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 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."
As I have explained
previously, 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
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 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
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 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 here)
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
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 … Now 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 he was content to parrot the NCIS 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 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 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 The
Guantánamo Files, which features a chapter on the suicides and
hunger strikes at Guantánamo, I cite an article by Tim Golden from the
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
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' 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.