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Four US soldiers cast doubt on Gitmo ‘suicides’

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Four members of a US military intelligence unit assigned to Guantanamo Bay are questioning the government’s official version of the deaths of three detainees in the summer of 2006.

The soldiers are offering a very different version of events than the one provided by the official report carried out by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. Their stories suggest the three inmates may not have killed themselves — or, at least, not in the way the US military claims.

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“All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths,” reports Scott Horton at Harper’s magazine.

According to the US Navy, Gitmo detainees Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani were found hanged in their cells on June 9. 2006. The US 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 (PDF) 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.

A SECRET FACILITY

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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.

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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 June 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.”

Horton’s story “lacks an eye-witness, or a smoking gun,” writes Michael Scherer at Time’s Swampland blog. “But it does raise several questions that should be answered in the coming months, including: Was there a classified interrogation site at the GTMO facility? Were soldiers on the base told by a commanding officer to keep quite about the cause of death (choking on rags) of the three inmates, as multiple soldiers told Horton?”

All three of the detainees who died that night in 2006 were considered “problem prisoners” and were held in an area reserved for detainees who were troublemakers or had high-value information. All three had previously participated in hunger strikes to protest their detention.

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When their deaths were announced in June, 2006, Rear Adm. Harry Harris cast the alleged suicides as an act of warfare against the US.

“They have no regard for life, either ours or their own,” he told the media. “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”

Rear Adm. Harris added: “They are smart. They are creative, they are committed.”

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