undertaken further research into these two deaths, culminating in his 2016 book, Cover-up at Guantanamo: The NCIS Investigation into the ‘Suicides’ of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri, which I urge anyone interested in knowing the truth about Guantánamo’s “Season of Death” to read.

14 years on from the deaths of Yasser al-Zahrani, Mani al-Utaybi and Ali al-Salami, I remember the loss of their lives, as well as those of Abdul Rahman al-Amri and Mohamed al-Hanashi — and the four other men who have also died at the prison since it opened 18 long years ago — and I also remember how the sorrow and indignation that I felt then helped to forge the path that I am still on today — writing relentlessly about Guantanamo, and calling for the closure of this wretched prison, where men are still held without charge or trial, and where the stain of this injustice will not go away until this terrible place is closed once and for all.

* * * * *

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the anniversary of a sequence of deaths at Guantanamo that I have long described as the “season of death,” when, between May 30 and June 9, in 2006, 2007 and 2009, five prisoners died.

    They were all suicides, according to the authorities, but all five were long-term hunger strikers, who resisted the brutality and illegality of their confinement, and were not, therefore, obvious candidates for suicide, and many valid accounts have been put forward challenging the official stories.

    Today is the 14th anniversary of the announcement of three of those deaths – of Yasser al-Zahrani, who was just 17 when he was captured, Mani al-Utaybi and Ali al-Salami; a triple suicide, according to the authorities, who also, disgracefully, described the deaths as “an act of asymmetric warfare.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    These men were murdered. It’s sad to see another year goes by and no justice has been made.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s so sad that not only has justice passed them by, but they’ve also, fundamentally, been forgotten, Natalia.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Andy, truly forgotten 😢

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hence these conscious efforts to remember them, for those of us who care, Natalia. I think it’s a small but important gesture.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Andy, what you do it’s always important, never small and you move so many. So you are doing an amazing and heroic job keeping these men present.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you for those lovely supportive words, Natalia!

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy, these questionable deaths in custody are a very important issue. Thanks for writing about them.

    By June 2006 the camp population had shrunk to something like 400 men.

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that the first deaths camp authorities acknowledged were less than a month after they had been forced to publish their first official lists of captives. The years 2002 to 2005 were when the camp was at its most populous. It is very likely there were other deaths, which they were able to cover up, prior to the publication of the official lists.

    IIRC, Carol Rosenberg tried to look into this, and she found authorities evasive, with one chief medical officer tacitly acknowledging multiple deaths in the camp’s first year.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you arcticredriver. The most compelling information about other deaths at Guantanamo comes from Jeffrey Kaye, who noted, in an article in 2010, ‘Unreported Deaths at Guantanamo?’, that, “According to the transcript of a February 19, 2002 meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (AFEB), ‘[a] number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with’ at Guantanamo. This statement came from Captain Alan ‘Jeff’ Yund, a preventive medicine doctor and the Navy’s liaison officer to the AFEB.”
    See: https://shadowproof.com/2010/12/19/unreported-detainee-deaths-at-guantanamo-in-jan-feb-2002/

  10. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Thank you, Andy, for promoting my work on the Guantanamo deaths. May I humbly suggest that Guantanamo detainee number ISN 10028, Haji Naseem (aka “Inayatullah”) be added to the list of those who died in Guantanamo’s “Season of Death”?

    Naseem was found on May 11, 2011 hanging from a noose improvised from bedsheets from the top pole of the small recreation “pen” adjoining his cell. His feet were hanging above the ground.

    Naseem resided in the section of Camp Echo deserves for cooperative informants. Even so, as the Army report that looked into his death made clear, authorities were not happy with Naseem’s info. They threatened his family. They threatened to return him to sleep deprivation and other tortuous conditions. Somehow other prisoners were able to attack him.

    Naseem spent nearly two years in Guantanamo’s psychiatric unit, where he was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Severe with psychotic features. At the time of his death he was still on antipsychotic medication.

    Tortured at Bagram into confessions of being an Al Qaeda leader, Naseem spent much of the rest of his time at Guantanamo recanting those confessions. His was driven to his death at the very least, if in fact that death wasn’t orchestrated by authorities.

    Readers can peruse my very detailed investigation along with the US Army report, released via FOIA, at https://link.medium.com/okg1Cy8hC7.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Jeff, and I hope you’re OK in these dangerous and surreal times we’re living in.

    Let me see if, next year, I can manage to include Haji Naseem in the “season of death.” I suppose over the years I’ve slipped into seeing the two-week period from al-Amri’s death to the triple deaths as some sort of convenient focal point, whereas there’s no good reason not to include Haji Naseem in this as well.

    I’m somewhat surprised to realize that it’s over a year since you published your detailed article about Haji Naseem’s death, which I cross-posted, and which, I’m glad to note, received quite a lot of attention on Facebook: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2019/03/21/the-lonesome-death-of-haji-naseem-a-mentally-ill-prisoner-at-guantanamo/

  12. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Thank you, Andy! Not only have you been the most dogged and persistent journalist working to expose torture, but on a personal note, one of the few to have been so supportive of my work. I am most grateful to you for all the above.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeff. I really appreciate all your work. We are part of a sadly small group of people taking an interest in Guantanamo, and its long history of horrors, and continuing even though there’s so little interest, but we are right to do so. It would be nice to think that one day there will be some kind of institutional acknowledgement of what has happened and why it has been so wrong, but I’m not holding my breath. We humans actually seem intent on killing our ability to survive on this planet, while pretending that’s not the case, which seems to be idiocy on a level that didn’t exist until comparatively recently.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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