"From Allah we come and to him is the return." How many times will we have to utter these Quranic words of condolence for prisoners who die after being incarcerated without charge or trial for years on end? It began with the deaths of Manei al-Otaibi, Yasser al-Zahrani (Saudi Arabia) and Ali Abdullah Ahmed Al Salami (Yemen) in June 2006. That was followed the deaths of Abdul Rahman al-Amri (Saudi Arabia) in May 2007 followed by Abdur-Razzaq (Afghanistan) in 2008. All but the latter are said to have committed suicide. That version of events is highly contested by their families and former prisoners who knew them. A few weeks ago the alleged suicide of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi in a Libyan desert-prison elicited a similar response. This week, it was the turn of Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih, one of the hundred or so Yemenis, the single largest group still held at Guantánamo Bay.
He had survived the horrific Qala-i-Jangi massacre carried out by the Afghan Northern Alliance and the US military in December 2001. From there he was moved to the Sherberghan prison where British former Guantánamo prisoner, Shafiq Rasul, saw him. "He was a very quiet, thoughtful and uncomplaining person. He’d been through unimaginable hardship but, other than looking very thin and weak, you wouldn’t have known it."
He was still very emaciated and weak-looking by the time I met him in the US occupied detention center at Kandahar airport in January 2002. He described to me the terrifying events at Qala-i-Jangi which were almost beyond belief. To have seen him being held with us in that place, knowing that he spent another eight years in a tiny cage is still difficult to comprehend. I didn’t see him in Guantánamo but former British prisoner Omar Deghayes did: "He [Muhammad] was a well-known brother. He was noted for being patient, calm and steadfast and, I believe, certainly not the sort to commit suicide."
That he had survived the carnage of the Qala-i-Jangi and the ensuing barbaric detention at the hands of the Northern Alliance in Sherberghan and then in Kandahar, and seven years of Guantánamo, only to die in his cell the very year Obama has promised to close Guantánamo makes no sense. Muhammad was amongst the first people to arrive in the notorious Camp X-Ray. He is the sixth prisoner that Guantánamo has killed.
Undoubtedly there will be people saying he deserved what he got, that we should all have died like that — and worse. That anyone in Guantánamo is there for a justified reason and, consequently, people who die there have only themselves to blame. What such people don’t realize is that, whether you like or agree with it or not, many people on the other side of the world will regard Muhammad as a shaheed — a martyr-witness. They believe that he will be rewarded abundantly in the Hereafter for every hardship that befell him and every wound and humiliation he suffered and every second of his torturous detention without trial. I learned this when I called the father of one of the men who died in Guantánamo in 2006. The man was a retired General in the Saudi army. When I told him I was calling with condolences for the death of his son he replied: "My brother, we don’t need condolences. My son is a martyr." I wonder if that is what they intended when they started so many years ago to detain people in Guantánamo Bay, the world’s most infamous prison. Only three people have been released since Obama came into office — Muhammad is one of them.