Guantánamo Suicides: So Who's Telling the Truth?

Oct 24, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

The grim story of the Guantánamo suicides -- the deaths of three men, Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani in June 2006, and another, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, in May this year -- took another turn last week, when, in the absence of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service's long-awaited report into the deaths, Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the senior lawyer on Guantánamo's management team, declared in an interview that he had personally seen "all four men dead -- each one hanging -- and that the first three men had used sling-style nooses." This is the first time that a representative of the US military has spoken openly about the death of al-Amri, who, McCarthy said, had fashioned "a string type of noose" to kill himself.

The circumstances of the men's deaths have long been contentious. In a press release shortly after the deaths in June 2006 were announced, former detainees, including the nine released British nationals, "poured scorn" on allegations that the deaths were suicides, and claimed that they were "almost certainly accidental killings caused by excessive force" on the part of the guards. A note of caution, however, was provided by British resident Shaker Aamer, who was told by a guard, "They have lost hope in life. They have no hope in their eyes. They are ghosts, and they want to die. No food will keep them alive now. Even with four feeds a day, these men get diarrhea from any protein which goes right through them."

As the NCIS has, inexplicably, yet to conclude its investigation, it's impossible to know at this point what the official conclusion will be. Clearly, the military has stepped back from its initial response, when the prison's commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, attracted worldwide condemnation for claiming that the men's deaths were "an act of asymmetric warfare." As was revealed in documents released by the Pentagon earlier this year, however, which described, in minute and numbing detail, the weights of all the detainees in Guantánamo throughout their detention, all three men had been long-term hunger strikers, and two had been force-fed until days before their deaths.

Al-Zahrani was force-fed several times a week from the start of October 2005, and daily from November 14 to January 18, 2006, during which time his weight fluctuated between 87.5 lbs and 98.5 lbs, and al-Utaybi, who weighed just 89 lbs at various times in September and October 2005, was force-fed several times a week from July to September 2005, and daily from December 24 to February 7, 2006. Crucially, his force-feeding began again on May 30, 2006, and continued until the records ended on June 6, just three days before his death.

Even more disturbing is the chronicle of al-Salami's hunger strike. Although his weight loss did not appear as dramatic -- he weighed a healthy 172 lbs on arrival in Guantánamo -- he lost nearly a third of his body weight at the most severe point of his hunger strike, when his weight dropped to 120 lbs. What was particularly disturbing about his weight report, however, was the revelation that he was force-fed daily from January 11, 2006 until, as with al-Utaybi, the records ended on June 6, just three days before his death.

Given this information, it's unsurprising that those who are suspicious of the administration -- and of Capt. McCarthy's supposed frontline recollections -- might conclude, as the former detainees suggested, that it would not have taken much on the part of the authorities to finish off three men who had persistently aroused the wrath of the administration through their lack of cooperation and their hunger strikes, and who were all critically weak at the time of their deaths.

As for al-Amri's death, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald noted last week that suspicions over the circumstances of his death have been exacerbated by the fact that he died in Camp Five, one of the prison's maximum security blocks. She explained that media tours "emphasize that Camp Five is designed with suicide proofing such as towel hooks that won't bear the weight of a detainee, to prevent him from hanging himself," and that, moreover, "each captive, housed in a single-occupancy cell, is under constant Military Police and electronic monitoring, which means a guard is supposed to look in on him at least every three minutes."

An even more critical approach to al-Amri's death was presented by lawyer Candace Gorman, who reported last week on a visit in July to one of her clients, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi. A Sudanese shopkeeper, who is married to an Afghan woman and has a child that he has not seen for six years, al-Ghizzawi was "visibly shaken" on meeting Gorman, and immediately told her of his "despair" over al-Amri's death. As Gorman described it, "Al-Ghizzawi knew 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. Al-Ghizzawi, now so sick he can barely walk, told me that Amri, too, had been ill and then, suddenly, he was dead." Al-Ghizzawi's conclusion was that al-Amri had actually died of "medical neglect," although she also noted that al-Ghizzawi "had mentioned that Amri had engaged in hunger strikes in the past but had stopped a long time ago because of his health."

While this was correct, one can only wonder what the effect on al-Amri's health had been of his participation in the mass hunger strike in the fall of 2005, when his weight, which had been 150 lbs when he arrived in Guantánamo in February 2002, dropped at one point to just 88.5 lbs, and he was force-fed, often several times a week, from October 2005 to January 2006. Like the three men who died in June 2006, al-Amri was a non-cooperative detainee, who had refused to take part in any of the sham tribunals and administrative reviews at Guantánamo, and it does not take much imagination to conclude that, with his severe and untreated illnesses, he, like the three men the year before, could actually have died not through medical neglect, but as another "accidental killing caused by excessive force" on the part of the guards.

I do not profess to know the truth of the matter one way or the other, but in revisiting the stories of these men's deaths I hope to have demonstrated that, far from clearing the air, Capt. McCarthy's comments have, ironically, served only to revive Guantánamo's most tragic stories, which, presumably, the rest of the administration hoped had been forgotten. Sixteen months after the first deaths, and four months after the additional death that caused such distress to Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, it is surely time for the investigators of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to deliver their verdict.