US Judge Dismisses Hearing into Guantánamo “Suicides”
A US federal Judge dismissed a complaint Wednesday (9/29) brought by the families of two Guantanamo prisoners that alleged that the circumstances surrounding the men’s deaths had been covered up when they were declared suicides by the Pentagon in June of 2006.
The families of Saudi prisoner Yasser al-Zahrani and Salah al-Salami of Yemen were asking US District Judge Ellen Huvelle to reexamine the case in light of new testimony from military personnel working at Guantánamo at the time of the “suicides” that directly contradicts official accounts.
A third prisoner, Mani al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia also died the same night, but his family has not filed a complaint.
At the time of their deaths, Al-Zahrani, 22, and Al-Salami, 33, had been held at Guantánamo without charges for four years at the US naval base. According to the Pentagon, on the night of June 9th, 2006, Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami, and Utaybi were found at approximately the same time hanging from makeshift nooses in their cells. They were then rushed to the camp’s infirmary where they were shortly pronounced dead.
The following day the commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, put the base on lockdown. He ordered almost all reporters on the base to leave and told those already en route to turn back. He officially declared that the deaths were “suicides,” and he went on to say, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”
But new first-hand accounts from soldiers on duty at the base on the night of June 9th suggest that Admiral Harris’ and the Pentagon’s version of events is false and that the men may have actually died as the result of torture at a site off base known as “Camp No.” According to the petition, this site was called Camp No because if soldiers were asked if it existed the were supposed to say no.
Army officer Joe Hickman says that he was supposed to log every vehicle that exited or entered the base. Even when Senator John McCain came to visit the base Hickman ensured that he was properly logged in and out. However, there was one windowless paddy wagon that was sometimes used to transport prisoners that he was not supposed to keep any log of. He and other soldiers say that they saw this van pick up three prisoners and drive them to Camp No on the evening of June 9th.
When the van returned to base later it did not return the prisoners to their cells, instead it backed up to the infirmary. A medical officer told Hickman they had been sent to the infirmary, “because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised,” the petition said.
When Hickman heard the official cause of death was suicide by hanging the next day he talked with the other guards who would have had to of seen if any bodies had been transported from the cells to the infirmary, but no one had seen any bodies being moved.
The families of Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami demanded an independent autopsy, but when the bodies arrived they had already had all of their vital organs surrounding their throats removed making it impossible to 100% verify the cause of death.The medical examiners they had hired made requests for the organs to be sent from Guantánamo, but their requests were ignored.
In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Huvelle did not really address any of these issues raised in the petition. Instead, she cited a decision by a federal appeals court in Washington stating that conditions at Guantánamo should not be investigated by the courts and should remain the purview of Congress alone due to national security concerns.
In light of this ruling, it is unlikely that all of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami, and al-Utaybi will ever be discovered. The Obama Administration has already made it clear that it not interested in looking backwards to investigate potential war crimes and there is no reason to think that Congress would investigate the Pentagon’s official account.
The whole incident and yesterday’s ruling in particular serve as a stark reminder of Obama’s broken promise to close Guantánamo within one year of taking office. Even if Obama does end up closing Guantánamo down, it is difficult not to wonder how much of its true history will remain forever unknown?