Guantánamo Deaths in 2006 Won’t Go Away

A leading good-government group is asking the U.S. Justice Department to disclose details of its investigation into the deaths of three Guantánamo prisoners in 2006.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Wednesday sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Justice Department seeking information about the Criminal Division’s handling of allegations of wrongdoing in the deaths of the detainees and their subsequent investigation by military officials. 

CREW said investigative reports by Harper’s magazine and the Seton Hall University School of Law — based on the whistleblowing testimony of a decorated non-commissioned Army officer — have raised serious questions about the government’s response to the Jun. 9, 2006 deaths. 

"The absence of clear information has allowed for a confusing and contradictory public debate, replete with conspiratorial claims of cover-ups and purported debunkings," the organization said in a statement. 

CREW said it is seeking "evidence of DOJ’s ability to handle allegations of government wrongdoing, to inform the public and hold the government accountable." 

CREW’s FOIA has been sparked by a question many human rights organizations are asking: Is the administration of President Barack Obama concealing evidence suggesting that three suicides at Guantánamo Bay were not suicides at all? 

The question arose after publication of an article in Harper’s magazine by Scott Horton presenting whistleblower testimony suggesting that the three dead prisoners likely suffered particularly abusive interrogations in a remote corner of the base in the hours before they died, and their deaths were then passed off as suicides by the Bush administration. 

Horton presented new evidence from then-Sergeant Joe Hickman, a whistleblower formerly stationed in Guantánamo, that the three dead prisoners were taken to a remote corner of the base in the hours before they died. 

There they were tortured, Gitmo officials came up with the suicide cover, and the Bush administration capitalized on the panic by ordering further abuse of prisoners, and by spreading self-serving and poisonous lies about the dead men, adding to their families’ distress, he charged. 

Horton says that President Obama’s Justice Department has refused to fully investigate the incident. 

According to the U.S. Navy, Gitmo detainees Salah Ahmed Al- Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani were found hanged in their cells on Jun. 9, 2006. The U.S. military initially described their deaths as "asymmetrical warfare" against the United States, before finally declaring that the deaths were suicides that the inmates coordinated among themselves. 

But a report from Seton Hall University Law School, released last fall, cast doubt on almost every element of the U.S. military’s story. It questioned, for example, how it would have been possible for the three detainees to have stuffed rags down their throats and then, while choking, managed to raise themselves up to a noose and hang themselves. 

Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman told Harper’s magazine that he was made aware of the existence of a secret detention center at Guantánamo, nicknamed by some of the guards "Camp No," because "No, it doesn’t exist." 

According to Hickman, it was generally believed among camp guards that the facility was used by the CIA. 

Hickman also said there was a van on site, referred to as the "paddy wagon," which was allowed to come in and out of the main detention area without going through the usual inspection. On the night of the three detainees’ deaths, Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon leave the area where the three were being detained and head off in the direction of Camp No. The paddy wagon, which can carry only one prisoner at a time in a cage in the back, reportedly made the trip three times. 

Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon return and go directly to the medical center Shortly after, a senior non-commissioned officer, whose name Hickman didn’t know, ordered him to convey a code word to a petty officer. When he did, the petty officer ran off in a panic. 

Both Hickman and Specialist Tony Davila told Harper’s that they had been told, initially, that three men died as a result of having rags stuffed down their throats. And in a truly strange turn of events, the whistleblowers say that — even though by the next morning it had become "common knowledge" that the men had died of suicide by stuffing rags down their own throats — the camp commander, Col. Michael Bumgarner, told the guards that the media would "report something different." 

According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that "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. This was a surprise to no one — even servicemen who had not worked the night before had heard about the rags.

But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners 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. 

Two of the dead prisoners were plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the deceased and their families, Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld. 

(Inter Press Service)

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.