The Guantanamo Suicides

Also returned to Saudi Arabia was the body of Mani Al-Utaybi. Orphaned in his youth, Mani grew up in his uncle's home in the small town of Dawadmi. I spoke to one of the many cousins who shared that home, Faris Al-Utaybi. Mani, said Faris, had gone to Baluchistan — a rural, tribal area that straddles Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — to do humanitarian work, and someone there had sold him to the Americans for $5,000. He said that Mani was a peaceful man who would harm no one. Indeed, U.S. authorities had decided to release Al-Utaybi and return him to Saudi Arabia. When he died, he was just a few weeks shy of his transfer.

Salah Al-Salami was seized in March 2002, when Pakistani authorities raided a residence in Karachi believed to have been used as a safe house by Abu Zubaydah and took into custody all who were living there at the time. A Yemeni, Al-Salami had quit his job and moved to Pakistan with only $400 in his pocket. The U.S. suspicions against him rested almost entirely on the fact that he had taken lodgings, with other students, in a boarding house that terrorists might at one point have used. There was no direct evidence linking him either to Al Qaeda or to the Taliban. On August 22, 2008, the Washington Post quoted from a previously secret review of his case: "There is no credible information to suggest [Al-Salami] received terrorist related training or is a member of the Al Qaeda network." All that stood in the way of Al-Salami's release from Guantánamo were difficult diplomatic relations between the United States and Yemen.

8. "The Removal of the Neck Organs"

Military pathologists connected with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology arranged immediate autopsies of the three dead prisoners, without securing the permission of the men's families. The identities and findings of the pathologists remain shrouded in extraordinary secrecy, but the timing of the autopsies suggests that medical personnel stationed at Guantánamo may have undertaken the procedure without waiting for the arrival of an experienced medical examiner from the United States. Each of the heavily redacted autopsy reports states unequivocally that "the manner of death is suicide" and, more specifically, that the prisoner died of "hanging." Each of the reports describes ligatures that were found wrapped around the prisoner's neck, as well as circumferential dried abrasion furrows imprinted with the very fine weave pattern of the ligature fabric and forming an inverted "V" on the back of the head. This condition, the anonymous pathologists state, is consistent with that of a hanging victim.

The pathologists place the time of death "at least a couple of hours" before the bodies were discovered, which would be sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 9. Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging.

The report asserts that the hyoid was broken "during the removal of the neck organs." An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts — the larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage — that would have been essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men's families finally received their bodies.

All the families requested independent autopsies. The Saudi prisoners were examined by Saeed Al-Ghamdy, a pathologist based in Saudi Arabia. Al-Salami, from Yemen, was inspected by Patrice Mangin, a pathologist based in Switzerland. Both pathologists noted the removal of the structure that would have been the natural focus of the autopsy: the throat. Both pathologists contacted the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, requesting the missing body parts and more information about the previous autopsies. The institute did not respond to their requests or queries. (It also did not respond to a series of calls I placed requesting information and comment.)

When Al-Zahrani viewed his son's corpse, he saw evidence of a homicide. "There was a major blow to the head on the right side," he said. "There was evidence of torture on the upper torso, and on the palms of his hand. There were needle marks on his right arm and on his left arm." None of these details are noted in the U.S. autopsy report. "I am a law enforcement professional," Al-Zahrani said. "I know what to look for when examining a body."
Mangin, for his part, expressed particular concern about Al-Salami's mouth and throat, where he saw "a blunt trauma carried out against the oral region." The U.S. autopsy report mentions an effort at resuscitation, but this, in Mangin's view, did not explain the severity of the injuries. He also noted that some of the marks on the neck were not those he would normally associate with hanging.

9. "I Know Some Things You Don't"

Sergeant Joe Hickman's tour of duty, which ended in March 2007, was distinguished: he was selected as Guantánamo's "NCO of the Quarter" and was given a commendation medal. When he returned to the United States, he was promoted to staff sergeant and worked in Maryland as an Army recruiter before eventually settling in Wisconsin. But he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo. When Barack Obama became president, Hickman decided to act. "I thought that with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward, " he said. "It was haunting me."

Hickman had seen a 2006 report from Seton Hall University Law School dealing with the deaths of the three prisoners, and he followed their subsequent work. After Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, he called Mark Denbeaux, the professor who had led the Seton Hall team. "I learned something from your report," he said, "but I know some things you don't."

Within two days, Hickman was in Newark, meeting with Denbeaux. Also at the meeting was Denbeaux's son and sometime co-editor, Josh, a private attorney. Josh Denbeaux agreed to represent Hickman, who was concerned that he could go to prison if he disobeyed Colonel Bumgarner's order not to speak out, even if that order was itself illegal. Hickman did not want to speak to the press. On the other hand, he felt that "silence was just wrong."

The two lawyers quickly made arrangements for Hickman to speak instead with authorities in Washington, D.C. On February 2, they had meetings on Capitol Hill and with the Department of Justice. The meeting with Justice was an odd one. The father-and-son legal team were met by Rita Glavin, the acting head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division; John Morton, who was soon to become an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security; and Steven Fagell, counselor to the head of the Criminal Division. Fagell had been, along with the new attorney general, Eric Holder, a partner at the elite Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, and was widely viewed as "Holder's eyes" in the Criminal Division.

For more than an hour, the two lawyers described what Hickman had seen: the existence of Camp No, the transportation of the three prisoners, the van's arrival at the medical clinic, the lack of evidence that any bodies had ever been removed from Alpha Block, and so on. The officials listened intently and asked many questions. The Denbeauxes said they could provide a list of witnesses who would corroborate every aspect of their account. At the end of the meeting, Mark Denbeaux recalled, the officials specifically thanked the lawyers for not speaking to reporters first and for "doing it the right way."

Two days later, another Justice Department official, Teresa McHenry, head of the Criminal Division's Domestic Security Section, called Mark Denbeaux and said that she was heading up an investigation and wanted to meet directly with his client. She went to New Jersey to do so. Hickman then reviewed the basic facts and furnished McHenry with the promised list of corroborating witnesses and details on how they could be contacted.

The Denbeauxes did not hear from anyone at the Justice Department for at least two months. Then, in April, an FBI agent called to say she did not have the list of contacts. She asked if this document could be provided again. It was. Shortly thereafter, Fagell a Justice official [see update] and two FBI agents interviewed Davila, who had left the Army, in Columbia, South Carolina. Fagell The official asked Davila if he was prepared to travel to Guantánamo to identify the locations of various sites. He said he was. "It seemed like they were interested," Davila told me. "Then I never heard from them again."

Several more months passed, and Hickman and his lawyers became increasingly concerned that nothing was going to happen. On October 27, 2009, they resumed dealings with Congress that they had initiated on February 2 and then broken off at the Justice Department's request; they were also in contact with ABC News. Two days later, Teresa McHenry called Mark Denbeaux and asked whether he had gone to Congress and ABC News about the matter. "I said that I had," Denbeaux told me. He asked her, "Was there anything wrong with that?" McHenry then suggested that the investigation was finished. Denbeaux reminded her that she had yet to interview some of the corroborating witnesses. "There are a few small things to do," Denbeaux says McHenry answered. "Then it will be finished."

Specialist Christopher Penvose told me that on October 30, the day following the conversation between Mark Denbeaux and Teresa McHenry, McHenry an official [see update] showed up at Penvose's home in south Baltimore with some FBI agents. She had a "few questions," she told him. Investigators working with her soon contacted two other witnesses.

On November 2, 2009, McHenry called Mark Denbeaux to tell him that the Justice Department's investigation was being closed. "It was a strange conversation," Denbeaux recalled. McHenry explained that "the gist of Sergeant Hickman's information could not be confirmed." But when Denbeaux asked what that "gist" actually was, McHenry declined to say. She just reiterated that Hickman's conclusions "appeared" to be unsupported. Denbeaux asked what conclusions exactly were unsupported. McHenry refused to say.

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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