Suicide or Murder at Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington

June 8, 2010

On June 2 last year, the Pentagon announced that a Yemeni prisoner at
Guantánamo, Mohammed al-Hanashi (also known as Muhammad Salih) had died,
reportedly by committing suicide. He was the fifth
reported suicide at Guantánamo, following three deaths on June 9, 2006
and another on May 30, 2007, and he was the sixth man to die at the
prison, following the death, by cancer, of an Afghan prisoner, Abdul
Razzaq Hekmati, on December 26, 2007.

All of these deaths were, in one
way or another, suspicious, except for Hekmati, a 68-year old Afghan,
whose story, instead, hinted at medical neglect, and also revealed, on
close examination, the
callous cruelty of the regime at Guantánamo
. A quiet hero of the
anti-Taliban resistance, who had helped free three important
anti-Taliban leaders from a Taliban jail, he had discovered at
Guantánamo that no one in authority was interested in ascertaining
whether or not there was any truth to his story, and he went to his
grave without having been able to clear his name.

This ought to be a source of
undying shame for those who failed to investigate his story — and who
may well have not acted decisively to prevent the spread of his cancer —
but, unlike the other five men, his death does not carry with it the
suspicion that he was deliberately killed, whereas all the others do.
Last week, I recalled the Saudi prisoner Abdul Rahman al-Amri,
on the third anniversary of his death, and was unable to come up with an
adequate explanation for why he would take his own life.

A devout man, who had traveled to
Afghanistan to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance, he was
deeply troubled by the kinds of sexual humiliation to which he and other
prisoners were subjected, and this could, perhaps, have tipped him over
the edge, but he was also a long-term hunger striker, and may,
therefore, have been in such a weakened state at the time of his death
that a round of particularly aggressive questioning may have been enough
to kill him.

In addition, the deaths of the
three men on June 9, 2006 — all long-term hunger strikers, like Abdul
Rahman al-Amri — have long been contentious, and became more so in January
this year when, in a compelling article in Harper’s
, Scott Horton drew on eye-witness accounts by former soldiers,
including Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, to paint a vivid and genuinely
disturbing picture of how the alleged suicides of the three men in
question — Salah Ahmed al-Salami, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal
al-Zahrani — were announced shortly after a vehicle had returned from a
secret prison outside the prison’s main perimeter fence, where
prisoners were reportedly tortured, and how there was, according to the
soldiers, an official cover-up on an alarming scale.

I’ll be returning to Staff Sgt.
Joe Hickman’s story in the near future, but in the meantime I want to
shift the focus onto Mohammed al-Hanashi, to mark the first anniversary
of his death, to ask why questions raised at the time have not been
answered, and to bring readers up to date on further questions asked in
the last year by the author and journalist Naomi Wolf and the
psychologist and blogger Jeff Kaye.

Shortly after his death, the
released British resident Binyam Mohamed, who knew al-Hanashi in Guantánamo,
provided an explanation of the circumstances of his death that was
deeply shocking. In an article for the Miami Herald, he stated
that he and al-Hanashi, who, at the time, weighed just 104 pounds (and
at one point had weighed just 86 pounds), had both been on a
hunger strike at the start of 2009, which had involved them being
force-fed daily, strapped to restraint chairs while tubes were pushed up
their noses and into their stomachs.

The man described by Binyam
Mohamed was someone who stood up to the unjust regime at Guantánamo and
"was always being put into segregation because of his determined
insistence in pointing out the realities of what had happened to us
all." Mohamed continued:

The fact is, US
authorities didn’t like him talking about words and practices they were
only too familiar with: kidnap, rendition, torture, degradation, false
imprisonment and injustice. But, while [al-Hanashi] opposed the policies
and treatment in Guantánamo, he didn’t have problems with the guards.
He was always very sociable and tried to help resolve issues between the
guards and prisoners. He was patient and encouraged others to be the
same. He never viewed suicide as a means to end his despair.

However, as Binyam Mohamed
explained, when the officer in charge of Camp 5 (a maximum-security
block) sought out a volunteer "to represent the prisoners on camp issues
such as hunger strikes and other contentious issues," al-Hanashi
agreed. On January 17, 2009, he was taken to meet with the Joint Task
Force commander, Adm. David Thomas, and the Joint Detention Group
commander, Col. Bruce Vargo, but he never returned to his cell. "[T]wo
weeks later," Mohamed wrote, "we learned that he was moved to what we
called the ‘psych’ unit — the behavioral-health unit (BHU)." He added:

There has yet to be
any explanation as to why he was sent there or even what was the cause
of 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
[al-Hanashi’s] death categorically as an "apparent suicide."

Instead, Binyam Mohamed explained
that he thought al-Hanashi’s death was "a murder, or unlawful killing,
whichever way you look at it," and wondered whether "he was killed by US
personnel — intentionally or otherwise" or whether his long years of
hunger striking "led to some type of organ failure that caused his

Last August, following up on the
story, the author and journalist Naomi Wolf, who had been present at
Guantánamo on the day al-Hanashi died (as part of a group of journalists
covering pre-trial hearings in the trial by military commission of Omar Khadr),
revealed that she had been deeply
troubled by his death
, and the "terse announcement" by the press
office of his "apparent suicide."

Her unease heightened when, on
her trip back to the States, she "happened to be seated next to a
military physician who had been flown in to do the autopsy on
al-Hanashi." "When would there be an investigation of the death?" she
asked, receiving the reply, "That was the investigation." As she
described it, "The military had investigated the military." She added:

This "apparent
suicide" seemed immediately suspicious to me. I had just toured those
cells: it is literally impossible to kill yourself in them. Their
interiors resemble the inside of a smooth plastic jar; there are no hard
edges; hooks fold down; there is no bedding that one can use to
strangle oneself. Can you bang your head against the wall until you die,
theoretically, I asked the doctor? "They check on prisoners every three
minutes," he said. You’d have to be fast.

Wolf also noted that the story
"smelled even worse after a bit of digging." After discovering that
al-Hanashi had volunteered to represent the prisoners in Camp 5, she
noted that this would have meant that he "knew which prisoners had
claimed to have been tortured or abused, and by whom." She also raised
doubts about whether it was possible for a prisoner to kill themselves
in the psychiatric ward, asking Cortney Busch of Reprieve,
the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent dozens of
Guantánamo prisoners, who explained, as Binyam Mohamed had, that "there
is video running on prisoners in the psychiatric ward at all times, and
there is a guard posted there continually, too."

Shorn of these options, Wolf
noted that al-Hanashi could have been killed during the force-feeding
process, reflecting on "how easy it would be to do away with a
troublesome prisoner being force-fed by merely adjusting the calorie
level. If it is too low, the prisoner will starve, but too high a level
can also kill, since deliberate liquid overfeeding by tube, to which
Guantánamo prisoners have reported being subjected, causes vomiting,
diarrhea, and deadly dehydration that can stop one’s heart."

In an attempt to discover exactly
what happened to Mohammed al-Hanashi, Wolf spent several months putting
pressure on Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, the head spokesman for the
Guantánamo press office, but never received a satisfactory answer, even
though she pointed out that "[a]n investigation by the military of the
death of its own prisoners violates the Geneva Conventions, which demand
that illness, transfer, and death of prisoners be registered
independently with a neutral authority (such as the ICRC), and that
deaths be investigated independently." As she explained, "If governments
let no outside entity investigate the circumstances of such deaths,
what will keep them from ‘disappearing’ whomever they take into custody,
for whatever reason?"

In Yemen, where al-Hanashi’s body
was repatriated, the government "announced only what the US had — that
al-Hanashi had died from ‘asphyxiation.’" Wolf added, "When I noted to
DeWalt that self-strangulation was impossible, he said he would get back
to me when the inquiry — now including a Naval criminal investigation —
was completed."

Wolf never heard back from
DeWalt, but in November Jeff
Kaye took up the story
. Although he noted that self-strangulation
was "rare," but "possible," he had other reasons for doubting the
official story. The first is that al-Hanashi, who was seized in northern
Afghanistan in November 2001, survived a massacre in a fort in Mazar-e-Sharif and
subsequent imprisonment in a brutal Northern Alliance jail in
Sheberghan, where he would have met survivors of another massacre,
involving mass asphyxiation in containers, and may, therefore,
have "hear[d] tales of US Special Operations soldiers or officers

The second, which drew on my
work, involves the fact that, in his tribunal at Guantánamo, the
Pentagon inadvertently revealed that a false allegation made against him
— regarding his presence in Afghanistan before he was even in the
country — had been made by Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a "high-value detainee,"
held in secret CIA prisons for over two years before his transfer to
Guantánamo in September 2006. In every other instance, the names of the
"high-value detainees" were redacted from the transcripts, but in
al-Hanashi’s case, Ghailani’s name slipped through the censor’s net.

Last May, Ghailani was transferred to New York to face a federal court
trial for his alleged involvement in the 1998 African embassy bombings,
and, as Jeff Kaye pointed out, al-Hanashi’s "possible testimony at a
trial in New York City, establishing that Ghailani’s admissions were
false, and likely coerced by torture, may have been a hindrance to a
government bent on convicting the supposed bomber."

Whether it was his knowledge of
massacres in Afghanistan, his eligibility as a damaging witness in the
trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, or his knowledge of dark secrets in
Guantánamo, it seems probable that, one way or another, Mohammed
al-Hanashi knew too much, and what makes this suspicion even more
alarming is the fact that he died just weeks after he was finally
assigned a lawyer.

A review of the cases of all the
alleged suicides reveals not only that all the men were long-term hunger
strikers, but also that none of them had spoken to attorneys before
their deaths, and that therefore any incriminating knowledge they may
have had went to their graves with them. This may only be coincidental,
but it is worth noting that, after the deaths in June 2006, the Pentagon
initially reported that none of the three men had legal representation,
but that, within days, officials were obliged to acknowledge that, in
fact, two of the men did have legal representation.

In the case of the first man,
Salah Ahmed al-Salami (also identified as Ali Abdullah Ahmed) it was
also revealed that, at the time of his death, his lawyers had not been
cleared to visit him, and in the case of the second man, Mani al-Utaybi,
his lawyers had not been able to see him. Speaking at the time, his
legal team complained that they had waited over nine months for the
Pentagon to grant them clearance to see their client, and that, in the
meantime, they had not been allowed to correspond with him at all,
because of confusion over the spelling of his name. They also explained
that, during a visit to Guantánamo just weeks before his death, they had
been told that he wouldn’t see them, and that they had, therefore, been
unable to tell him that he had been cleared for release.

This has always struck me as a
particularly bleak commentary on Guantánamo — that no one told Mani
al-Uyaybi that he had been cleared for release before his death — but in
the bigger picture of the five unexplained deaths the most important
thing is for these men not to be forgotten, and for calls to be made —
loudly and regularly — for an independent inquiry into how they died.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774
Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison
(published by Pluto
Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon —
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. To receive new
articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed
(and I can also be found on Facebook
and Twitter).
Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in
January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo"
(co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here),
and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you
appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the
website of the Future
of Freedom Foundation

For a sequence of articles
dealing with the hunger strikes and deaths at Guantánamo, see Suicide at Guantánamo: the story of Abdul Rahman al-Amri
(May 2007), Suicide at Guantánamo: a response to the US military’s
allegations that Abdul Rahman al-Amri was a member of al-Qaeda
2007), Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The
Children Speak
(July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that
he will die
(September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian
teenager sent home from Guantánamo
(October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth?
(October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14
Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo
(Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha
Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami
(January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo
(March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist
in Guantánamo
(April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide
(May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest
Guantánamo charges
(June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo
(June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty?
(August 2008), The Pentagon Can’t Count: 22 Juveniles Held at
(November 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At
(January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released
from Guantánamo
(January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s "Humane" Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke
(February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer
(March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent
(March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the "Dark Prison": Binyam Mohamed
talks to Moazzam Begg
(March 2009), Forgotten: The Second Anniversary Of A Guantánamo
(May 2009), Yemeni Prisoner Muhammad Salih Dies At Guantánamo
(June 2009), Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East
(June 2009), Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of
(June 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo
(June 2009), Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger
(for ACLU, June 2009), Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes
the Truth about the 2006 "Suicides"
(January 2010), Torture in Afghanistan and Guantánamo: Shaker Aamer’s
Lawyers Speak
(February 2010), The Third Anniversary of a Death in Guantánamo (May
2010), Omar Deghayes and Terry Holdbrooks Discuss Guantánamo
(Part Three): Deaths at the Prison
(June 2010).

Also see the following online
chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman
Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram),
Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya
al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).


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