Murder at Guantánamo Bay?

Nicole Colson reports on revelations about prisoner deaths at Guantánamo Bay that expose the horrifying underside of the U.S. "war on terror."

A prisoner is moved from one building to another at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay (Chief Petty Officer Gabe Puello)

THREE PRISONERS held at the U.S. government's Guatánamo Bay detention center who were alleged to have committed suicide may have been killed by their U.S. captors, according to a new report from Harper's magazine.

The report by Scott Horton focuses on the deaths of Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, detainees who the military claimed committed suicide on June 9, 2006.

Suicide attempts were nothing new at Guantánamo at the time the three died, allegedly taking their own lives by swallowing rags. Lawyers and medical experts had warned of the severe toll that repeated interrogations and indefinite detention in Guantánamo's harsh conditions had taken on the mental health of many prisoners.

Rather than show sympathy for the men who had supposedly committed suicide, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., then the commander of Guantánamo, complained to reporters, "[Detainees] are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

But according to Horton's report, it now appears that the detainees had been taken from their cells hours before their deaths and transported to a secret site on the island, where they may have been tortured during interrogations.

And, Horton reports, the U.S. government--first the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration--may have actively covered up the circumstances of their deaths.

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ACCORDING TO Horton, on the day of their supposed suicides, each of the men had been taken to a location approximately a mile away from where they had been housed in Alpha block, a wing of the detention center for prisoners deemed disruptive or troublesome. Each of the men had reportedly taken part in hunger strikes to protest their imprisonment.

The Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) report into the deaths was later revealed to be full of holes. The 1,700-page NCIS report was heavily redacted when it was released through Freedom of Information Act requests, but drastic inconsistencies emerged when students and faculty at the law school of Seton Hall University in New Jersey reconstructed the events portrayed in the documents. Horton writes:

According to the NCIS documents, 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. 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.

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 also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

According to the documents, Al-Zahrani's body was discovered at 12:39 a.m., and Al-Utaybi and Al-Salami were found soon after. According to the reports, rigor mortis had already set in, indicating that the men had been dead for at least two hours. Horton continues:

The fact that at least two of the prisoners also had cloth masks affixed to their faces, presumably to prevent the expulsion of the rags from their mouths, went unremarked by the NCIS, as did the fact that standard operating procedure at Camp Delta required the Navy guards on duty after midnight to "conduct a visual search" of each cell and detainee every ten minutes.

The report claimed that the prisoners had hung sheets or blankets to hide their activities and shaped more sheets and pillows to look like bodies sleeping in their beds, but it did not explain where they were able to acquire so much fabric beyond their tightly controlled allotment, or why the Navy guards would allow such an obvious and immediately observable deviation from permitted behavior.

Nor did the report explain how the dead men managed to hang undetected for more than two hours or why the Navy guards on duty, having for whatever reason so grievously failed in their duties, were never disciplined.

Horton's investigation suggests that the reason for these inconsistencies is because the men were not housed in their regular units, but had been taken instead to an "undisclosed" location, possibly for interrogation by CIA operatives. Several guards who spoke to Horton said that they were aware of the existence of the "black" site, and that they had seen Al-Zahrani, Al-Utaybi and Al-Salami removed from their regular unit several hours before their deaths and put in a white van, which was then driven in the direction of the site.

Another detainee at the time, Shaker Aamer, described having been taken out of his cell, transported and then subjected to a vicious interrogation on the same day. He detailed the events for his lawyer, Zachary Katznelson, several weeks later. According to an affidavit that Katznelson subsequently filed in federal district court stated:

On June 9th, 2006, [Aamer] was beaten for two-and-a-half hours straight. Seven naval military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs.

The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out.

As Horton notes, "The fact that Aamer had his airway cut off and a mask put over his face 'so he could not cry out' is alarming. This is the same technique that appears to have been used on the three deceased prisoners."

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JOE HICKMAN, then a sergeant in the National Guard and a model soldier, worked as a guard in 2006. According to Hickman, the unnamed camp was located about a mile north of Camp Delta. It had no guard towers and was surrounded by concertina wire. The compound was not visible from the main road, and the access road was chained off.

But Hickman, who was frequently put in charge of security for all of Camp America, was never briefed about the site. According to Horton:

A friend of Hickman's had nicknamed the compound "Camp No," the idea being that anyone who asked if it existed would be told, "No, it doesn't." He and Davila made a point of stopping by whenever they had the chance; once, Hickman said, he heard a "series of screams" from within the compound.

Hickman also told Horton that although guards were normally required to log every vehicle on base, he and fellow soldiers were instructed to make no records or searches of a white van, nicknamed the "paddy wagon," that guards used to transport prisoners one at a time into and out of Camp Delta:

The van had no rear windows and contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner. Navy drivers, Hickman came to understand, would let the guards know they had a prisoner in the van by saying they were "delivering a pizza."

The paddy wagon was used to transport prisoners to medical facilities and to meetings with their lawyers. But as Hickman monitored the paddy wagon's movements from the guard tower at Camp Delta, he frequently saw it follow an unexpected route. When the van reached the first intersection to the east, instead of heading right--toward the other camps or toward one of the buildings where prisoners could meet with their lawyers--it made a left.

In that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations. One was a beach where soldiers went to swim. The other was Camp No.

The night that the three detainees reportedly committed suicide, Hickman was on duty as the sergeant of the guard for the camp's exterior security force. He saw the paddy wagon parked near Camp 1, where Alpha Block is housed, and later witnessed two guards bringing a prisoner out of Camp 1 and placing him in the wagon. The van drove off in the direction of Camp No.

The guards soon came back, said Hickman, and took another prisoner from Camp 1--and repeated the process with a third prisoner soon after.

At 11:30 p.m., writes Horton, "As [Hickman] watched, the paddy wagon returned to Camp Delta. This time, however, the Navy guards did not get out of the van to enter Camp 1. Instead, they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something."

Hickman and Army Specialist Christopher Penvose, who was scheduled for a midnight shift on duty that night, both told Horton that soon after midnight:

Camp Delta suddenly "lit up"--stadium-style flood lights were turned on, and the camp became the scene of frenzied activity, filling with personnel in and out of uniform. 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.

The next day, according to what several soldiers told Horton, some 50 soldiers and sailors were gathered together at 7 a.m. and told by Army Col. Michael Bumgarner--a commander at the camp--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."

Bumgarner then informed those assembled that the media would be told that the prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells--and that no servicemen should undermine the official version of events. He warned the soldiers and sailors present that their phone and e-mail communications were being monitored.

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WHEN Horton's report in Harper's broke, the military condemned the soldiers who broke their silence.

Bumgarner told the Associated Press in an e-mail that "this blatant misrepresentation of the truth infuriates me." He accused Hickman in particular of "[knowing] nothing about what transpired in Camp 1 or our medical facility. I do, I was there."

But the revelations about possible deaths by abuse at the hands of the U.S. military should shock no one by now.

Dozens of cases of detainee torture and abuse--including practices that led to deaths of prisoners--have been documented by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights at detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. In the case of detainees transported to "black sites," like the rumored Camp No, they exist in a virtual no-man's land, where even the minimal oversight afforded by the Red Cross for prisoners at regular camps like Guantánamo does not exist.

The Bush administration, of course, repeatedly justified the use of extreme interrogation tactics, including exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, physical abuse through "stress" positions, and, of course, waterboarding. But Horton's investigation alleges that the Obama administration has been complicit in the continued cover-up of these detainees' deaths.

On February 2, 2009, less than a month after Obama took office, Mark and Josh Denbeaux--a father-son legal team who had been in contact with Joe Hickman--met in Washington, D.C., with two Justice Department lawyers. Mark Denbeaux--a Seton Hall University law professor, who oversaw the law school investigation into the NCIS report of the detainee deaths--and his son told Justice Department officials that they could provide a list of witnesses who would corroborate Hickman's account.

Hickman then met with Teresa McHenry, head of the criminal division's domestic security section at the Justice Department. Months passed, and although Horton says Justice Department officials met with other soldiers who corroborated Hickman's story and even agreed to travel to Guantánamo to identify the various sites in question, no action was taken.

Finally, in November, McHenry informed Mark Denbeaux that the Justice Department's investigation was being closed. "It was a strange conversation," Denbeaux told Horton. McHenry, he said, explained that "the gist of Sergeant Hickman's information could not be confirmed."

This is part of a pattern with the Obama administration. Since taking office, it has sought to downplay any attempt to prosecute Bush administration officials who set up the legal framework to justify abuse and torture of detainees. In March, for example, Justice Department officials even argued in a California federal court to dismiss a case filed against former Bush administration official John Yoo--the author of memos justifying the use of torture.

Meanwhile, Obama's promise that he would shut down the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay within a year of taking office has come and gone. Instead of closing the detention center and allowing detainees a trial, the administration's Guantánamo Detainee Review Task Force--overseen by Attorney General Eric Holder--announced earlier this month that it would seek to continue holding indefinitely a group of at least 47 detainees currently at Guantánamo.

"If you close Guantánamo but leave individuals detained without charge or trial, you're just making a cosmetic change," Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, told CNN after the announcement.

One year into Obama's administration, it looks like the changes he promised reguarding civil liberties and the rights of detainees have been cosmetic. Unless the administration is forced to change its policy, no one will ever be brought to justice for the deaths of Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani.