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Murders at Guantánamo: Harper's Scott Horton Exposes Truth about 2006 'Suicides'

Andy Worthington

It's hard to know where to begin with this profoundly important story by Scott Horton, for next month's Harper's Magazine (available on the web here),
but let's try this: The three "suicides" at Guantánamo in June 2006
were not suicides at all. The men in question were killed during
interrogations in a secretive block in Guantánamo, conducted by an
unknown agency, and the murders were then disguised to look like
suicides. Everyone at Guantánamo knew about it. Everyone covered it up.
Everyone is still covering it up.

Establishing a case for murder - and the disclosure of a secret prison at Guantánamo

Yasser Talal al-ZahraniThe
key to the discovery of the murder of the three men - 37-year old Salah
Ahmed al-Salami, a Yemeni, 30-year old Mani Shaman al-Utaybi, a Saudi,
and 22-year old Yasser Talal al-Zahrani (photo, right), a Saudi who was just 17
when he was captured - is Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, a former Marine
who reenlisted in the Army National Guard after the 9/11 attacks, and
was deployed to Guantánamo in March 2006, with his friend, Specialist
Tony Davila. On arrival, Davila was briefed about the existence of "an
unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound," outside the perimeter
fence of the main prison, and explained that one theory about it was
that "it was being used by some of the non-uniformed government
personnel who frequently showed up in the camps and were widely thought
to be CIA agents."

Hickman and Davila became fascinated by the compound - known to the
soldiers as "Camp No" (as in, "No, it doesn't exist") - and Hickman was
on duty in a tower on the prison's perimeter on the night the three men
died, when he noticed that "a white van, dubbed the ‘paddy wagon,' that
Navy guards used to transport heavily manacled prisoners, one at a
time, into and out of Camp Delta, [which] had no rear windows and
contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner," had
called three times at Camp 1, where the men were held, and had then
taken them out to "Camp No." All three were in "Camp No" by 8 pm.

At 11.30, the van returned, apparently dropping something off at the
clinic, and within half an hour the whole prison "lit up." As Horton
explains:

Hickman headed to the clinic, which appeared to be the
center of activity, to learn the reason for the commotion. He asked a
distraught medical corpsman what had happened. She said three dead
prisoners had been delivered to the clinic. Hickman recalled her saying
that they had died because they had rags stuffed down their throats,
and that one of them was severely bruised. Davila told me he spoke to
Navy guards who said the men had died as the result of having rags
stuffed down their throats.

As Horton also explains:

The presence of a black site at Guantánamo has long been
a subject of speculation among lawyers and human-rights activists, and
the experience of Sergeant Hickman and other Guantánamo guards compels
us to ask whether the three prisoners who died on June 9 were being
interrogated by the CIA, and whether their deaths resulted from the
grueling techniques the Justice Department had approved for the
agency's use - or from other tortures lacking that sanction.

Complicating these questions is the fact that Camp No might have
been controlled by another authority, the Joint Special Operations
Command, which Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had hoped to
transform into a Pentagon version of the CIA. Under Rumsfeld's
direction, JSOC began to take on many tasks traditionally handled by
the CIA, including the housing and interrogation of prisoners at black
sites around the world.

The construction of the "suicide" narrative, and the widespread cover-up

This is disturbing enough, of course, and should lead to robust
calls for an independent inquiry, but the problem may be that almost
every branch of the government appears to be implicated in the cover-up
that followed the deaths.

As Horton describes it, an official "suicide" narrative was soon
established, and widely accepted by the media, if not by former
prisoners and the dead men's families. With extraordinary cynicism,
Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander at Guantánamo, not only
declared the deaths "suicides," but added, "I believe this was not an
act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against
us." What was not mentioned were the rags stuffed into the prisoners'
mouths, even though this knowledge was widespread throughout the
prison. Horton adds that when Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden at
Guantánamo, held a meeting the following morning, "the news had
circulated through Camp America that three prisoners had committed
suicide by swallowing rags."

He also states:

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 ... 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. He reminded the soldiers and sailors
that their phone and email communications were being monitored.

Despite being "on-message," Bumgarner let slip to two visiting
reporters from a US provincial newspaper - the only ones who were not
immediately hustled off the base - that each of the men who had died
"had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling
their voices." As punishment for straying off the script, Bumgarner was
soon suspended, and had his office searched by the FBI.

Just as cynical were the authorities' attempts to silence the
prisoners and their attorneys. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service
(NCIS), which was assigned to investigate the deaths, confiscated every
single piece of paper in the possession of the prisoners, and, a few
weeks later, "sought an after-the-fact justification." As Horton
explains:

The Justice Department - bolstered by sworn statements
from Admiral Harris and from Carol Kisthardt, the special agent in
charge of the NCIS investigation - claimed in court that the seizure
was appropriate because there had been a conspiracy among the prisoners
to commit suicide. [The] Justice [Department] further claimed that
investigators had found suicide notes and argued that the
attorney-client materials were being used to pass communications among
the prisoners.

It is now apparent that the authorities were desperate to ensure
that no word of the events of June 9 was disclosed from prisoners to
their attorneys. As David Remes, the attorney for 16 Yemenis,
explained, the effect of the seizure "sent an unmistakable message to
the prisoners that they could not expect their communications with
their lawyers to remain confidential," but as part of its mission to
blame attorneys for the deaths, the authorities went so far as to claim
that Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, had persuaded another prisoner, the British resident Shaker Aamer, to call for the deaths from his cell. Speaking to the BBC's Newsnight
in October 2006, Zachary Katznelson, an attorney at Reprieve, explained
that he was told by one of his clients in Guantánamo in August 2006
that interrogators were trying to blame Stafford Smith, saying that "it
was Clive's idea, Clive's brainchild, that people had to commit suicide
to bring attention to the base and to then force the government to
close it."

As Horton reveals, far from being the mastermind of a triple
suicide, Shaker Aamer was himself beaten severely on the night of the
deaths. As I have explained in previous articles,
Aamer, an eloquent, charismatic man, who stood up relentlessly for the
prisoners' rights, was regarded as a leader within Guantánamo by both
the prisoners and the prison authorities. Held in solitary confinement
after the suppression of a short-lived Prisoners' Council, convened in
the summer of 2005, for which he was the Secretary, he was,
nevertheless beaten severely for two and a half hours on the evening of
June 9, around the same time that the three other men were in "Camp No."

As Horton also notes:

The United Kingdom has pressed aggressively for the
return of British subjects and persons of interest. Every individual
requested by the British has been turned over, with one exception:
Shaker Aamer. In denying this request, US authorities have cited
unelaborated "security" concerns. There is no suggestion that the
Americans intend to charge him before a military commission, or in a
federal criminal court, and, indeed, they have no meaningful evidence
linking him to any crime. American authorities may be concerned that
Aamer, if released, could provide evidence against them in criminal
investigations. This evidence would include what he experienced on June
9, 2006 ...

In
the years following the deaths in June 2006, every official response
has been a whitewash. The NCIS reluctantly produced a report in August
2008, accompanied by a brief and unenlightening statement, which I discussed here, and in December 2009 the Seton Hall Law School produced a devastating analysis
of the flawed report, which, as Scott Horton explains, "made clear why
the Pentagon had been unwilling to make its conclusions public. The
official story of the prisoners' deaths was full of unacknowledged
contradictions, and the centerpiece of the report - a reconstruction of
the events - was simply unbelievable."

As for the accounts of Sgt. Hickman and three other men (including
Specialist Davila), Horton explains that they offered their accounts
willingly and were not approached to do so. The trigger was Hickman,
whose tour of duty ended in March 2007. As Horton describes it,
however, "he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo. When
Barack Obama became president, Hickman decided to act. ‘I thought that
with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward,'
he said. ‘It was haunting me.'"

The cover-up continues

Hickman approached Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall, and his son Josh
(also a lawyer), and told his story, followed by the other three men.
However, although the Denbeauxs approached the Justice Department, and
had a meeting in February last year with Rita Glavin, the acting head
of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, John Morton, soon to be
an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, and
Steven Fagell, counselor to the head of the Criminal Division, little
came of it. After hearing the whole sordid story, the officials thanked
the Denbeauxs for "not speaking to reporters first and for ‘doing it
the right way,'" and, two days later, Mark Denbeaux was called by
Teresa McHenry, the head of the Criminal Division's Domestic Security
Section, who told him that she was starting an investigation and wanted
to meet directly with Hickman.

Hickman met McHenry, and gave her the names and contact details of
corroborating witnesses, but then the trail went cold. In April, "an
FBI agent called to say she did not have the list of contacts" and
"asked if this document could be provided again," and soon after,
Steven Fagell and two FBI agents interviewed Davila, who had left the
Army, and asked him if he would travel to Guantánamo to identify the
locations of various sites. "It seemed like they were interested,"
Davila told Horton. "Then I never heard from them again."

In late October, as Mark Denbeaux was preparing to unveil the Seton
Hall report, there was brief communication with McHenry again, but on
November 2, she called to say that the investigation was being closed:

"It was a strange conversation," Denbeaux recalled.
McHenry explained that "the gist of Sergeant Hickman's information
could not be confirmed." But when Denbeaux asked what that "gist"
actually was, McHenry declined to say. She just reiterated that
Hickman's conclusions "appeared" to be unsupported. Denbeaux asked what
conclusions exactly were unsupported. McHenry refused to say.

Horton notes correctly that "the Justice Department has plenty of
its own secrets to protect," because it "would seem to have been
involved in the cover-up from the first days, when FBI agents stormed
Colonel Bumgarner's quarters," which was "unusual." He also explains
that, when the Justice Department sought court approval for the NCIS
seizure of all the prisoners' letters:

US District Court Judge James Robertson gave the Justice
Department a sympathetic hearing, and he ruled in its favor, but he
also noted a curious aspect of the government's presentation: its
"citations supporting the fact of the suicides" were all drawn from
media accounts. Why had the Justice Department lawyers who argued the
case gone to such lengths to avoid making any statement under oath
about the suicides? Did they do so in order to deceive the court? If
so, they could face disciplinary proceedings or disbarment.

In addition, Horton notes the role played by lawyers in the Justice
Department's Office of Legal Counsel, who, of course, "had been deeply
involved in the process of approving and setting the conditions for the
use of torture techniques, issuing a long series of memoranda [widely
known as the ‘torture memos']
that CIA agents and others could use to defend themselves against any
subsequent criminal prosecution." Pointing a finger at Teresa McHenry,
he explains that, "As a former war-crimes prosecutor, McHenry knows
full well that government officials who attempt to cover up crimes
perpetrated against prisoners in wartime face prosecution under the
doctrine of command responsibility," and quotes Rear Admiral John
Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy, who told him:

Filing false reports and making false statements is bad
enough, but if a homicide occurs and officials up the chain of command
attempt to cover it up, they face serious criminal liability. They may
even be viewed as accessories after the fact in the original crime.

In conclusion, Horton suggests that everyone charged with accounting
for what happened on June 9, 2006 - the prison command, the civilian
and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and
Attorney General Eric Holder - "face a choice between the rule of law
and the expedience of political silence," and, to date, have chosen the
latter.

In passing, he mentions that the death of another prisoner in June last year - a 31-year old Yemeni named Muhammad Salih - also raises disturbing questions (as was reported by former prisoner Binyam Mohamed in an op-ed for the Miami Herald), and to this he could have added that the death of another Saudi, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, on May 30, 2007, also remains suspicious.

I urge you to read the whole report,
as this précis has been little more than a way for me to try and grasp
the main points presented in the article, which contains much more
detailed and disturbing information, including shocking information
about the autopsy (and information about the torture to which the men
were clearly subjected), a touching meeting with Yasser al-Zahrani's
father, General Talal al-Zahrani, and a detailed reiteration of some
other important facts - that none of the three men killed in June 2006
had any connection to terrorism, and that two had been cleared for
release, but had not been told.

Despite studying Guantánamo on a full-time basis for nearly four
years, this is one of the most chilling accounts of the prison that I
have ever read, and one which should not only lead to an independent
inquiry, but also to calls to press ahead with the closure of
Guantánamo - and the repatriation of as many prisoners as possible -
without further delay.

Scott Horton doesn't ask another pertinent question - whether it is
feasible that the three men died as a result of "enhanced
interrogations" that went too far, or whether they were deliberately
murdered. The panic that greeted the arrival of the corpses at the
clinic on that dreadful day suggests the former, but on reflection it
seems unlikely that three accidental deaths could occur in such a short
space of time. As Guantánamo takes on a new name - the Death Camp -
these doubts need to be addressed one way or another. Neither murder
nor manslaughter is acceptable, of course, but neither is it acceptable
for this disgraceful cover-up to continue.

As Yasser al-Zahrani's father explained to Horton:

The truth is what matters. They practiced every form of
torture on my son and on many others as well. What was the result? What
facts did they find? They found nothing. They learned nothing. They
accomplished nothing.

 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, based in London. He is the author of "The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 759 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison", the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in America's illegal prison. For more information, visit his blog here.

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