December 9, 2009

A Difficult Case for Suicide

In June 2006, three inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - Yassar Talal al Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki al Habardi al Tabi, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed  -  were discovered in their cells, dead.  Each had either hanged themselves or been hanged.  Camp commander Admiral Harry Harris made it clear that he believed it was the former, saying at the time:
They are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.
Without conducting an autopsy, the military issued a ruling of suicide for all three men, but took more than two years to do so.  Enough questions surrounded the incident, however, that Seton Hall University's Center for Policy & Research (CPR) conducted a lengthy investigation of its own. The CPR report was issued a few days ago, and its contents are profoundly disturbing:
Questions immediately arose about how three detainees, under constant supervision, were able to conspire effectively to commit coordinated suicides. The military soon announced that it was conducting an investigation, but the results were not published until more than two years later. In August 2008 a heavily redacted report of the investigation concluded that the detainees had hanged themselves in their cells and that one detainee, while walking the corridors that night, had announced, “tonight’s the night.”

The investigation, however, leaves many unanswered questions. Three years later it is still unclear how such coordinated conduct could have occurred, much less how heavily-supervised detainees could have been dead for more than two hours before they were discovered.  Both the time and exact manner of the deaths remain uncertain, and the presence of rags stuffed in the detainees‘ throats is unexplained. Negligence of the guards seems to have been ruled out by the absence of any disciplinary action by any military personnel. Although some of the guards were formally warned that their original statements were suspected to be false or that they were suspected of failing to follow direct orders, no guard was ultimately charged with either making a false statement or being derelict in his duty.

The following 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. Further, the report raises serious questions that must be addressed to dispose of rumors that have circulated - rumors that the cause of the deaths was more sinister than “asymmetrical warfare.”

This report reveals the following facts:
  • The original military press releases did not report that the detainees had been dead for more than two hours when they were discovered, nor that rigor mortis had set in by the time of discovery.
  • There is no explanation of how three bodies could have hung in cells for at least two hours while the cells were under constant supervision, both by video camera and by guards continually walking the corridors guarding only 28 detainees.
  • 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.
  • There is no indication that the medics observed anything unusual on the cell block at the time that the detainees were hanging dead in their cells.
  • The initial military press releases did not report that, when the detainees‘ bodies arrived at the clinic, it was determined that each had a rag obstructing his throat.
  • There is no explanation of how the supposed acts of “asymmetrical warfare” could have been coordinated by the three detainees, who had been on the same cell block fewer than 72 hours with occupied and unoccupied cells between them and under constant supervision.
  • There is no explanation of why the Alpha Block guards were advised that they were suspected of making false statements or failing to obey direct orders.
  • There is no explanation of why the guards were ordered not to provide sworn statements about what happened that night.
  • There is no explanation of why the government seemed to be unable to determine which guards were on duty that night in Alpha Block.
  • There is no explanation of why the guards who brought the bodies to the medics did not tell the medics what had happened to cause the deaths and why the medics never asked how the deaths had occurred.
  • There is no explanation of why no one was disciplined for acts or failures to act that night.
  • There is no explanation of why the guards on duty in the cell block were not systematically interviewed about the events of the night; why the medics who visited the cell block before the hangings were not interviewed; or why the tower guards, who had the responsibility and ability to observe all activity in the camp, were not interviewed.
As these many unanswered questions suggest, the investigations were themselves contrary, not only to best practices for investigations of serious matters, but also failed to conform to minimum standards in several ways. These include:
  • Failure to review relevant information, most of which was easily available including audio and video recordings which are systematically maintained; “Pass-On” books prepared by each shift to describe occurrences on the block for the next shift; the Detainee Information Management System, which contains records of all activity for that night as the events occur; and Serious Incident Reports, which are the reports used when there are suicide attempts. 
  • Failure to investigate an alleged conspiracy among detainees to commit suicide, despite the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s statement that on the night in question another detainee - who did not later commit suicide - walked through the cell block telling people, “tonight’s the night.”  There is no indication of how this could have happened given camp security rules or, if it had taken place, why security was not tighter than usual as a result. 
  • Failure to investigate all available material witnesses who would have had an opportunity to observe what happened that night.
There is little to add here, and the report’s findings, depressingly, speak for themselves.  The deaths of Zahrani, Abi and Ahmed reek of the “accidents” that used to befall IRA members and sympathizers in British jails during the worst days of The Troubles, and blacks in the custody of Apartheid-era South African security forces.

Either truly monolithic incompetence (and potentially, corruption) allowed these three men to take their own lives in a coordinated fashion under heavy guard, or they were murdered.  Given the rags stuffed in their mouths and the extreme difficulty involved in hanging one’s self with bound hands and feet, the case for group suicide appears to be a thin one.

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