NEW YORK - Mohammed al-Hanashi was a 31-year-old Yemeni citizen who
was held at Guantanamo Bay without charge for seven years. On June 3,
while I was visiting Guantanamo with other journalists, the press
office there issued a terse announcement that al-Hanashi had had been
found dead in his cell - an "apparent suicide."
Because my commercial flight was canceled, I got a ride back to the
United States on a military transport. I happened to be seated next to
a military physician who had been flown in to do the autopsy on
al-Hanashi. When would there be an investigation of the death, I asked
him? "That was the investigation," he replied. The military had
investigated the military.
This "apparent suicide" seemed immediately suspicious to me. I had
just toured those cells: it is literally impossible to kill yourself in
them. Their interiors resemble the inside of a smooth plastic jar;
there are no hard edges; hooks fold down; there is no bedding that one
can use to strangle oneself. Can you bang your head against the wall
until you die, theoretically, I asked the doctor? "They check on
prisoners every three minutes," he said. You'd have to be fast.
The story smelled even worse after a bit of digging. Al-Hanashi, it
turned out, had been elected by the detainees to serve as their
representative. (The Geneva Conventions call for this process but the
US did not give it any formal recognition). As their designated
representative, al-Hanashi knew which prisoners had claimed to have
been tortured or abused, and by whom.
On January 17, al-Hanashi, according to his fellow prisoner Binyam
Mohamed (who has since been released), was summoned to a meeting with
the Admiral of Guantanamo and the head of the Guard Force there. He
never returned to his cell. He was taken to the psychiatric ward,
where, according to another prisoner who had been there, he was kept
until he died.
Can you kill yourself in the psych ward? According to Cortney Busch
of Reprieve, a British organization that represents Guantanamo
detainees, there is video running on prisoners in the psychiatric ward
at all times, and there is a guard posted there continually, too.
The day after al-Hanashi died, the nurse and psychologist had shown
a group of journalists of which I was a part an oddly defensive display
of how hunger-striking prisoners are bound in restraint chairs when
being "enterally fed" (that is, force-fed). Al Hanashi, the press
office at Guantanamo noted, had formerly been a hunger striker.
It is worth considering how easy it would be to do away with a
troublesome prisoner being force-fed by merely adjusting the calorie
level. If it is too low, the prisoner will starve, but too high a level
can also kill, since deliberate liquid overfeeding by tube, to which
Guantanamo prisoners have reported being subjected, causes vomiting,
diarrhea, and deadly dehydration that can stop one's heart.
I have been putting questions to Lt. Commander Brook DeWalt, the
head spokesman for the Guantanamo press office, about how al-Hanashi
died, for eight weeks now. According to the Yemeni embassy in
Washington, al-Hanashi's body was repatriated in mid-August.
has reported that the Yemeni government announced only what the US
had - that al-Hanashi had died from "asphyxiation." When I noted to
DeWalt that self-strangulation was impossible, he said he would get
back to me when the inquiry - now including a Naval criminal
investigation - was completed. I have yet to receive an answer. The
Yemeni government, too, notes that they have yet to receive the
coroner's report from the US.
An investigation by the military of the death of its own prisoners
violates the Geneva Conventions, which demand that illness, transfer,
and death of prisoners be registered independently with a neutral
authority (such as the ICRC), and that deaths be investigated
independently. If governments let no outside entity investigate the
circumstances of such deaths, what will keep them from "disappearing"
whomever they take into custody, for whatever reason?
I sent DeWalt a copy of the relevant section of the Geneva
Conventions and asked how the US military's handling of al-Hanashi's
death conforms to it. Actually, I sent it twice. Again, no answer.
Was al-Hanashi suicidal? Binyam Mohamed told the Associated Press
that al-Hanashi was a positive person (and, one can assume, a natural
leader) who would never consider suicide. He had been in custody for
seven years without a lawyer, and killed himself just two weeks after
having finally been assigned one? That lawyer, Elizabeth Gilson,
probably knows al-Hanashi's state of mind before he died, but the US
government will not allow her to talk about it.
What happened to Mohamed al-Hanashi, and why? The fact that no one
can answer this question yet means that even in Barack Obama's America,
as in Stalin's Russia or Ahmadinejad's Iran, people can simply be
disappeared without trial.
The world's law-abiding governments and ordinary citizens should
call and email DeWalt, the Pentagon, and the White House press office
to demand answers. A young man with a great deal of potentially
compromising information died under suspicious circumstances in US
custody. The facts concerning his case must be independently verified.
, +1 703-428-0711
https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/, +1 202-456-1111