[Ppnews] The Guantánamo Suicide Report

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 26 15:30:33 EDT 2008


August 26, 2008

Travesty or Truth?

The Guantánamo Suicide Report


Two years and two months after three prisoners at 
Guantánamo died, apparently as the result of a 
coordinated suicide pact, the Naval Criminal 
Investigative Service (NCIS), which has been 
investigating the deaths ever since the three 
long-term hunger strikers were found dead in 
their cells on June 10, 2006, issued a 934-word 
statement on Friday that purported to draw a line 
under the whole sordid affair.

The deaths of the three men -- Ali al-Salami, 
Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani -- have been 
controversial from the moment that they were 
first announced, when Guantánamo’s 
then-Commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, attracted 
international opprobrium by declaring that they 
were an act of “asymmetric warfare,” and Colleen 
Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state 
for public diplomacy, had similar scorn heaped 
upon her when she described the men’s deaths as a “good PR move.”

The administration soon assumed a slightly more 
placatory role, when Cully Stimson, the deputy 
assistant secretary of defense for detainee 
affairs, declared, “I wouldn't characterize it as 
a good PR move. What I would say is that we are 
always concerned when someone takes his own life, 
because as Americans, we value life, even the 
lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country.”

In keeping with the unjustified rhetoric that 
concluded Stimson’s “apology,” the Pentagon 
proceeded to pump out propaganda portraying the 
men as terrorists, even though, like all the 
prisoners in Guantánamo, the majority of the 
information against them had come from 
interrogations in which torture and coercion were 
widespread, and none of the men had ever been 
screened adequately to determine whether or not 
there was any basis for their automatic 
designation as “enemy combatants” who could be 
held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Al-Zahrani, who was only 17 years old at the time 
of his capture, was accused of being a Taliban 
fighter who “facilitated weapons purchases,” even 
though this scenario was highly unlikely, given 
his age. In al-Utaybi's case, he was declared an 
“enemy combatant” because of his involvement with 
Jamaat-al-Tablighi, a vast worldwide missionary 
organization whose alleged connection to 
terrorism was duly exaggerated by the Pentagon, 
which had the effrontery to describe the avowedly 
apolitical organization as “an al-Qaeda 2nd tier 
recruitment organization.” The administration 
also admitted that al-Utaybi had actually been 
approved for “transfer to the custody of another 
country” in November 2005, although Navy 
Commander Robert Durand said he “did not know 
whether al-Utaybi had been informed about the 
transfer recommendation before he killed 
himself.” In the case of al-Salami, who was 
captured in a guest house in Pakistan with over a 
dozen other prisoners, most of whom have 
persistently claimed that they were students, the 
Pentagon alleged that he was “a mid- to 
high-level al-Qaeda operative who had key ties to 
principal facilitators and senior members of the group.”

Sadly, the NCIS statement (published in full 
does little to address long-standing concerns 
about the circumstances of the men’s deaths. The 
investigators unreservedly backed up the suicide 
story by reporting that “Autopsies were performed 
by physicians from the Armed Forces Institute of 
Pathology at Naval Hospital Guantánamo on June 10 
and 11. The manner of death for all detainees was 
determined to be suicide and the cause of death 
was determined to be by hanging, the medical term 
being ‘mechanical asphyxia.’”

Their major contribution to the story of the 
men’s deaths was to revive claims that they had 
left suicide notes. They wrote that “A short 
written statement declaring their intent to be 
martyrs was found in the pockets of each of the 
detainees,” and that “Lengthier written 
statements were also found in each of their cells.”

The contents of the alleged suicide notes was not 
revealed in the NCIS statement, but was part of 
“more than 3,000 pages of military investigative 
documents, medical records, autopsies, and 
statements from guards and detainees” obtained by 
the Washington Post. According to the NCIS, the 
“case file will be posted in its entirety on the 
DOD FOIA web site in the near future.”

As the Washington Post described it, Ali 
al-Salami wrote, “I am informing you that I gave 
away the precious thing that I have in which it 
became very cheap, which is my own self, to lift 
up the oppression that is upon us through the 
American Government,” adding, “I did not like the 
tube in my mouth, now go ahead and accept the 
rope in my neck.” He also apparently criticized 
the International Committee of the Red Cross, 
accusing its representatives, who secure access 
to some of the world’s most notorious prisons 
primarily on the basis that they will not 
publicly disclose their findings, of “conspiring 
in the detainees' suffering” because it had been 
“covering the American Government repugnance since the first day.”

In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg reported 
that the other two prisoners had left notes that 
stated, “I turned in my Koran not insult 
I'm turning in my body and sacred are so you not 
insult it,” and “I left out of the cage despite 
of you,” and wondered, with some justification, 
whether the report had “quoted awkward 
Arabic-English translations of the detainees' 
notes,” or if the men had, in fact, “written in crude English.”

The rest of the NCIS statement essentially 
explained the long delay in submitting the 
report. “Due to similarities in the wording of 
the statements and the manner of suicides, as 
well as statements made by other detainees 
interviewed,” the investigators wrote, “there was 
growing concern that someone within the Camp 
Delta population was directing detainees to 
commit suicide and that additional suicides might 
be imminent. Representatives of other law 
enforcement agencies involved in the 
investigation were later told that on the night 
in question, another detainee (who did not later 
commit suicide) had walked through the cell block 
telling people ‘tonight's the night.’”

They added, “The cells of other detainees were 
searched during the week following the suicides 
in an attempt to find evidence regarding whether 
the suicides had been part of a larger conspiracy 
which might result in additional detainees also 
taking their lives,” and explained that the 
searches produced 1,065 pounds of documents, 
including “additional handwritten notes found in 
cells other than those where the suicides took 
place.” These, they wrote, were then subjected to 
translation and analysis, and they went on to 
explain that the process was particularly 
time-consuming because a separate body had to be 
set up to ensure that documents relating to 
confidential correspondence between prisoners and 
their lawyers was not included.

Rather disturbingly, reporting on the story has 
been noticeably muted. In the Washington Post, 
Josh White painted a vivid picture of how the men 
apparently committed suicide, but was content to 
parrot the NCIS’s line about the deaths, noting 
that the NCIS investigation “and other documents 
reveal that the men took advantage of lapses in 
guard protocol and of lenient policies toward 
compliant detainees to commit what suicide notes 
described as an attack on the United States.”

He added, “Investigators found that guards had 
become lax on certain rules because commanders 
wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, 
giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. 
Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, 
or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but 
were not supposed to be able to obscure their 
cells while sleeping. Guards told officials that 
it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the 
cells and that they did not think twice when they 
passed several cells on the night of June 9, 
2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. 
Authorities believe the men probably hanged 
themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not 
discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.”

White’s most explosive revelation was reserved 
for the end of his article, where he explained 
that the documentation revealed that the 
military's Criminal Investigation Task Force had 
“decided years earlier” that Ali al-Salami, “who 
was arrested near his college in Pakistan in 
March 2002 and was turned over to U.S. 
authorities on May 2, 2002, in Afghanistan, was 
not someone they could prosecute.” Far from being 
“a mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operative who had 
key ties to principal facilitators and senior 
members of the group,” as the Pentagon alleged 
after his death, what was described as “a 
previously ‘secret’ document” revealed that 
investigators had concluded instead that 
“Although many of the individuals apprehended 
during the raid have strong connections to 
al-Qaeda, there is no credible information to 
suggest Ahmed received terrorist related training 
or is a member of the al-Qaeda network.” This, of 
course, is a shockingly belated vindication of 
al-Salami’s innocence, which deserves far more 
publicity than it has so far received.

If Josh White was rather soft on the 
administration, Carol Rosenberg was more 
challenging, writing that the NCIS statement 
“shed little light” on the circumstances of the 
men’s deaths. She spoke to a “senior Pentagon 
official who read the report and provided details 
in exchange for anonymity,” who, she wrote, 
noted, as if reading from a script prepared by 
Dick Cheney, “that the Navy investigation found 
the simultaneous suicides to be acts of ‘defiance 
and martyrdom,’” and she pointedly asked why the 
report “left unexplained one key question -- why 
guards had not checked on the men for two and a 
half hours before they were discovered hanging in 
their cells.” “For years,” she added, drawing on 
her long experience as Guantánamo’s most frequent 
visiting journalist, “tours of the prison camps 
have described a strict doctrine that had guards 
check on each detainee every few minutes.”

Perhaps when -- or if -- the full case file is 
released publicly, the documents it contains will 
shed more light on the deaths of Ali al-Salami, 
Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, but for now 
the investigation has the appearance of a 
whitewash. As al-Salami’s lawyer, David 
Engelhardt, explained to the Washington Post, 
“It's simply astounding that it took the 
government over two years to conclude a so-called 
investigation of three men who died in a small 
cage under the government's exclusive control. 
The investigation itself is what needs to be 
investigated, along with the people who've 
perpetrated the disgraceful, extra-constitutional detentions.”

Not mentioned in the current round of discussions 
are two of the most convincing explanations of 
the men’s apparent suicide, which I have also 
reportedly previously. In my book 
Guantánamo Files, which features a chapter on the 
suicides and hunger strikes at Guantánamo, I cite 
an article by Tim Golden from the New York Times 
Magazine in September 2006, in which Guantánamo’s 
warden, Col. Mike Bumgarner, explained that the 
British resident Shaker Aamer had told him that 
“several of the detainees had had a ‘vision,’ in 
which three of them had to die for the rest to be 
freed.” As I also 
in a previous article, Aamer also seemed to 
endorse the view that the men had committed 
suicide, explaining that a guard had told him 
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 now. Even with four feeds a day, these 
men get diarrhea from any protein which goes right through them.”

Even so, other burning questions about the men’s 
deaths remain unanswered. In an environment in 
which cell searches are notoriously frequent and 
access to pens and paper is strictly rationed, is 
it really plausible that the three men could 
actually have written and secreted the suicide 
notes they were alleged to have written? And, as 
Carol Rosenberg asked, is it also plausible that 
the regime had become so lax that three men who 
had been on painfully long hunger strikes would 
have been left unmonitored for at least two hours?

One person who is not convinced is Murat Kurnaz, 
the German-born Turkish citizen and German 
resident, who was released in August 2006. In his 
extraordinary account of his experiences, Five 
Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo, 
Kurnaz wrote about the men’s deaths, specifically 
addressing these questions, providing a view of 
the prison’s security that is completely at odds 
with the blanket-shrouded cells and lax security 
described by the NCIS, and reaching a far darker conclusion.

Kurnaz was not present in the cell block -- Block 
Alpha in Camp 1 -- on the night the men died, but 
several weeks later some prisoners who were moved 
to cells near him explained their take on what 
had happened. These prisoners, who had been in 
Block Alpha, “said that dinner had come early 
that evening and that everyone in the block 
suddenly got tired and had fallen asleep -- even 
though it was never quiet in the block at that 
hour, even when the guards left us in peace. 
There was always someone who couldn’t fall 
asleep, who wanted to pray or who kept waking up 
throughout the night.” Kurnaz added that Yasser’s 
last neighbor also noted, “The metal shutters in 
front of the windows had also been closed from 
the outside 
 as if a storm were approaching.”

This man explained that, although “he had been 
woken up in the middle of the night by a loud 
bang” and had seen a team of guards entering 
Yasser’s cell, he had thought nothing of it, as 
this was a regular occurrence. Some time later, 
however, the guards woke everyone up, and 
Yasser’s body was carried out of his cell on a 
stretcher, with a piece of sheet in his mouth, 
other pieces binding his arms and legs, and “more 
sheet around his neck, like a noose.”

The guards proceeded to explain that Yasser “had 
hung himself,” but, the man explained, “we didn’t 
think that could be true. He would have had to 
attach the noose to the sharp metal lattices with 
his hands and feet tied and with no chair to 
stand on. That was nearly impossible.” In 
addition, as Kurnaz noted, “It seemed highly 
unlikely that the guards would have failed to 
catch him in time.” Reinforcing Carol Rosenberg’s 
doubts, he explained, “They barely let us out of their sight for a minute.”

Kurnaz also noted, “The guards claimed he had 
covered the walls of his cage so that they hadn’t 
seen him do it. But what was he supposed to have 
used to cover the cage? The same sheets with 
which he allegedly hung himself?” He added, 
taking exception to the official claims that, at 
the time of the deaths, “it was not unusual to 
see blankets hanging in the cells,” “And what 
about the rule prohibiting us from hanging anything on the walls of our cells?”

He continued: “It seemed too much of a 
coincidence that the other two dead men had hung 
themselves at exactly the same time in exactly 
the same way in the same block, while all the 
other inmates had been sleeping like babies. When 
the guards were patrolling the corridors, it 
never took long before other guards came to 
ensure we were following the rules. The guards 
never took a break since they, too, were kept 
under surveillance to ensure that they too were 
carrying out their duties.” While this could, in 
theory, be explained by the report’s conclusion 
that security had slipped on the night in 
question, no one in authority addressed the next 
question posed by Kurnaz: “And what about the 
sharpshooters in the watchtowers? Hadn’t they noticed anything?”

After noting, poignantly, that Mani al-Utaybi had 
indeed been informed “a few days earlier” that he 
was going to be released -- and that he was 
“[o]verjoyed,’ that he “had told everyone about 
it,” and that, consequently, he “didn’t seem to 
have much of a reason for killing himself” -- 
Kurnaz presented the prisoners’ unavoidable 
conclusion about the men’s deaths: “No, we 
prisoners unanimously agreed, the men had been 
killed. Maybe they had been beaten to death and 
then strung up, or perhaps they had been strangled.”

He added that no one knew why, but that he and 
many others believed that it may have been 
because many of the guards in Guantánamo “were 
afraid of being sent to Iraq,” and that some of 
them thought that “if prisoners died in 
Guantánamo, it would create trouble for the Bush 
government, and they wouldn’t have to take part in the war.”

This strikes me as a far-fetched interpretation, 
but it’s clear that, although we may never know 
the truth about the deaths of Ali al-Salami, Mani 
al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, the NCIS’s 
insistence that the investigation into the deaths 
is now closed is premature, despite the long 
delay in its production. Scorned in death, and 
hacked up and shipped home like packages of meat, 
these three men deserve much more than has so far 
been delivered in the way of justice.

Andy Worthington is a British historian, and the 
author of 
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 
Detainees in America's Illegal Prison' (published 
by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: 
He can be reached at: 
<mailto:andy at andyworthington.co.uk>andy at andyworthington.co.uk

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