Murder at Guantanamo? The Mysterious, Unsolved Death of Mohammad Saleh al Hanashi
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.
The Qala-i-Janghi uprising came only days before a mass prisoner exchange took place with CIA-supported warlord Dostum, which, as New York Times writer James Risen noted recently, resulted in the killing of perhaps as many 2,000 Taliban fighters, who had surrendered at Kunduz. Serious questions have been raised about U.S. involvement or knowledge of the mass killings. Physicians for Human Rights has initiated a campaign to expose the truth about the massacre, having documented the existence of mass graves at Dasht-e-Leili, as well as tampering with the grave sites. According to a U.S. State Department account, witnesses to the killings have been murdered.
General Dostum is a supporter of the Karzai government, and was back in Kabul earlier this month to claim a post in the government's cabinet. According to a McClatchy report, he had to return to Turkey (where he resides periodically in exile) when the U.S. complained about his presence to the Karzai government. The U.S. has been trying to convince both domestic and international critics of its Afghanistan policy that the Afghanistan government can clean up its act, even though President Karzai's claim to legitimacy rests on a phony election that saw over one million fake ballots (about one-quarter of the total votes case, according to a New York Times story). The other major candidate recently pulled out of a run-off election, claiming it couldn't be fairly run.
Al Hanashi's Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) record documents the fact of his November 2001 surrender, his imprisonment and wounding at Qala-i-Janghi, and the fact he was shipped off to Shabraghan Prison, where he spent the next four weeks or so recuperating in the prison hospital. Also in the hospital were survivors of the Northern Alliance transfer from Kunduz, victims of a war crime as thousands were "stuffed into closed metal shipping containers and given no food or water; many suffocated while being trucked to the prison. Other prisoners were killed when guards shot into the containers" (New York Times story). Some of the survivors ended up in Shabraghan Prison, the wounded in its meager hospital facilities.
Did al Hanashi talk with survivors of the Dostum mass killings? Did he hear tales of U.S. Special Operations soldiers or officers involved? Was he killed to keep his silence? We don't know, but there are plenty of other reasons that U.S. authorities may have wanted al Hanashi silenced.
Former Guantanamo inmate, Binyam Mohamed, who knew al Hanashi, believes the 31-year-old Yemeni force-fed hunger striker didn't commit suicide. He told Naomi Wolf recently that reports that al Hanashi was "an upbeat person with no mental problems and would never have considered suicide." As Wolf noted in an article last September:
As their designated representative, al-Hanashi knew which prisoners had claimed to have been tortured or abused, and by whom.
Hence, another theory of possible homicide would be that al Hanashi knew too much about U.S. torture and abuse. A person with some knowledge of the situation at Guantanamo has told me that it's possible that al Hanashi was removed, or allowed to die, simply because he had been too independent, too rebellious and a potential leader inside the prison. Naomi Wolf explained in an article last September how a hunger striker might die from force-feeding.
It is worth considering 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 Guantanamo prisoners have reported being subjected, causes vomiting, diarrhea and deadly dehydration that can stop one's heart.
However, at the time of his death, al Hanashi was said to have already terminated his hunger strike.
Another odd coincidence surrounding his death concerns the transfer of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a "high-value" detainee, who has been at Guantanamo since September 2006, to a New York federal court, only a week after al Hanashi was found not breathing in Guantanamo's psych ward. Ghailani was facing charges concerning his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The link between Ghailani and al Hanashi is significant for one reason only: According to Andy Worthington, Ghailani, who was tortured in the CIA's black prisons, fingered al Hanashi in 2005 as having been at "'the al-Farouq camp [the main training camp for Arabs, associated in the years before 9/11 with Osama bin Laden] in 1998-99 prior to moving on to the front lines in Kabul."
But according to al Hanashi and all other sources, al Hanashi came to Afghanistan only in early 2001. Hence, his 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. Interestingly, as Worthington points out, the other four embassy bombers were not kept in CIA black prisons or tortured, but convicted in a U.S. court for the bombings in May 2001. (Ghailani sits in Metropolitan Correctional Center, still awaiting trial.)
Al Hanashi's death, coming only weeks before he was, after seven long years imprisonment, to meet finally with an attorney, brings to mind the untimely death of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, also at first reported as a suicide, in a prison cell in Libya last May. Al-Libi, too, was supposed to meet soon with people from the outside, according to a report from Newsweek. As is the case with Al-Libi, the al Hanashi death has a strange feel to it. The ACLU has called for an independent investigation into detainee deaths at Guantanamo, including that of Mohammad Saleh al Hanashi.
Perhaps the most telling fact concerning al Hanashi's death is how silent and disinterested the mainstream media, and even some in the blogosphere, seems to be. A leader of the prisoners is reported as having strangled himself. Not long after becoming a spokesperson for the prisoners, al Hanashi is called to see the top officers at the prison, and is never seen again (outside of the psych ward) until he is found dead. By all accounts, he is kept in a part of the prison where there is constant surveillance. Other witnesses have tales to tell, but their stories are kept classified. His death is a possible convenience for any number of state actors, including prison officials, federal prosecutors and those portions of the Obama administration and military concerned with pressing the war in Afghanistan.
Many would like to look away from the crimes done in the name of U.S. "security" at Guantanamo and other "war on terror" prisons in the Bush/Cheney years, and believe that these things are of the past. But increasingly, Americans are waking up to the fact that something very wrong and bad is still occurring regularly at Guantanamo and perhaps other U.S. facilities. The U.S. administration will not even let members of Congress go and interview prisoners in Guantanamo. What do they have to fear?
What will the NCIS investigation reveal about the death of Mohammad Saleh al Hanashi? It's been six months since his death. We deserve some answers now.