Is the Obama Administration Covering Up Three Murders at Guantanamo?
NEW YORK, Jan 22 (IPS) -- Is the administration of President Barack Obama concealing evidence suggesting that three suicides at Guantanamo Bay were not suicides at all?
That is a question human rights groups, legal experts and national security specialists are pondering on the heels of an article in Harper's Magazine by Scott Horton presenting whistleblower testimony suggesting that the three prisoners likely suffered particularly abusive interrogations prior to their deaths, which were then passed off as suicides by the George W. Bush administration.
Horton presents new evidence from then-Sergeant Joe Hickman, a whistleblower formerly stationed in Guantánamo, that the three dead prisoners were taken to a remote corner of the base in the hours before they died.
There they were tortured, Guantanamo officials came up with the suicide cover, and the Bush administration capitalized on the panic by ordering further abuse of prisoners, and by spreading self-serving and poisonous lies about the dead men, adding to their families’ distress, Horton says.
He says that President Obama’s Justice Department has refused to fully investigate the incident.
Clara Gutteridge, who is a secret prisons investigator for the London-based legal advocacy group Reprieve, said, "Scott Horton's investigation indicates that, as usual, Guantánamo's traumatised prisoners are telling the truth about their treatment."
"According to our clients, in addition to the secret CIA facility -- and another house on the base where some prisoners were taken to be held in solitary confinement -- there was also a black site run by U.S. Marines on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base," he said.
"It was located outside the main prison, and was known amongst the prisoners as a place where people were taken to be 'broken.' When will these prisoner's testimonies finally be taken seriously? And when will the perpetrators of these terrible crimes finally face justice?" Gutteridge asked.
George Brent Mickum IV, an attorney who is currently handling a number of Guantanamo cases, told IPS, "There have been 100 deaths of detainees since 2006. Thirty-six of these have been declared homicides. Only one case has ever been prosecuted. The probable reason: The CIA is responsible for these deaths."
According to the U.S. Navy, Gitmo detainees Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani were found hanged in their cells on Jun. 9, 2006. The U.S. military initially described their deaths as ”asymmetrical warfare” against the United States, before finally declaring that the deaths were suicides that the inmates coordinated among themselves.
But a report from Seton Hall University Law School, released last fall, cast doubt on almost every element of the US military’s story. It questioned, for example, how it would have been possible for the three detainees to have stuffed rags down their throats and then, while choking, managed to raise themselves up to a noose and hang themselves.
The report stated: "There is no explanation of how each of the detainees, much less all three, could have done the following: braided a noose by tearing up his sheets and/or clothing, made a mannequin of himself so it would appear to the guards he was asleep in his cell, hung sheets to block vision into the cell -- a violation of Standard Operating Procedures, tied his feet together, tied his hands together, hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling, climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around his neck and released his weight to result in death by strangulation, hanged until dead and hung for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards."
Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman told Harper's Magazine that he was made aware of the existence of a secret detention center at Guantanamo, nicknamed by some of the guards "Camp No," because "No, it doesn't exist."
According to Hickman, it was generally believed among camp guards that the facility was used by the CIA.
Hickman also said there was a van on site, referred to as the "paddy wagon," which was allowed to come in and out of the main detention area without going through the usual inspection.
On the night of the three detainees’ deaths, Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon leave the area where the three were being detained and head off in the direction of Camp No. The paddy wagon, which can carry only one prisoner at a time in a cage in the back, reportedly made the trip three times.
Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon return and go directly to the medical center. Shortly after, a senior non-commissioned officer, whose name Hickman didn't know, ordered him to convey a code word to a petty officer. When he did, the petty officer ran off in a panic.
Both Hickman and Specialist Tony Davila told Harper's that they had been told, initially, that three men died as a result of having rags stuffed down their throats.
And in a truly strange turn of events, the whistleblowers say that -- even though by the next morning it had become "common knowledge" that the men had died of suicide by stuffing rags down their own throats -- the camp commander, Col. Michael Bumgarner, told the guards that the media would "report something different."
According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience 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. This was a surprise to no one -- even servicemen who had not worked the night before had heard about the rags.
But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report.
He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes. (Bumgarner has not responded to requests for comment.)
Scott Horton of Harper's reports: "The presence of a black site at Guantánamo has long been a subject of speculation among lawyers and human-rights activists, and the experience of Sergeant Hickman and other Guantánamo guards compels us to ask whether the three prisoners who died on Jun. 9 were being interrogated by the CIA, and whether their deaths resulted from the grueling techniques the Justice Department had approved for the agency’s use -- or from other tortures lacking that sanction."
Two of the dead prisoners were plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the deceased and their families, Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld.
CCR Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, lead counsel in the civil case surrounding the deaths, which charges the government and 24 federal officials with responsibility for the abuse and wrongful death of the deceased, said, "President Obama's Department of Justice has tried to keep our case out of the courts, beyond the reach of the legal system and any oversight or accountability."
"It is critical that the full story of how our clients died and who was responsible be brought to light in open court before an impartial judge. Serious gaps and questions remain, more than three years after the deaths," Kebriaei said.