Murder at Guantanamo? The Mysterious, Unsolved Death of Mohammad Saleh al Hanashi
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With recent news reports centering on Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that some Guantanamo detainees would be prosecuted in federal court and revamped, albeit flawed military commissions, important stories from previous months related to the prison facility continue to sink ever deeper into the swamp of our collective amnesia.
One example is the death that occurred at Guantanamo last June of Yemeni prisoner Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh al Hanashi. Al Hanashi's death was reported as an "apparent suicide," and about four weeks later, Mike Melia of The Associated Press reported that Yemeni officials claimed Al Hanashi died of "asphyxiation." The article vaguely notes that self-strangulation may have been the cause of death.
While self-strangulation is rare, it is possible. However, news reports point out that the prisoner was kept under 24/7 observation (possibly on video) in the Guantanamo prison psychiatric ward. Furthermore, psychiatric patients on this ward are said to be sedated. How could this "suicide" happen? The death is being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which doesn't inspire trust, as recent revelations have shown it to be capable of some extremely bad behavior on some of its investigations.
But the suicide story has about worn out, as a November 15 Huffington Post article by journalist Naomi Wolf -- who has followed the al Hanashi story -- reports that Guantanamo spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt has confirmed that "the status of the investigation into Mr al-Hanashi's death ... is now a Naval criminal investigation -- meaning that he is no longer considered a suicide but a victim of a murder or a negligent homicide."
On January 17, 2009, al Hanashi was summoned to meet with top Guantanamo commander, Rear Adm. David Thomas, and Army Col. Bruce Vargo, commander of the joint detention group. Afterwards, and with no explanation, al Hanashi never returned to the general prison population and ended up in the prison's psychiatric ward, where he was found dead some months later. No other details are known, though an AP story notes the following (emphasis added):
Attorney Elizabeth Gilson, who represents another detainee at the psychiatric ward, said she heard details about the suicide from her client but cannot divulge them because the information is classified. She described the force-feeding as "abusive and inhumane."
Several journalists, including Naomi Wolf, were on a tour of Guantanamo at the time of al Hanashi's death. They were not allowed to report on the death until after they had left the base.
Who was Mohammad Saleh al Hanashi?
Al Hanashi was no ordinary prisoner. He was a spokesman for the other prisoners, who had selected him last year to be their representative. Like the other four prisoners who have died of supposed suicide at Guantanamo, al Hanashi was a long-term hunger striker. While al Hanashi had been on hunger strike until at least last May, and his weight had fallen under 90 pounds, he was supposed to finally be getting a chance to meet with an attorney.
Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh al Hanashi was a Taliban supporter, who -- according to Guantanamo expert Andy Worthington -- "was one of around 50 prisoners at Guantanamo who had survived a massacre at Qala-i-Janghi, a fort in northern Afghanistan, at the end of November 2001, when, after the surrender of the city of Kunduz, several hundred foreign fighters surrendered to General Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, in the mistaken belief that they would be allowed to return home." This was the same prison revolt and subsequent massacre by U.S., British and Northern Alliance forces where John Walker Lind was also captured and later tortured by U.S. operatives.