Murders at Guantánamo: The Cover-Up Continues

Andy Worthington

June 11, 2010

Sometimes the truth is
so sickening that no one in a position of authority — senior government
officials, lawmakers, the mainstream media — wants to go anywhere near

This appears to be the case with
the deaths of three men at Guantánamo on June 9, 2006. According to the
official version of events, Salah Ahmed al-Salami (also identified as
Ali Abdullah Ahmed), a 37-year old Yemeni, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi, a
30-year old Saudi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan, died by
hanging themselves, in what Guantánamo’s then-Commander, Rear Adm. Harry
Harris, described as an act of "asymmetric warfare."

Adm. Harris was, appropriately,
censured for describing as an act of warfare the deaths of three men,
held for over four years without charge or trial, but although his
comments — and those of Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary
of state for public diplomacy, who described the men’s deaths as a "good
PR move" — were despicable, it was true that all three men had been
implacably opposed to the regime at Guantánamo, and that each had
expressed their opposition to it — and their solidarity with their
fellow prisoners — through resistance, by enduring painful months of force-feeding as three of
the prison’s most persistent hunger strikers, and by raising their
fellow prisoners’ spirits as accomplished singers of nasheeds
(Islamic songs).

Former prisoners cast
doubt on the suicide story

In a
issued just after the announcement of the deaths in June
2006, nine British ex-prisoners recalled the men’s indefatigable spirit,
and cast doubt on the US military’s claims that they had committed

The prisoners in
Guantánamo knew Manei al-Otaibi [Mani al-Utaybi] as someone who recited
the Qur’an and poetry with a beautiful voice. He was of high moral
character and was loved and respected amongst the prisoners, as was
Yasser. They both came from wealthy backgrounds and had everything to
live for.

They were often involved in
protests and hunger strikes, which meant that they were always given
"level four" statuses. That means the only items they would be allowed
in the cell were a mat, and a blanket (only at night). They didn’t have
toilet paper, let alone bed sheets that could be easily constructed into
a noose, or even a pen and paper with which to write a suicide note.

more detailed analysis
was provided by one of the nine British
ex-prisoners, Tarek Dergoul, who wrote:

I knew them
personally, so I can judge well their frame of mind. Their iman
(belief in God) was very strong, there was high morale and it comes as a
complete shock to my system when it is said to me that they could have
committed suicide. I was with them for a long period of time, and it
never even came into our mind the thought of committing suicide. We were
always far too busy constructing some form of hunger strike or
non-cooperation strike, to even register the thought of suicide. It is
quite simply ridiculous. When we were not in isolation for our continued
protests we were in the regular blocks planning our next move.

Dergoul also provided further
descriptions of two of the men and their state of mind, explaining that
Yasser al-Zahrani and Manei al-Otaibi "would be the first amongst all
others to stand up for our rights and the rights of others."

He added that al-Zahrani was "a
beautiful brother," who had memorized the entire Qur’an, and "was softly
spoken and had a very nice voice. He used to sing nasheeds for
us and all the brothers loved him as he was always optimistic. He would
sing morale-boosting nasheeds for the other detainees nearby
to him. He was very well known to everyone in the camp."

He also explained that al-Zahrani
had "participated in all the hunger strikes and non-cooperation
strikes," which, he added, "include[d] not speaking in interrogation and
also not standing for any immoral behavior (such as being sexually
harassed or watching the Qur’an being desecrated)." Non-cooperation, he
pointed out, "would result in punishment," and al-Zahrani "ended up
doing a lot of time in isolation simply due to the fact that he would
never allow for an injustice to take place before him without being
defiant for the sake of our rights," but he "had so much determination,
will-power and morale that it is ridiculous to think he could have taken
his own life."

Writing about Manei al-Otaibi,
Dergoul described him as "another beautiful brother," who was "extremely
funny," and explained that, like al-Zahrani, he "used to recite poetry —
in fact this was the thing he was best known for — and he also used to
sing nasheeds for us." He added:

I stayed beside Manei
for three weeks inside the regular blocks, and that is when he told me
about his wealthy family and his previous life and how he used to get up
to no good as people do when they are young. It was also during those
three weeks that he taught me tajweed (the science of reciting
the Qur’an correctly). By the end of that time we had shared with one
another our inner most thoughts. I consider it an insult and I am sure
that his family finds it equally offensive, to suggest that he would
stoop to the level of taking his own life.

Admittedly, the men’s outlook on
life could have changed in the two years following Tarek Dergoul’s
release from Guantánamo, but Omar Deghayes, who was still in Guantánamo
at the time of their deaths, recently backed up his analysis, describing
them as poets with beautiful voices whose spirits were unbroken at the
time of their deaths, although he did acknowledge that they had been subjected to
severe mistreatment.

Seton Hall Law School
demolishes the suicide story

If the profiles above suggest
problems with the official suicide story, that is entirely appropriate,
as development in the last two years — and particularly in the last six
months — have demonstrated. The first of these was the publication, in August 2008, of the official report
into the deaths, conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
The report — actually, nothing more than a 934-word statement — was presumably intended to be
buried under coverage of the Presidential election, and did nothing to
address doubts about the official story, but over the next year a
colossal archive of documents collected for the investigation was
thoroughly analyzed by staff and students at the Seton Hall Law School
in New Jersey.

On December 7, 2009, Seton Hall
published a 136-page report, "Death in Camp Delta" (PDF),
which comprehensively undermined the conclusion of the NCIS
investigation. Some of the most important questions asked in the report

  • "[H]ow each of the detainees,
    much less all three, could have done the following: braided a noose by
    tearing up his sheets and/or clothing, made a mannequin of himself so it
    would appear to the guards he was asleep in his cell, hung sheets to
    block vision into the cell — a violation of Standard Operating
    Procedures, tied his feet together, tied his hands together, hung the
    noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling, climbed up
    onto the sink, put the noose around his neck and released his weight to
    result in death by strangulation, hanged until dead and hung for at
    least two hours completely unnoticed by guards."

  • "[H]ow three bodies could have
    hung in cells for at least two hours while the cells were under constant
    supervision, both by video camera and by guards continually walking the
    corridors guarding only 28 detainees."

  • Why the authorities did not
    report that, "when the detainees’ bodies arrived at the clinic, it was
    determined that each had a rag obstructing his throat."

  • Why the authorities did not
    report that the detainees "had been dead for more than two hours when
    they were discovered, nor that rigor mortis had set in by the time of

  • How the supposed suicides "could
    have been coordinated by the three detainees, who had been on the same
    cell block fewer than 72 hours with occupied and unoccupied cells
    between them and constant supervision."

Moreover, the researchers also
discovered so many omissions and contradictions in the reports of the
various personnel who were present on the night of the men’s deaths that
it was impossible to construct a coherent narrative. It was also
impossible not to conclude that, with so many holes in the official
account, the investigation was, as Professor Mark Denbeaux explained in a
press release
, "a cover up," and, in addition, one that raised
"more compelling questions": "Who knew of the cover up? Who approved of
the cover up, and why? The government’s investigation is slipshod, and
its conclusion leaves the most important questions about this tragedy

In the Seton Hall report, the
omissions and contradictions focus on the fact that the only guards who
were asked to make statements on the night "were advised that they were
suspected of making false statements or failing to obey direct orders"
(the statements have never been publicly released); on asking why other
guards were "ordered not to provide sworn statements about what happened
that night"; on asking why the government "seemed to be unable to
determine who was on duty that night in Alpha Block" (where the deaths
supposedly occurred); on asking "why the guards who brought the bodies
to the medics did not tell the medics what had happened to cause the
deaths and why the medics never asked how the deaths had occurred"; on
why there is "no indication that the medics observed anything unusual on
the cell block at the time that the detainees wee hanging dead in their
cells"; and, finally, on "why the guards on duty in the cell block were
not systematically interviewed about the events of the night, why the
medics who visited the cell block before the hangings were not
interviewed, [and] why the tower guards, who had the responsibility and
ability to observe all activity in the camp, were not interviewed."

In addition, the report also
noted the NCIS’s failure to review "audio and video recordings which are
systematically maintained; ‘Pass-On’ books prepared by each shift to
describe occurrences on the block for the next shift; the Detainee
Information Management System, which contains records of all activity
for that night as the events occur; and Serious Incident reports, which
are the reports used when there are suicide attempts."

The authors were also
particularly concerned that a prominent claim in the NCIS statement —
"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’" — was not explained. "There is no indication,"
they wrote, "of how this could have happened given camp security rules
or, if it had taken place, why security was not tighter as a result."

Harper’s Magazine reports
soldiers’ testimony, suggests prisoners died in torture sessions

Just six weeks after the Seton
Hall report was published, answers to some of these questions were
provided in the most extraordinary manner. In an article for Harper’s
, law professor Scott Horton revealed the story of
Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, and a number of other soldiers — the tower
guards mentioned in the Seton Hall report, who "had the responsibility
and ability to observe all activity in the camp, [but] were not

Sgt. Hickman, who was on duty in a
tower on the prison’s perimeter on the night the three men died,
addressed some of the NCIS investigations’ omissions and contradictions
by explaining that the reason that men had been dead for over two hours
before their deaths were reported, that few reports were taken from the
personnel on duty, and that rags were stuffed in the men’s throats was
not because they had committed suicide, but because they had been taken
from the cell block earlier that evening to a secret facility outside
the main perimeter fence of Guantánamo — known to the soldiers as "Camp
No" — where they had either been deliberately killed, or had a died as
the result of particularly brutal torture sessions.

Sgt. Hickman, and several other
witnesses under his supervision, told Scott Horton personally that they
had not seen anyone moved to the clinic from Alpha Block, where the
prisoners reportedly died, and when I spoke to Sgt. Hickman a few months
ago, he confirmed that this was the case, telling me categorically that
neither he, nor three men he was in charge of who were stationed no
more than 40 feet away from the clinic, saw anyone moved from the block
to the clinic. "They didn’t die in their cells," he explained.

This was not all. Sgt. Hickman —
and other witnesses — also explained that the false suicide story
required a cover-up, and that this involved Col. Mike Bumgarner, the
warden at Guantánamo, telling a meeting of between 40 and 60 men on the
morning of June 10 that, although "’you all know’ three prisoners in the
Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing
rags, causing them to choke to death," the media would report that the
three men "had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells.
It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or
suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded
the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were
being monitored."

In no time at all, the deaths
were reinvented as acts of "asymmetrical warfare," and the whole sordid
cover-up began in earnest.

Sgt. Hickman has no reason to
lie. He joined the US military in 1983, at the age of 19, as a Marine,
and spent time in military intelligence. Later, as a civilian, he worked
as a private investigator, but after the 9/11 attacks, he re-enlisted
in the Army National Guard and was deployed to Guantánamo in March 2006,
where he "was selected as Guantánamo’s ‘NCO of the Quarter’ and was
given a commendation medal." When his tour of duty ended in March 2007
and he returned to the US, he was "promoted to staff sergeant and worked
in Maryland as an Army recruiter."

However, as he explained to Scott
Horton, "he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo. When
Barack Obama became president, [he] decided to act. ‘I thought that with
a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward,’ he
said. ‘It was haunting me.’" And as he told me a few months ago, he felt
"physically sick" after holding onto his story for three years.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned at
the start of this article, some stories are so disturbing that no one in
authority wants to go near them, and this is clearly the case with the
deaths of Salah Ahmed al-Salami, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal
al-Zahrani. Although the Harper’s article received widespread
coverage around the world, it was almost entirely ignored by the
mainstream media in the US, with the New York Times and the Washington
to run an Associated Press story
, without following up on it, and
only Keith
Olbermann of MSNBC
covering the story on TV.

Part of the problem is that,
although a Justice Department investigation was launched after Sgt.
Hickman approached Mark Denbeaux and his son Josh last February, and the
Denbeauxs took the case to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division,
an initial flurry of interest rapidly waned, and Teresa McHenry, the
head of the Criminal Division’s Domestic Security Section, who took
charge of the investigation, notified Mark Denbeaux on November 2, 2009
that the investigation was being closed. Scott Horton described
Denbeaux’s reaction as follows:

"It was a strange
conversation," Denbeaux recalled. McHenry explained that "the gist of
Sergeant Hickman’s information could not be confirmed." But when
Denbeaux asked what that "gist" actually was, McHenry declined to say.
She just reiterated that Hickman’s conclusions "appeared" to be
unsupported. Denbeaux asked what conclusions exactly were unsupported.
McHenry refused to say.

As Horton also noted, McHenry
"ha[d] firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department’s role in auditing
such techniques, having served at the Justice Department under Bush and
having participated in the preparation of" at least one of a number of
memoranda "approving and setting the conditions for the use of torture
techniques" — commonly known as the "torture memos" — which "CIA agents and others
could use to defend themselves against any subsequent criminal

Today, as we pause to remember
the three men who died at Guantánamo four years ago, we should also
reflect that, as with the two other supposed suicides at Guantánamo — of
Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi, on May 30, 2007, and
of Mohammed al-Hanashi, a Yemeni, on June 1, 2009 —
nothing resembling an adequate explanation has yet been provided for
their deaths, and Sgt. Joe Hickman, the man who has done the most to try
to expose the truth about the deaths in June 2006, has apparently put
his career on the line for nothing, sidelined for doing what was right.
"Under the Constitution I swore to defend, we don’t do this," he told me
when we spoke a few months ago.

Why an independent
inquiry is needed – and a call for Shaker Aamer to be released

Calls for a full investigation
into all the deaths at Guantánamo may come to nothing, but they must be
made, or we will demonstrate to those who hold the reins of
accountability that the darker the allegations, the easier they are to

In addition, the fallout from
that horrendous night in Guantánamo is still affecting one other man,
who was brutally tortured that same evening, but who, unlike Salah Ahmed
al-Salami, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, did not

That man is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in
Guantánamo, who is still held, despite being cleared for release by a
military review board in 2007. A passionate and fearless defender of the
rights of the prisoners — also like the men who died — he may still be
held because of what he knows.

Describing what happened to him —
which involved choking, and the kind of violent punishment for dissent
that Tarek Dergoul identified in the cases of Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and
Yasser Talal al-Zahrani — Shaker Aamer provided a statement to one of
his lawyers, which was later filed as an affidavit with the District
Court in Washington D.C.:

On June 9th, 2006,
[Shaker Aamer] was beaten for two and a half hours straight. Seven naval
military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had
refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me
that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and
legs. The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was
going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his
temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They
choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought
it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They
gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them
for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until
he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask
on him so he could not cry out.

Note: To take
action for Shaker Aamer, please feel free to cut and paste a letter to
foreign secretary William Hague, available here, asking him to do all in his power to
secure his return from Guantánamo to the UK, to be reunited with his

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 Cageprisoners.

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), Suicide or Murder at Guantánamo? (1st
anniversary of Mohammed al-Hanashi’s death, 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).

:: Article nr. 66925 sent on 11-jun-2010 22:56 ECT


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