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Guantanamo Detainee Deaths

Written by Subject: Torture
Guantanamo Detainee Deaths - by Stephen Lendman

Under the direction of Professor Mark Denbeaux, Seton Hall University School of Law's Center for Policy & Research (CP&R) published 15 "GTMO Reports," including profiles of detainees held, allegations against them, and discrepancies in government accounts explaining reasons for reported deaths.

An earlier report analyzed unclassified government data (obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests) based on evidentiary summaries of 2004 military hearings on whether 517 detainees held at the time were "enemy combatants." Most were non-belligerents. In fact, a shocking 95% were seized randomly by bounty hunters, then sold to US forces for $5,000 per claimed Taliban and $25,000 for supposed Al Qaeda members. At least 20 were children, some as young as 13.

The latest report titled, "Death in Camp Delta," covers three simultaneous detainee deaths on June 9, 2006 in the maximum security Alpha Block. Yassar Talal Al Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki Al Habardi Al Tabi, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed were found dead shortly after midnight on June 10.

At first, the Pentagon's said they were found hanging in their cells as part of an anti-American "asymmetrical warfare conspiracy" based on medical personnel saying a short written note on each body indicated a coordinated effort to rebel against confinement as martyrs as well as longer confirming statements in their cells. At the same time, the media was shut out and lawyers prevented from visiting clients to minimize the incident and suppress truths.

CP&R's report found "dramatic flaws in the government's investigation (and) raise(s) serious questions about the security of the Camp (and) derelictions of duty by officials of multiple defense and intelligence agencies" who let them die, more likely killed them, then whitewashed the investigation to suppress it.

According to official autopsies, the men were hanging unobserved for at least two hours, despite constant surveillance by five guards responsible for 28 inmates in a lit cell block monitored by video cameras. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) require each detainee be observed at least once every 10 minutes. They weren't, yet no guards were disciplined in spite of evidence of "a camp in total disarray."

In August 2008, over two years later, investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) released "a heavily redacted report (concluding) that the detainees had hanged themselves in their cells and that (another) detainee, while walking the corridors that night had announced, 'tonight's the night.' "

Still key questions are unanswered, including:

-- the time and exact means of death;

-- how the dead men braided a noose using torn up sheets and/or clothing unobserved and made mannequins of themselves to look like asleep bodies in bed;

-- hung sheets to obstruct viewing into their cells;

-- stuffed rags down their throats to choke;

-- tied their hands and feet together;

-- hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall or ceiling;

-- climbed on a sink, placed the noose around their necks, released their weight, and were strangled; and

-- did all this unobserved for two or more hours.

In addition, one man was scheduled for release in 19 days. Now he's dead so for sure he was murdered because dead men tell no tales, and maybe he had plenty to say.

CP&R's report "examines the investigation, not to determine what happened that night, but rather to assess why an investigation into three deaths could have failed to address significant issues."

It also covers suspicions that something very sinister was involved. Consider the following:

-- the Pentagon initially suppressed the fact that the men were dead for two or more hours before discovery;

-- how they could have hung in their cells unobserved;

-- why wasn't required constant supervision done - by guards and video camera monitoring;

-- how did all three follow precisely the same procedure, even more surprising as they were on the same cell block less than 72 hours with occupied and unoccupied cells between them - under constant supervision so they couldn't have cooperatively planned anything, let alone identical suicides;

-- why weren't guards ordered to make sworn statements about the incident;

-- why didn't the government determine which guards were on duty that night;

-- why was no explanation given why guards, who brought the bodies to medics, didn't tell them what happened, and why didn't medics ask;

-- why was no one disciplined;

-- why weren't cell block guards, tower guards, and medics "systematically interviewed" about the incident; and

-- why wasn't relevant, easily accessible information reviewed and reported, including from:

-- audio and video recordings;

-- "Pass-On" books in which each shift provides information to the next one;

-- the Detainee Information Management System (DIMS) records of all occurrences; and

-- Serious Incident Reports that include suicide attempts.

Why was an alleged conspiracy to commit simultaneous suicides not fully investigated? Why not after another detainee allegedly said "tonight's the night" wasn't security tighter than usual? Why weren't all material witnesses questioned? Why so much secrecy and cover up unless to suppress disturbing truths?

At issue is that three men died with "little to no explanation of how this could have occurred in a maximum security facility." Investigators didn't clarify what happened or answer basic questions as to "who, what, where, when, why, and how Al Zahrani, Al Tabi, and Ahmed died."

Many questions remain. No detainee cries were heard nor unusual activity to indicate a suicide attempt. On duty guards, other military personnel, and various detainee statements revealed inconsistencies and unanswered questions. CP&R drew no conclusions. It evaluated known facts and reported critical omissions to let others make their own assessments.

Various investigative files were analyzed - from the DOD, NCIS, the Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the Staff Judge Advocate (SJA), Armed Forces Medical Examiner autopsies, and FOIA obtained documents, in spite of names, dates, and other relevant facts on most pages completely redacted.

"The report provides an in-depth look at the SOPs of Camp Delta....It then scrutinizes the (detainee) deaths and the subsequent autopsies. Next the report analyzes the (investigative) findings....Finally, it points out the defects in the investigation" that smack of cover up to suppress the truth.

NCIS Investigation

NCIS is the "primary law enforcement and counterintelligence arm of the United States Department of the Navy" with three objectives - prevent terrorism, protect secrets, and reduce crime.

It evaluated autopsy reports, and conducted interviews with guards, officers on duty, escort control, guards from other cell blocks, medical personnel, and 16 Alpha Block detainees. Its findings concluded that the three detainees committed suicide by hanging.

CITF Report

Established in 2002, it includes members from all US armed services branches to investigate detainees captured in the "war on terrorism" and build criminal cases against them. It's a Joint Task Force that includes members from the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID), NCIS, and Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). About half of its findings were redacted, and its documents revealed no final conclusions.


It's one of DOD's global commands and the umbrella unit for JTF-GITMO. Its material supplements NCIS and CITF files, specifically documents found in detainees' cells, including purported suicide notes and "uncertified translations." It drew no conclusions regarding the information collected and examined during its investigative involvement.

The SJA Report

Its "informal investigation" focused on whether specific SOP violations occurred on June 9 and 10, and if so, whether they contributed to aiding the detainee deaths. It found six violations, redacted as "not insignificant" that may or may not have contributed to the detainees' deaths.

Camp Delta

Operating as one of three Guantanamo detention facilities, it's governed by SOPs that extensively monitor detainees from the moment they arrive with guard instructions to maintain a "continuous presence on the blocks" by conducting frequent headcounts, cell searches, and various other security measures.

Containing four camps, numbered 1 through 4, each with 10 cell blocks, Alpha Block is in Camp 1 with 48 cells, all clearly visible, aligned in two rows facing each other along a corridor called a tier. It's a maximum security facility for detainees separated for either behavioral or intelligence purposes, each in a separate cell measuring six feet, eight inches by eight feet with a sink, toilet, and cot. On each cell door is a "bean hole" or small window-like opening through which guards deliver meals and perform shackling and medical checks. A small rear window lets in some natural light.

Camp 1 is under constant surveillance by cell block guards and others in towers able to look directly into cells to monitor all movement throughout the facility. Sally Ports control access to all persons entering and exiting the camp. The Detention Operations Center (DOC) headquarters oversees all detention and security operations for complete control.

Chain of Command

SOPs define chain of command responsibilities, headed by the Commander of Joint Detention Operations Group (CJDOG) in charge of camp operations. The on-duty Commanding Officer (CO) is in charge of Camp Delta and reports to the CJDOG.

All movement is tightly secured, so when detainees are removed from cells, SOPs require they be escorted by guards following strict procedures, including the use of three-piece restraints to prevent escape. Surveillance is constant and detainees are subjected to an "intense intelligence-gathering operation" that involves horrific torture and abuse for extended periods. It wasn't part of CP&R's report, but it's relevant to what happened.

An Immediate Response Force (IRF) five-member team is also used for forced cell extractions and in cases of "self-harm incidents." Video monitoring documents everything.

Compliance with SOPs is central to maintaining camp security. Guard violations may lead to disciplinary action.

Estimated Time of Death

Medical examiners said the detainees were dead and hanging in their cells for an extended time without being noticed - "at least a couple of hours prior to the discovery." However body descriptions showed they were deceased longer.

The government's SJA Report includes Dr. Dean Hawley's evaluation, an Indiana University Pathology Professor, expert in the field of strangulation and asphyxiation deaths. Ligature abrasions (rope burns) on the bodies indicate they were hanging post-mortem for several hours. Their advanced rigor mortis proved they were dead much longer than two hours, "under continuous guard presence." Their bodies were also "cold to the touch" indicating they were hanging a long time, likely several hours.

The investigations were whitewashed with the NCIS, CITF, and SJA unanimously pronouncing the three deaths suicides. Yet until the bodies were discovered, nothing unusual was observed by guards or other detainees although in past self-harm incidents:

"other detainees (made) it urgently and loudly known that (an inmate) was carrying out some type of self-harm. Despite their ability to see into other cells, no detainee alerted the guards to any (incidents) that night, nor did the guards, who were on high alert, notice anything unusual...."

Colonel Bumgarner and Admiral Harris Statements

Blame the victims was part of the coverup. In a June 9 Fox News interview, Colonel Bumgarner (Camp Delta Joint Detention Group commander) told host Bill O'Reilly than he believed an Al Qaeda cell was operating in the camp, and said:

"Make no mistake....they will cut your throat in a heartbeat. Make no mistake about it...."

In an 11-page statement, he added that the detainees were becoming more violent, yet how could they alone in cells, and when outside painfully shackled hands and feet.

In another media statement, camp commander Admiral Harris called the suicides an act of coordinated "asymmetric warfare" against America, "not an act of desperation." He added that they were:

"tied to a mystical belief at Guantanamo that three detainees must die at the camp for all the detainees to be released....They are smart. They are creative. They are committed. They have no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own....I believe this was not an act of desperation, but rather an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

According to Colleen Graffy, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, the incident was a "good PR move to draw attention."

Evidence Without Findings, Findings Without Evidence

"The investigations contain many pieces of evidence that are never explained or explored further," suggesting coverup. In addition:

"The government reported that the detainees committed suicide as part of a conspiracy," yet "fail(s) to present any (supporting) evidence," suggesting there's none. "In fact, all (known) evidence is inconsistent with the conclusion that the detainees conspired."

Reported suicide notes on detainees' bodies and in their cells had similar, ambiguous wording with investigators saying "there is not explicit discussion of suicide in the handwritten portion" of the longer note in one cell.

No evidence corroborates the claim that another detainee walked through the cell block on June 9 saying "tonight's the night." In fact, detainees are prohibited from walking through the corridors of a maximum security facility or communicating with each other.

Yet NCIS' Statement of Findings said "there was a growing concern that someone within the Camp Delta population was directing detainees to commit suicide." But investigative files omit mentioning who did it, and no evidence shows steps taken to identify the supposed offender or enhance security to stop him.

"There are no documents, statements, video surveillances, log-book notes, DIMS reports, or other records that suggest a coordinated act. No guard was questioned about how the detainees could have communicated to conspire or coordinate their elaborate acts while under constant surveillance....The investigation fails to mention that Al Tabi was cleared for transfer to his native Saudi Arabia and scheduled to leave Guantanamo before the end of the month."

Also, he'd only been in Alpha Block 72 hours, hardly enough time to conspire or for any reason, given his impending release. In addition, the three men were on the same cell block side, separated by vacant and occupied cells supervised by five guards every 10 minutes and constant video monitoring.

"The investigative file contains no evidence of either oral or written communications between the three detainees or any others or any evidence to show how the three would be able to coordinate all the necessary preparations for committing suicide simultaneously."

In addition, guard interviews were "superficial," containing little information on what each saw and did before discovering the bodies. Other interviews were just as faulty, sketchy, and delayed until days after the incident. "There was no systematic attempt" to obtain detained accounts of what everyone knew and could relate. Questions weren't asked, specifically:

-- if detainees were hanging in their cells for over two hours, why didn't guards see and report it;

-- if sheets and blankets were hung in cells to obscure vision inside, why weren't they immediately removed;

-- if guards saw detainees braiding noses, why didn't they stop them;

-- how could materials have been gotten to make mannequins asleep in their beds look life-life enough to fool guards; and

-- if guards saw notes passed between detainees or heard them communicate, why didn't they immediately halt them.

Six days after the incident, four guards were told that they were suspected of making false statements and/or not obeying direct orders, yet no disciplinary action was taken. In addition, evidence was missing, including:

-- "Sworn statements on required forms

-- Serious Incident Reports

-- Surveillance video

-- Audio recordings

-- Duty roster

-- Detainee transfer book

-- Pass-on book

-- DIMS system information

-- Statements from additional witnesses, including tower guards," able to view inside all cells easily; and

-- interviews with other Detainee Operations Center personnel.

In addition:

"The way in which the investigative files are presented makes it difficult to understand how the investigation was conducted. It produced more than 1,700 pages of interviews and information regarding the events of June 9 and 10, but the evidence obtained as presented is virtually impenetrable. Pages are missing, paragraphs are redacted, and documents with information are disorganized, making it difficult to review any of the evidence obtained...."

The investigation took three months, but wasn't released until April 28, 2009, 18 months later.

CP&R concluded that the men "died under questionable circumstances," with the investigation producing "more questions than answers." Without proper investigation, it's impossible to determine the deaths' true cause, suggesting they were by means other than reported to suppress the truth. It wouldn't be the first time.

Known Murders in US Torture-Prisons

In his 2007 book, "The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison," British historian Andy Worthington reviewed them all, who they are, the majority being non-belligerents, and the use of torture, in some cases harsh enough to kill.

Chapter 14 of his book recounted "Murders in Bagram," America's notorious Afghanistan torture-prison, now undergoing a $60 million expansion to hold 1,100 more prisoners besides the 600 or more now there.

Besides the most unspeakable tortures, he detailed at least 10 known murders, naming names and explaining that their treatment, in fact, killed them.

Mullah Habibullah for one, called "uncooperative," placed in isolation, shackled by his wrists to the wire ceiling, then beaten until after four days he was coughing and complaining of chest pains. The violence still continued and killed him.

Dilawar was a taxi driver, randomly seized and imprisoned. Also called non-compliant, he apparently spat on one soldier who beat him brutally for two days and killed him.

Former UK prisoner, Moazzam Begg (now freed) reported witnessing one death in late 2002, and with two other detainees another in July, never investigated. They said a young Afghan man was fine on arrival, "and the next thing they were carrying him out on a stretcher."

Begg spent 10 months at Bagram, wrote a book titled "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar," in which he explained that a Kandahar guard he knew told him about a murder caused by "hitting (a) detainee so hard that he felt he had fractured something," and that another guard used "Thai-style elbow-and-knee techniques." Still another one confirmed the murder, then later denied it.

A UK Bargram detainee now released, Omar Deghayes, confirmed witnessing two murders while there, including "a prisoner shot dead after he had gone to the aid of an inmate who was being beaten and kicked by the guards," and another prisoner beaten to death.

These and others at Bargram, Guantanamo, and other US torture-prisons are unreported or called suicides or naturally occurring deaths. Strong evidence confirms otherwise and suggests the three Guantanamo detainees didn't commit suicide. They were murdered in cold blood.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at

Also visit his blog site at and listen to the Lendman News Hour on Monday - Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.