Guantánamo Deaths Deserve a Closer Look

Did three detainees at Guantánamo die of suicide or homicide?

According to the Pentagon, three Guantánamo prisoners hung themselves in their individual cells on the night of June 9, 2006, in order to commit an act of "asymmetrical warfare." But that official account is riddled with gaping holes and is challenged by an alternative explanation that they died of asphyxiation during brutal interrogations after cloth was stuffed into their mouths and lodged in their throats.

This homicide theory is posited in a blockbuster piece by human rights lawyer Scott Horton in the March issue of Harper’s magazine and is supported by questions raised in an investigative report, "Death in Camp Delta [pdf]," by Seton Hall University Law School faculty and students, released late last year.

There are enough credible discrepancies that Congress should launch its own public, independent review into what really happened.

The official version of events is that Salah Ahmed Al-Salami from Yemen, and Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani from Saudi Arabia, coordinated their mass hangings as a kind of attack.

It is interesting that Al-Utaybi would kill himself, as Horton reports that he was about to be returned to Saudi Arabia and was just weeks from his transfer. Al-Zahrani, according to Horton, was "on a list of prisoners to be sent home."

If the Pentagon is to be believed, in the tightly controlled Alpha Block where troublesome prisoners are sent, the men fashioned nooses out of sheets or clothing, shaped bed linens to look like sleeping bodies, hung more fabric to block the view by guards into their cells, tied their own hands together, stuffed cloth in their mouths, hung the noose and jumped from each cell’s sink, killing themselves.

They then hung for at least two hours in cells that are mostly metal mesh, so as to be easy to look into, before being noticed by guards. No guards were ever disciplined for this lapse in security.

An investigation by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service confirmed this official account in a report issued two years after the incident. But there were oddities in the investigation. Things like, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the guards were ordered to stop filling out sworn statements that are standard procedure — something never explained.

Horton’s alternative theory is based in part on the observations of Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, who was on duty as sergeant of the guard that night. Hickman saw some men taken by paddy wagon to a part of the facility nicknamed "Camp No," because its existence was denied. Then, three and a half hours later, that paddy wagon returned and was backed up to the entrance of the medical clinic.

The implication is that the three men died while at Camp No and not in their cells. Horton suggests that what happened to detainee Shaker Aamer on June 9 is similar to the fate of the other men, only Aamer survived.

Through his lawyer, Aamer described being strapped to a chair with naval military police inflicting so much pain for two and a half hours that Aamer thought he would die. They bent his fingers until he screamed, at which point they "cut off his airway, then put a mask on him."

Horton’s evidence for a massive cover-up includes a speech given by Col. Michael Bumgarner, the camp commander, who allegedly told at least 50 soldiers and sailors at 7 a.m. the following morning that three prisoners committed suicide by swallowing rags but that the media would report that the prisoners had hung themselves. He warned the audience not to say anything that might undermine the official account.

The Pentagon calls Horton’s accusations "nonsense," saying it "categorically and unequivocally" rejects them. But there are too many problematic aspects to the case for the allegations to be ignored. Congress needs to dig into this and get at the truth.

(c) 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Author: Robyn Blumner

Robyn Blumner writes for the St. Petersburg Times.