The Guantanamo Suicides

The compound was not visible from the main road, and the access road was chained off. The Guardsman who told Davila about the compound had said, "This place does not exist," and Hickman, who was frequently put in charge of security for all of Camp America, was not briefed about the site. Nevertheless, Davila said, other soldiers — many of whom were required to patrol the outside perimeter of Camp America — had seen the compound, and many speculated about its purpose. One theory was that it was being used by some of the non-uniformed government personnel who frequently showed up in the camps and were widely thought to be CIA agents.

A friend of Hickman's had nicknamed the compound "Camp No," the idea being that anyone who asked if it existed would be told, "No, it doesn't." He and Davila made a point of stopping by whenever they had the chance; once, Hickman said, he heard a "series of screams" from within the compound.

Hickman and his men also discovered that there were odd exceptions to their duties. Army guards were charged with searching and logging every vehicle that passed into and out of Camp Delta. "When John McCain came to the camp, he had to be logged in." However, Hickman was instructed to make no record whatsoever of the movements of one vehicle in particular — a white van, dubbed the "paddy wagon," that Navy guards used to transport heavily manacled prisoners, one at a time, into and out of Camp Delta. The van had no rear windows and contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner. Navy drivers, Hickman came to understand, would let the guards know they had a prisoner in the van by saying they were "delivering a pizza."

The paddy wagon was used to transport prisoners to medical facilities and to meetings with their lawyers. But as Hickman monitored the paddy wagon's movements from the guard tower at Camp Delta, he frequently saw it follow an unexpected route. When the van reached the first intersection to the east, instead of heading right — toward the other camps or toward one of the buildings where prisoners could meet with their lawyers — it made a left. In that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations. One was a beach where soldiers went to swim. The other was Camp No.

3. "Lit up"

The night the prisoners died, Hickman was on duty as sergeant of the guard for Camp America's exterior security force. When his twelve-hour shift began, at 6 p.m., he climbed the ladder to Tower 1, which stood twenty feet above Sally Port 1, the main entrance to Camp Delta. From there he had an excellent view of the camp, and much of the exterior perimeter as well. Later he would make his rounds.

Shortly after his shift began, Hickman noticed that someone had parked the paddy wagon near Camp 1, which houses Alpha Block. A moment later, two Navy guards emerged from Camp 1, escorting a prisoner. They put the prisoner into the back of the van and then left the camp through Sally Port 1, just below Hickman. He was under standing orders not to search the paddy wagon, so he just watched it as it headed east. He assumed the guards and their charge were bound for one of the other prison camps southeast of Camp Delta. But when the van reached the first intersection, instead of making a right, toward the other camps, it made the left, toward ACP Roosevelt and Camp No.

Twenty minutes later — about the amount of time needed for the trip to Camp No and back — the paddy wagon returned. This time Hickman paid closer attention. He couldn't see the Navy guards' faces, but from body size and uniform they appeared to be the same men.

The guards walked into Camp 1 and soon emerged with another prisoner. They departed Camp America, again in the direction of Camp No. Twenty minutes later, the van returned. Hickman, his curiosity piqued by the unusual flurry of activity and guessing that the guards might make another excursion, left Tower 1 and drove the three quarters of a mile to ACP Roosevelt to see exactly where the paddy wagon was headed. Shortly thereafter, the van passed through the checkpoint for the third time and then went another hundred yards, whereupon it turned toward Camp No, eliminating any question in Hickman's mind about where it was going. All three prisoners would have reached their destination before 8 p.m.

Hickman says he saw nothing more of note until about 11:30 p.m, when he had returned to his preferred vantage at Tower 1. As he watched, the paddy wagon returned to Camp Delta. This time, however, the Navy guards did not get out of the van to enter Camp 1. Instead, they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.

At approximately 11:45 p.m. — nearly an hour before the NCIS claims the first body was discovered — Army Specialist Christopher Penvose, preparing for a midnight shift in Tower 1, was approached by a senior Navy NCO. Penvose told me that the NCO — who, following standard operating procedures, wore no name tag — appeared to be extremely agitated. He instructed Penvose to go immediately to the Camp Delta chow hall, identify a female senior petty officer who would be dining there, and relay to her a specific code word. Penvose did as he was instructed. The petty officer leapt up from her seat and immediately ran out of the chow hall.

Another thirty minutes passed. Then, as Hickman and Penvose both recall, Camp Delta suddenly "lit up" — stadium-style flood lights were turned on, and the camp became the scene of frenzied activity, filling with personnel in and out of uniform. Hickman headed to the clinic, which appeared to be the center of activity, to learn the reason for the commotion. He asked a distraught medical corpsman what had happened. She said three dead prisoners had been delivered to the clinic. Hickman recalled her saying that they had died because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised. Davila told me he spoke to Navy guards who said the men had died as the result of having rags stuffed down their throats.

Hickman was concerned that such a serious incident could have occurred in Camp 1 on his watch. He asked his tower guards what they had seen. Penvose, from his position at Tower 1, had an unobstructed view of the walkway between Camp 1 and the medical clinic — the path by which any prisoners who died at Camp 1 would be delivered to the clinic. Penvose told Hickman, and later confirmed to me, that he saw no prisoners being moved from Camp 1 to the clinic. In Tower 4 (it should be noted that Army and Navy guard-tower designations differ), another Army specialist, David Caroll, was forty-five yards from Alpha Block, the cell block within Camp 1 that had housed the three dead men. He also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the cell block itself to the clinic. He likewise reported to Hickman, and confirmed to me, that he had seen no prisoners transferred to the clinic that night, dead or alive.

4. "He Could Not Cry out"

The fate of a fourth prisoner, a forty-two-year-old Saudi Arabian named Shaker Aamer, may be related to that of the three prisoners who died on June 9. Aamer is married to a British woman and was in the process of becoming a British subject when he was captured in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2001. United States authorities insist that he carried a gun and served Osama bin Laden as an interpreter. Aamer denies this. At Guantánamo, Aamer's fluency in English soon allowed him to play an important role in camp politics. According to both Aamer's attorney and press accounts furnished by Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, Aamer cooperated closely with Bumgarner in efforts to bring a 2005 hunger strike to an end. He persuaded several prisoners to break their strike for a while, but the settlement collapsed and soon afterward Aamer was sent to solitary confinement. Then, on the night the prisoners from Alpha Block died, Aamer says he himself was the victim of an act of striking brutality.

He described the events in detail to his lawyer, Zachary Katznelson, who was permitted to speak to him several weeks later. Katznelson recorded every detail of Aamer's account and filed an affidavit with the federal district court in Washington, setting it out:

On June 9th, 2006, [Aamer] was beaten for two and a half hours straight. Seven naval military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs. The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out.

The treatment Aamer describes is noteworthy because it produces excruciating pain without leaving lasting marks. Still, the fact that Aamer had his airway cut off and a mask put over his face "so he could not cry out" is alarming. This is the same technique that appears to have been used on the three deceased prisoners.

The United Kingdom has pressed aggressively for the return of British subjects and persons of interest. Every individual requested by the British has been turned over, with one exception: Shaker Aamer. In denying this request, U.S. authorities have cited unelaborated "security" concerns. There is no suggestion that the Americans intend to charge him before a military commission, or in a federal criminal court, and, indeed, they have no meaningful evidence linking him to any crime. American authorities may be concerned that Aamer, if released, could provide evidence against them in criminal investigations. This evidence would include what he experienced on June 9, 2006, and during his 2002 detention in Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield, where he says he was subjected to a procedure in which his head was smashed repeatedly against a wall. This torture technique, called "walling" in CIA documents, was expressly approved at a later date by the Department of Justice.

Tags: cover up, guantanamo, guantanamo deaths, investigative reporting, shaker aamer, suicides, torture

    • Scott Horton
    • Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues. As a practicing attorney, Horton has focused on investment in emerging markets. He is also a life-long human rights advocate and serves as a director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov F...

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