Earlier this month, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, responded to an inquiry by this reporter regarding new information on the deaths of two Guantanamo prisoners, Abdul Rahman Al Amri and Mohammad Salih Al Hanashi.
According to the Department of Defense (DoD), both prisoners died of suicide in 2007 and 2009, respectively. But new details surrounding their deaths, first reported by Truthout March 1, challenged government accounts concerning what happened. The new information was drawn from an examination of the autopsy reports for the prisoners and other findings pertaining to their conditions of confinement at Guantanamo, including statements from detainees and their attorneys.
The autopsy reports revealed that one of the detainees, Saudi national Abdul Al Amri, had been found hanging with his hands tied behind his back, and had been tested after his death for the presence of the controversial drug mefloquine (Lariam). Mefloquine can cause neurotoxic and serious psychiatric side effects, including psychosis, in some users.
In the case of Mohammad Al Hanashi, the autopsy examiners stated that they had never seen the actual device (or ligature) by which he was said to have strangled himself to death. The ligature was reportedly made from an elastic underwear band from a pair of white briefs. But news reports indicate that this was not the type of underwear in use at Guantanamo at this time.
There was also some question as to whether Al Hanashi had been on suicide watch at the time of his death, as he was not found wearing the requisite "suicide smock" typically used on actively suicidal prisoners, despite the fact he had made five suicide attempts in the four weeks prior to his death.
In an email to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Professor Juan Mendez, other officials at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and this author, Heynes said he had heard about the March 1 Truthout article "through several avenues during the week."
Heynes wrote, "We are looking into this matter, and I have received provisional feedback, thank you for bringing it to my attention."
Asked if the DoD had been in contact with Heyns' office on this issue, or had any other comment on the earlier Truthout article about the two Guantanamo detainee deaths, DoD Spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told Truthout, "Our ongoing relationships with the various concerned offices of the United Nations are positive, open, and constructive."
"JTF [Joint Task Force] Guantanamo conducts safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission and those ordered released by a court. We continually evaluate these procedures to ensure that the care, safety, and security of all concerned at the JTF is a top priority," Breasseale said.
Autopsy Specialist Looks at the Reports
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science and currently clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, agreed to examine the autopsy reports for Truthout. In a telephone interview, Dr. Wecht said there was nothing in the autopsy reports themselves to challenge the official ruling of suicide. He noted that the autopsy reports "seemed thorough, detailed," and there was nothing in the reports to "suggest a struggle or someone incapacitated or immobilized."
This was consistent with the examination of another medical expert, Dr. Steven Miles, who said essentially the same thing about Al Hanashi's suicide report.
As for the fact that Al Amri's hands reportedly had been tied behind his back, Dr. Wecht indicated this is something some suicide attempters do in an effort to forestall any last-second frenzied attempts to stop one's own hanging.
However, Dr. Wecht also stated that there was "no way to rule out the possibility of foul play." He indicated that the Truthout investigation had raised questions that needed follow-up investigation, for instance, as to whether or not standard procedures surrounding surveillance of the detainees, or the allowance of razors were followed. Al Amri supposedly used a razor to cut up his bed sheets into the ligature used in his suicide, but Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedures do not allow prisoners to possess a razor, and even temporary access to razors is strictly monitored.
In particular, Dr. Wecht criticized the military's actions after Al Hanashi's death for "bad procedure in not turning over the ligature to the [autopsy] examiners." This was not standard autopsy procedure. "Everybody knows that," Wecht told Truthout. Instead, investigators from the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) had given autopsy examiners material they said was similar to what Al Hanashi purportedly used to strangle himself.
Dr. Wecht also indicated that questions over the type of underwear used by Al Hanashi, and the toxicology report on Al Amri, which had noted the testing for mefloquine, "should be addressed."
More Questions on Detainee Deaths
While the questions surrounding the deaths of the two detainees were covered extensively in the earlier Truthout article, new questions and evidence continue to come to light.
One such instance concerns Al Amri's health status, raising further questions of what information the autopsy examiners were given, or the honesty of what they reported. According to Al Amri's autopsy report, "No significant natural diseases or pre-existing conditions are identified within the limitations of this examination."
But according to an October 2007 article by detainee attorney Candace Gorman, one of her clients, Guantanamo detainee Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi told her the previous July "that Amri had been suffering from Hepatitis B and tuberculosis, the same two conditions from which he himself suffers. Like al-Ghizzawi, Amri had not been treated for his illnesses."
Gorman also indicated that Al Amri had earlier stopped hunger striking out of concern for his health. Both Al Amri and Al Hanashi and all of the 2006 purported suicides had been hunger strikers. Al Amri and Al Hanashi had weighed at or under 90 pounds and been force fed. Neither prisoner had ever met with an attorney.
Could lack of treatment for his health conditions have led Al Amri to commit suicide? Without an independent investigation, we will probably never know.
Video and Other Forms of Surveillance
One of the outstanding irregularities surrounding the government narrative of the two men's death has to do with procedures by which guards kept track of detainee activities. The March 1 Truthout article stated, "Both Al Amri, who was housed in isolation at Guantanamo's high-security Camp 5, and Al Hanashi, who was resident at the prison's Behavioral Health Unit, were supposed to be under constant video surveillance, and according to camp officials, someone was supposed to be checking on them every three to five minutes."
While documentary evidence is lacking that Al Amri was under such video surveillance, guards are under orders to visually check on the detainees every three minutes or so. Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt told Truthout in November 2009 that no Guantanamo detainee goes more than "three minutes" without being checked, one way or another.
However, DoD photographs of a typical cell in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU), where Al Hanashi was held until his death, clearly show camera placements, both over the door and at the far end of the small cell, validating numerous reports that video surveillance of BHU prisoners was constant.
The question remains how a prisoner could fashion a suicide device, including the cutting of clothing and/or bed sheets, while
under constant or near-constant surveillance, including by video cameras.
A State Department Cable
While the substance of any discussions between the UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns and the DoD is not known (the former did not reply to further requests for information about their inquiries), some sense of what such communications might involve can be derived from an examination of one of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks last year.
An unclassified cable from the US Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, dated July 10, 2007, to the US Secretary of State, concerned a direct message to US authorities from Philip Alston, then-UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, predecessor to the position Christof Heyns now holds. The message described lingering questions regarding the June 2006 death of Guantanamo detainee, Yemeni citizen Ahmed Ali Abdullah.
Abdullah was one of three detainees purportedly found dead in their cells on June 9, 2006. The DoD labeled all three men suicides, while later investigations by Harper's writer Scott Horton and a team of legal investigators at Seton Hall's School of Law's Center for Policy and Research found ample reason to question that verdict.
Alston was writing to remind US authorities that Abdullah's family did not believe the official story of suicide. They had "asked a Geneva-based non governmental organisation, Alkarama for Human Rights, to assist with organising an autopsy." But the US had not cooperated with the independent autopsy investigation, refusing "to share the results of its investigation into the death with a US-based law firm retained by them or with any of the other entities who have requested information...." Nor had US authorities returned key anatomical evidence for the new autopsy.
In particular, Abdullah's family noted they did not believe the detainee had committed suicide because of "the tight surveillance of the cells, with permanent video-surveillance and guards passing in front of each cell every two to five minutes, would make a suicide by hanging impossible in the absence of collusion by the guards."
They also cited the impossibility "for a detainee to hang himself in the cell, as there is (again according to reports of other former detainees) absolutely no place a detainee could fix the ligature used to hang himself."
Unknown to Abdullah's family or Alston or earlier investigations into the June 2006 "suicides," and germane to the death by "suicide" of Al Amri, in 2002, Guantanamo authorities had changed the bed sheets used at the facility to a "non-tear" type used by the federal prisons, making it much harder if not impossible to fashion sheets into ropes and nooses. (See PDF summarized witness statement, pg. 7, by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Mike Dunleavy.)
Writing on behalf of his role as UN Special Rapporteur, Alston told US authorities that they had an obligation to follow international law in regards to the investigation of the case. Citing UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, Alston told the State Department, "In order to overcome the presumption of State responsibility for a death in custody, there must be a 'thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions, including cases where complaints by relatives or other reliable reports suggest unnatural death in the above circumstances.'"
Alston went further, stating, "I would like to add that even the most 'thorough, prompt and impartial investigation' of a custodial death will not satisfy your Excellency's Government's obligations under international law if its results are not shared with the family of the victim and subjected to public scrutiny." (Emphasis added.)
The NCIS investigations into the deaths of Al Amri and Al Hanashi remain classified. The investigations into the 2006 deaths were declassified and can be accessed at a DoD web site, though they remain in part redacted.
Truthout has filed Freedom Of Information Act requests for the NCIS investigations into both Al Amri and Al Hanahsi's deaths. The Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry, which, in June 2007, reportedly promised to conduct an independent autopsy on Al Amri, did not return requests for comment.
By promising in 2007 to convene a medical investigation into Al Amri's death, the Saudis were responding to requests from Al Amri's family, who, like Abdullah's family, did not believe their relative could commit suicide. According to Al Amri's brother, in a statement at odds with the conclusion of the autopsy done by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), "We did not find any marks on his body which would hint that he committed suicide."
In a footnote to this story, the AFIP, which conducted all the detainee autopsies at Guantanamo, was shut down by DoD last September, a presumed victim of government cost cutting.