Suicide and Irony at Guantánamo

Two weeks ago, I wrote a brief article in remembrance of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo, and a long-term hunger striker, who died on May 30, 2007, apparently by committing suicide. June 10 was another bleak and overlooked anniversary, as it was exactly two years ago that the news was announced that the first three prisoners had died at Guantánamo.

Unlike the death of Amri, which went almost unremarked at the time, the deaths of Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser al-Zahrani – who, like Amri, were also long-term hunger strikers, and appeared to have taken the only form of protest available to them (although the suicide notes they reportedly left have never been released) – sparked international outrage after Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of Guantánamo, said, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us," and Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, described the suicides as a "good PR move to draw attention."

The administration soon assumed a more placatory role, as Cully Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, was pushed forward to say, "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."

However, as I explain in The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, the administration soon resumed the offensive, issuing claims about the men – as with Amri a year later – which were not only extraordinarily insensitive, but also undeniably contentious, given that all three men had, like Amri, died without having had the opportunity to test the allegations against them in a court of law:

"In an attempt to stifle further dissent, and to bolster their view that the three men were hardened terrorists, the Pentagon released details of the allegations against them, which served only to highlight almost everything that was wrong with the system at Guantánamo … Zahrani was accused of being a Taliban fighter who ‘facilitated weapons purchases,’ but it was apparent that he was only 17 years old at the time of his capture [in Afghanistan], and that this scenario was highly unlikely. In Utaybi’s case, the only ‘evidence’ that he was an ‘enemy combatant’ was his involvement with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, the vast [and apolitical] worldwide missionary organization whose alleged connection to terrorism was duly exaggerated by the Pentagon, which had the effrontery to describe it as ‘an al-Qaeda 2nd tier recruitment organization.’ Heartless to the last, the administration also admitted that he 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 Utaybi had been informed about the transfer recommendation before he killed himself.’ In the case of Salami, 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.’

"Although none of the men had taken part in any tribunals, more detailed allegations against Salami surfaced in the ‘evidence’ for his CSRT [Combatant Status Review Tribunal, the military reviews convened to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ prior designation as ‘enemy combatants’ without rights], although a close inspection of the allegations reveals that they were mostly made by unidentified ‘members’ of al-Qaeda, either in Guantánamo or in other secret prisons: ‘a senior al-Qaeda facilitator’ identified him, another senior al-Qaeda figure – a ‘lieutenant – identified him as being ‘associated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,’ the ‘al-Qaeda weapons trainer from Tora Bora’ identified him from his time in Kabul and at Khaldan [a military training camp in Afghanistan], and he was also identified as ‘an al-Qaeda courier,’ and as someone who ‘worked directly for Osama bin Laden’s family.’

"Shorn of these allegations – which summon up images of various ‘significant’ prisoners being shown the ‘family album’ [of prisoner mugshots, which was shown to all the prisoners in interrogations] in painful circumstances – the only other allegation was that the ‘Issa’ guest house [in Faisalabad, where he was seized with 17 other prisoners, who are all still in Guantánamo, even though the majority have made viable claims that they were students, seized by mistake], received the equivalent of jihadi junk mail: apparently, the residents of the house ‘routinely received endorsement letters from a well-known al-Qaeda operative’ to attend the Khaldan camp."

Although the deaths of the three men – and of Amri a year later – encouraged the Saudi government to apply increased leverage on the U.S. administration in an attempt to secure the return of the remaining Saudi prisoners that was ultimately successful – 93 were repatriated from June 2006 (two weeks after the deaths) to December 2007, and only 13 now remain – the repercussions for the majority of the prisoners were truly dreadful. After riots broke out in Camp IV – the only part of the prison that bore any resemblance to conditions stipulated by the Geneva Conventions, where prisoners shared dormitories and were allowed a fair degree of social interaction – the military shelved plans to open up communal areas in a new block, Camp VI, which opened in December 2006, and instead held the camp’s relocated prisoners – including a number from Camp IV, and even the majority of prisoners who had, like Mani al-Utaybi, been cleared for release after military reviews – in strict solitary confinement for 22 or 23 hours a day.

This intolerable situation prevails to this day, as Human Rights Watch conclude this week, in a detailed report, Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantánamo [.pdf], which profiles the sometimes chronic mental health problems of a number of prisoners.

Two years on from the deaths of Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser al-Zahrani, and the U.S. administration’s disgraceful response, the conditions in which the majority of the 273 prisoners still in Guantánamo are held is a complete disgrace. At the very least, the administration should immediately move the 70 or so prisoners who have been cleared for release in to Camp IV, and should also reflect if it can find a valid explanation for holding the rest of the prisoners in conditions of such cruel and barbaric isolation that they are literally losing their minds.

The great irony is that those put forward for trial by military commission at Guantánamo – as seen in last week’s arraignment of self-confessed 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of plotting and facilitating the 9/11 attacks – at least have the opportunity to speak in public. Those who have been cleared of wrongdoing (but who cannot be repatriated because of international treaties preventing the repatriation of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture) and those who, bizarrely, the administration regards as too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged, remain completely isolated from the outside world, slowly losing their sanity while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the few other prisoners facing trial by military commission who openly admit their allegiance to al-Qaeda, are rewarded with the opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of their detention – merrily reconfiguring the trial system as a circus, and defiantly celebrating their desire for martyrdom – in the full glare of the world’s media.

How much longer, I wonder, before another of these hidden, forgotten prisoners – one of the many innocent men, or one of the purported "minor threats" – takes his own life, joining Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, Yasser al-Zahrani, and Abdul Rahman al-Amri in an action that, though proscribed in Islam, is perceived as the only escape from indefinite imprisonment without charge, without trial, and without hope?

Author: Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.