Were Guantanamo ‘Suicides’ Actually Murder?
According to an advance exclusive feature-length article by journlist Scott Horton that will appear in the March 2010 issue Harper’s Magazine (available on newsstands the week of February 15), several U.S. Army whistle-blowers have bravely come forward to set forth newly unpublished facts regarding the June 2006 reported ’suicides’ of 3 Guantanamo Bay inmates which may shed more light on these incidents.
A few days after his inauguration, on January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order declaring that the extra-constitutional prison camp at Guantánamo Bay “shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.”
With only a few days left until that self-imposed deadline, the Obama administration has failed to fulfill this promise thus far.
According to the upcoming Harper’s exclusive article, journalist Scott Horton outlines a compelling whistle-blower narrative of “crimes that occurred during the Bush presidency, evidence that suggests the current administration failed to investigate seriously—and may even have continued—a cover-up of the possible homicides of three prisoners at Guantánamo in 2006.”
Late in the evening on June 9, 2006, three different prisoners at Guantánamo Bay died suddenly and violently at virtually the same time.
None of the three inmates- 37-year-old Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, 30-year-old Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and 22-year-old Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani- had ever been charged with a crime; although all three had been engaged in hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their imprisonment. They were being held in a cell block- known as Alpha Block- reserved for particularly “troublesome or high-value prisoners”.
According to journalist Scott Horton, the commander at Guantánamo at the time- Rear Admiral Harry Harris- then declared the deaths “suicides” at the time of their near-simultaneous deaths in June 2009.
Over two years later, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)- which has primary investigative jurisdiction within the naval base- issued a report supporting the “suicide account originally advanced by Admiral Harris, now a vice-admiral in command of the Sixth Fleet”, according to the Harper’s magazine article.
Recently though- after several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests- the official NCIS report was carefully cross-referenced and deciphered by professors, students and faculty at the law school of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and their findings, released in November 2009, shed new light on these June 2006 ’suicides’ at Guantanamo Bay.
According to the NCIS report, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall.
The NCIS report further stated that “each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat”.
Most astonishingly, according to the Harper’s article, “we are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated“.
The NCIS report further proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously that same June evening in 2006.
The Army whistle-blowers in the Harper’s article- Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman and men under his supervision at Guantanamo Bay- have disclosed evidence in exclusive interviews with Harper’s Magazine that “strongly suggests that the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths.”
Furthermore, the whistle-blowers’ accounts also “reveal the existence of a previously unreported ‘black site’ at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred” that June night over three years ago.
According to the Harper’s article, Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman deployed to Guantánamo with his friend Specialist Tony Davila, who grew up outside Washington, D.C., and who had himself been a private investigator. When they first arrived at Camp Delta, Mr. Davila told journalist Scott Horton that soldiers from the California National Guard unit they were relieving introduced him to some of the curiosities of the base.
The most noteworthy of these curiosities “was an unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound nestled out of sight between two plateaus about a mile north of Camp Delta, just outside Camp America’s perimeter.”
This unnamed compound was not visible from the main road, and the access road was chained off.
The Guardsman who told Mr. Davila about the compound had said, “This place does not exist,” and Army Sergeant Hickman, who was frequently put in charge of security for all of Camp America, was not briefed about the site.
A friend of Sergeant Hickman’s had nicknamed the compound ‘Camp No’ with the idea being “that anyone who asked if it existed would be told, ‘No, it doesn’t’…”
Both Sergeant Hickman and Specialist Davila further told Harper’s that they had concertedly “made a point of stopping by whenever they had the chance; once, Hickman said, he heard a ’series of screams’ from within the compound [named 'Camp No']…”
Immediately after the June 2009 deaths of the 3 Gitmo inmates- according to independent interviews by Harper’s journalist Scott Horton with soldiers who witnessed the speech- Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner (head of Camp America at the time) told his soldiers that “you all know” three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during that night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death.
But then Bumgarner told those soldiers assembled “that the media would report something different” regarding the deaths of the 3 Guantanamo Bay inmates.
According to the whistleblowers’ accounts, Colonel Bumgarner told his soldiers that the media “would report that the three prisoners had committed ’suicide’ by hanging themselves in their cells”. Furthermore, it was reported by Harper’s that the servicemen were reminded during this speech to “make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report”.
Finally, the soldiers and sailors were ominously reminded during that speech that “their phone and email communications were being monitored” to ensure that nothing except the ‘official’ cause of deaths were being relayed to the American media from Guantanamo Bay.
Additionally, when later presented by journalist Scott Horton with the ’suicide’ letter supposedly left by one of the three Guantanamo inmates, the father of one of the dead inmates carefully studied the suicide note from his son and replied: “This is a forgery.”
Outside autopsies were then commissioned by the families and Swiss pathologist Dr. Patrice Mangin, for his part, expressed particular concern about one of the victim’s mouth and throat, where he saw “a blunt trauma carried out against the oral region.”
The official U.S. autopsy report mentions an effort at resuscitation, but this, in Dr. Mangin’s view, did “not explain the severity of the injuries…He also noted that some of the marks on the neck were not those he would normally associate with hanging.”
One of the Army whistle-blowers in the Harper’s Magazine article -U.S. Sergeant Joe Hickman- ended his tour of duty in March 2007 and ended his distinguished Army career. During his time there, Mr. Hickman was selected as Guantánamo’s “NCO of the Quarter” and was even awarded a commendation medal. When he returned to the United States, he was promoted to staff sergeant and worked in Maryland as an Army recruiter before eventually settling in the Midwest.
But he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo Bay. When Barack Obama became president, Mr. Hickman now decided to act.
“I thought that with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward, ” he told journalist Scott Horton.
“It was haunting me…”
Mr. Hickman had seen a 2006 report from Seton Hall University Law School dealing with the deaths of the three prisoners, and he followed their subsequent work. After President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, he called Mark Denbeaux, the professor who had led the Seton Hall team.
“I learned something from your report,” he told Professor Denbeaux, “but I know some things you don’t.”
According to media reports throughout the years, 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,” according to journalist Scott Horton.
Mr. Horton further highlighted a subsequent legal ruling of U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson who noted a curious aspect of the government’s presentation in a court hearing: The government’s “citations supporting the fact of the suicides” were all drawn from outside media accounts.
According to Harper’s: “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.”
As retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy, told Harper’s in their extensive article:
“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.”
Furthermore, with command authority comes command responsibility, further stated former Admiral John Huston.
“If the heart of the military is obeying orders down the chain of command, then its soul is accountability up the chain. You can’t demand the former without the latter.”
In light of the Obama Administration’s dictum to “look forward, not backward” when analyzing Guantanamo Bay and other Bush administration legal follies; are we as a nation going to continue to view these 3 Guantanamo Bay deaths in June 2009 as mere ’suicides’ or actually “pursue a course of action that would implicate the Bush Justice Department in a cover-up of possible homicides”?