On June 2 last year, the Pentagon announced that a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, Mohammed al-Hanashi (also known as Muhammad Salih) had died, reportedly by committing suicide. He was the fifth reported suicide at Guantánamo, following three deaths on June 9, 2006, and another on May 30, 2007, and he was the sixth man to die at the prison, following the death, by cancer, of an Afghan prisoner, Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, on December 26, 2007.
All of these deaths were, in one way or another, suspicious, except for Hekmati, a 68-year old Afghan, whose story, instead, hinted at medical neglect, and also revealed, on close examination, the callous cruelty of the regime at Guantánamo. A quiet hero of the anti-Taliban resistance, who had helped free three important anti-Taliban leaders from a Taliban jail, he had discovered at Guantánamo that no one in authority was interested in ascertaining whether or not there was any truth to his story, and he went to his grave without having been able to clear his name.
This ought to be a source of undying shame for those who failed to investigate his story — and who may well have not acted decisively to prevent the spread of his cancer — but, unlike the other five men, his death does not carry with it the suspicion that he was deliberately killed, whereas all the others do. Last week, I recalled the Saudi prisoner Abdul Rahman al-Amri, on the third anniversary of his death, and was unable to come up with an adequate explanation for why he would take his own life.
A devout man, who had traveled to Afghanistan to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance, he was deeply troubled by the kinds of sexual humiliation to which he and other prisoners were subjected, and this could, perhaps, have tipped him over the edge, but he was also a long-term hunger striker, and may, therefore, have been in such a weakened state at the time of his death that a round of particularly aggressive questioning may have been enough to kill him.
In addition, the deaths of the three men on June 9, 2006 — all long-term hunger strikers, like Abdul Rahman al-Amri — have long been contentious, and became more so in January this year when, in a compelling article in Harper’s Magazine, Scott Horton drew on eye-witness accounts by former soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman, to paint a vivid and genuinely disturbing picture of how the alleged suicides of the three men in question — Salah Ahmed al-Salami, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani — were announced shortly after a vehicle had returned from a secret prison outside the prison’s main perimeter fence, where prisoners were reportedly tortured, and how there was, according to the soldiers, an official cover-up on an alarming scale.
I’ll be returning to Staff Sgt. Joe Hickman’s story in the near future, but in the meantime I want to shift the focus onto Mohammed al-Hanashi, to mark the first anniversary of his death, to ask why questions raised at the time have not been answered, and to bring readers up to date on further questions asked in the last year by the author and journalist Naomi Wolf and the psychologist and blogger Jeff Kaye. Shortly after his death, the released British resident Binyam Mohamed, who knew al-Hanashi in Guantánamo, provided an explanation of the circumstances of his death that was deeply shocking. In an article for the Miami Herald, he stated that he and al-Hanashi, who, at the time, weighed just 104 pounds (and at one point had weighed just 86 pounds), had both been on a hunger strike at the start of 2009, which had involved them being force-fed daily, strapped to restraint chairs while tubes were pushed up their noses and into their stomachs.
The man described by Binyam Mohamed was someone who stood up to the unjust regime at Guantánamo and “was always being put into segregation because of his determined insistence in pointing out the realities of what had happened to us all.” Mohamed continued:
The fact is, U.S. authorities didn’t like him talking about words and practices they were only too familiar with: kidnap, rendition, torture, degradation, false imprisonment and injustice. But, while [al-Hanashi] opposed the policies and treatment in Guantánamo, he didn’t have problems with the guards. He was always very sociable and tried to help resolve issues between the guards and prisoners. He was patient and encouraged others to be the same. He never viewed suicide as a means to end his despair.
However, as Binyam Mohamed explained, when the officer in charge of Camp 5 (a maximum-security block) sought out a volunteer “to represent the prisoners on camp issues such as hunger strikes and other contentious issues,” al-Hanashi agreed. On January 17, 2009, he was taken to meet with the Joint Task Force commander, Adm. David Thomas, and the Joint Detention Group commander, Col. Bruce Vargo, but he never returned to his cell. “[T]wo weeks later,” Mohamed wrote, “we learned that he was moved to what we called the ‘psych’ unit the behavioral-health unit (BHU).” He added:
There has yet to be any explanation as to why he was sent there or even what was the cause of death. The BHU was built as a secure unit to prevent, among other things, potential suicide attempts. Everything that someone could use to hurt himself has been removed from the cell, and a guard watches each prisoner 24 hours a day, in person and on videotape. In light of this, I am amazed that the U.S. government has the audacity to describe [al-Hanashi’s] death categorically as an “apparent suicide.”
Instead, Binyam Mohamed explained that he thought al-Hanashi’s death was “a murder, or unlawful killing, whichever way you look at it,” and wondered whether “he was killed by U.S. personnel — intentionally or otherwise” or whether his long years of hunger-striking “led to some type of organ failure that caused his death.” Last August, following up on the story, the author and journalist Naomi Wolf, who had been present at Guantánamo on the day al-Hanashi died (as part of a group of journalists covering pre-trial hearings in the trial by military commission of Omar Khadr), revealed that she had been deeply troubled by his death, and the “terse announcement” by the press office of his “apparent suicide.” Her unease heightened when, on her trip back to the States, she “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?” she asked, receiving the reply, “That was the investigation.” As she described it, “The military had investigated the military.” She added:
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.
Wolf also noted that the story “smelled even worse after a bit of digging.” After discovering that al-Hanashi had volunteered to represent the prisoners in Camp 5, she noted that this would have meant that he “knew which prisoners had claimed to have been tortured or abused, and by whom.” She also raised doubts about whether it was possible for prisoners to kill themselves in the psychiatric ward, asking Cortney Busch of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent dozens of Guantánamo prisoners, who explained, as Binyam Mohamed had, that “there is video running on prisoners in the psychiatric ward at all times, and there is a guard posted there continually, too.”
Shorn of these options, Wolf noted that al-Hanashi could have been killed during the force-feeding process, reflecting on “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 Guantánamo prisoners have reported being subjected, causes vomiting, diarrhea, and deadly dehydration that can stop one’s heart.”
In an attempt to discover exactly what happened to Mohammed al-Hanashi, Wolf spent several months putting pressure on Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, the head spokesman for the Guantánamo press office, but never received a satisfactory answer, even though she pointed out that “[a]n 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.” As she explained, “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?”
In Yemen, where al-Hanashi’s body was repatriated, the government “announced only what the U.S. had — that al-Hanashi had died from ‘asphyxiation.’” Wolf added, “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.”
Wolf never heard back from DeWalt, but in November Jeff Kaye took up the story. Although he noted that self-strangulation was “rare,” but “possible,” he had other reasons for doubting the official story. The first is that al-Hanashi, who was seized in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, survived a massacre in a fort in Mazar-e-Sharif and subsequent imprisonment in a brutal Northern Alliance jail in Sheberghan, where he would have met survivors of another massacre, involving mass asphyxiation in containers, and may, therefore, have “hear[d] tales of U.S. Special Operations soldiers or officers involved.”
The second, which drew on my work, involves the fact that, in his tribunal at Guantánamo, the Pentagon inadvertently revealed that a false allegation made against him — regarding his presence in Afghanistan before he was even in the country — had been made by Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a “high-value detainee,” held in secret CIA prisons for over two years before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006. In every other instance, the names of the “high-value detainees” were redacted from the transcripts, but in al-Hanashi’s case, Ghailani’s name slipped through the censor’s net.
Last May, Ghailani was transferred to New York to face a federal court trial for his alleged involvement in the 1998 African embassy bombings, and, as Jeff Kaye pointed out, al-Hanashi’s “possible testimony at a trial in New York City, establishing that Ghailani’s admissions were false, and likely coerced by torture, may have been a hindrance to a government bent on convicting the supposed bomber.”
Whether it was his knowledge of massacres in Afghanistan, his eligibility as a damaging witness in the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, or his knowledge of dark secrets in Guantánamo, it seems probable that, one way or another, Mohammed al-Hanashi knew too much, and what makes this suspicion even more alarming is the fact that he died just weeks after he was finally assigned a lawyer.
A review of the cases of all the alleged suicides reveals not only that all the men were long-term hunger strikers, but also that none of them had spoken to attorneys before their deaths, and that therefore any incriminating knowledge they may have had went to their graves with them. This may only be coincidental, but it is worth noting that, after the deaths in June 2006, the Pentagon initially reported that none of the three men had legal representation, but that, within days, officials were obliged to acknowledge that, in fact, two of the men did have legal representation.
In the case of the first man, Salah Ahmed al-Salami (also identified as Ali Abdullah Ahmed) it was also revealed that, at the time of his death, his lawyers had not been cleared to visit him, and in the case of the second man, Mani al-Utaybi, his lawyers had not been able to see him. Speaking at the time, his legal team complained that they had waited over nine months for the Pentagon to grant them clearance to see their client, and that, in the meantime, they had not been allowed to correspond with him at all, because of confusion over the spelling of his name. They also explained that, during a visit to Guantánamo just weeks before his death, they had been told that he wouldn’t see them, and that they had, therefore, been unable to tell him that he had been cleared for release.
This has always struck me as a particularly bleak commentary on Guantánamo — that no one told Mani al-Uyaybi that he had been cleared for release before his death — but in the bigger picture of the five unexplained deaths the most important thing is for these men not to be forgotten, and for calls to be made — loudly and regularly — for an independent inquiry into how they died.