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 or trial.
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 ‘mechanical asphyxia.’"
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 New 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 reported 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 them."
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.