The 15th Anniversary of the Contentious “Triple Suicide” of Three Prisoners at Guantánamo

10.6.21

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami (aka Ali Abdullah Ahmed), two of the three prisoners who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in what was described by the authorities as a “triple suicide,” an explanation that has been robustly challenged on numerous occasions in the years since. No known photo exists of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi.

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There are some days that are so significant that everyone remembers what they were doing. September 11, 2001 is one such day, when planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York, and for those paying attention to the US response to the 9/11 attacks, January 11, 2002 is also significant, when the first prisoners — “detainees,” in the Bush administration’s words — arrived at Guantánamo.

Almost immediately, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the release of photos taken by a serving US soldier — photos that showed US soldiers shouting at men who were kneeling on gravel under the burning sun at a US naval base in Cuba, half a world away from the battlefields of Afghanistan, men who were wearing orange jumpsuits, and who had their eyes, ears and mouths covered, creating the vivid impression that they were being subjected to sensory deprivation.

For US viewers, the photos were not necessarily noteworthy. Prisoners on the US mainland often wear orange, and the clearly abusive conditions captured in the photos were part of a depressingly successful narrative that the Bush administration was selling to the American people — that these men were, as Rumsfeld described it, “the worst of the worst,” terrorists so hardened and so bloodthirsty that, as General Richard E. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it, they “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down.”

For anyone outside the US, however — and for Americans who were prescient enough to be suspicious of what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were engaged in at Guantánamo — these photos were shocking, providing the first hint, on the very first day of operations at the prison, that the normal rules involving the imprisonment of men in wartime — or men accused of involvement in terrorism — were being flouted in a disturbing manner by the country that claimed to be a beacon of hope to the world.

It took some time for further news to emerge from Guantánamo, which, after Donald Rumsfeld’s ill-advised publicity on Day 1, was what the US authorities wanted, as it enabled them, in their prison that was established in Cuba to be beyond the reach of the US courts, to do as they pleased with the men they had rounded up so ineptly in the first place. Somewhere I have a box of yellowing newspaper clips relating to the next news to break through the silence — the release, in March 2004, of British prisoners who subsequently told harrowing tales of torture and abuse, in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo, to the British press.

But still Guantánamo largely remained shrouded in secrecy, a secrecy that was only blown open when something extraordinary happened, as it did on the night of June 9, 2006, when three men died at Guantánamo, allegedly as the result of suicide pact. The news flew around the world on June 10, as I vividly recall, as I was already deeply immersed in the world of Guantánamo, having begun researching and writing my account of the prison’s history to date, and telling the stories of the men and boys held there, for my book The Guantánamo Files.

As the news broke that day, I remember being appalled that Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the prison’s commander, described the deaths as “an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us,” and feeling uncertain that, given what we knew of security at Guantánamo, where the prisoners were subjected to regular scrutiny by the guard force, and were allowed very little in the way of possessions, it would have been possible for three men to hide the sheets required to hang themselves, as the official narrative suggested.

The fact that they had also supposedly tied their own hands and feet before allegedly killing themselves — and, as was later let slip by the camp warden, that they also had rags stuffed down their throats — took an account of their deaths that was implausible into the realms of the impossible, and further reasons to doubt the official narrative came when it became apparent that the three men in question — Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and Ali al-Salami (aka Ali Abdullah Ahmed), a Yemeni — were all long-term hunger strikers known for their resistance to the chronic injustices of Guantánamo, and were unlikely to have given into the kind of despair that would have led to them committing suicide.

In the years that followed, further reasons to question the official narrative came though an unsatisfactory statement issued by the NCIS (the Naval Criminal Investigative Service) in August 2008, after its investigations into the three men’s deaths, and, based largely on omissions and distortions that were exposed in the supporting documentation for the investigation, via “Death in Camp Delta”, a detailed report by Seton Hall Law School, in November 2009 (with a follow-up report in 2014).

The November 2009 report was followed, in January 2010, by “The Guantánamo Suicides”, an explosive article for Harper’s Magazine by the lawyer Scott Horton, which focused on the testimony of Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman, who had been in charge of the guard towers on the night of the deaths, and three of his colleagues, which, as Horton wrote, suggested that “the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths,” a “previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred,” with the “triple suicide” story concocted afterwards by the authorities.

Despite all this, the doors shut on any further investigation of the deaths, which was all the more alarming when other deaths followed — also of prisoners who had been long-term hunger strikers, and who were known for their active resistance to the injustices of Guantánamo; in particular, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi, on May 30, 2007, a Yemeni, Muhammad Salih (aka Mohammed al-Hanashi), on June 1, 2009, and another Yemeni, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, in September 2012.

The psychologist Jeffrey Kaye later wrote a book about two of these deaths, “Cover-up at Guantanamo: The NCIS Investigation into the ‘Suicides’ of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri”, based on US government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and Joseph Hickman also wrote a book about the June 2006 deaths, “Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantanamo Bay”, which was published in February 2016, but by then the world had largely moved on.

Thwarted justice at Guantánamo is nothing new, of course. To those paying close attention, the entire history of the prison is one of justice betrayed, of men rounded up without being adequately screened to ascertain whether they were, in fact, combatants of any kind, of appalling violence, torture and abuse, and of a much-vaunted legal system that, throughout the prison’s 19-year history, has only briefly upheld the prisoners’ rights to have the basis of their imprisonment tested by an impartial judge (between 2008 and 2010, until politically motivated appeals court judges shut down the entire process).

Even when freed, Guantánamo’s prisoners find that the taint of Guantánamo haunts them, despite never having been charged, tried or convicted of any crimes, and are generally prevented from travelling, with some subjected to all manner of interference and oppression in their home countries, or, if relocated after release, in their new host countries.

Despite this, the deaths on the night of June 9, 2006 continue to haunt me as a vivid example of the worst of Guantánamo’s lawlessness, and so, most years, I write about Yasser al-Zahrani, Mani al-Utaybi and Ali al-Salami, to remember them, and to remember their spirit of resistance to the truly disgraceful everyday brutality of Guantánamo, and I hope you will join me in spending a moment today to think about them.

Note: For my previous articles, please follow the links for 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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).

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.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the 15th anniversary of the death at Guantanamo of three prisoners — Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and Ali al-Salami (aka Ali Abdullah Ahmed), a Yemeni. The photos show two of the men. No known photo exists of the third.

    All three men were long-term hunger strikers and fiercely resistant to the brutal lawlessness of the prison — as were three other men who also died at the prison in 2007, 2009 and 2012. The US authorities claimed that the three men died in a “suicide pact,” although that explanation has been robustly challenged on several occasions in the intervening years. However, the doors to any further official investigation have remained firmly shut after an unsatisfactory 2008 investigation by the NCIS endorsed the official narrative.

    Please join me in taking a moment today to remember Yasser al-Zahrani, Mani al-Utyabi and Ali al-Salami, who paid with their lives for their resistance to the brutal injustices of Guantanamo.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    Guantanamo and its torture chambers as well as those U.S black sites around the world and Abu Ghraib are a total abomination and have caused massive scar tissue across U.S. claims of integrity. We need to find safe places for ALL our victims and stop the nonsensical self-excusing.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

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