May 31, 2010
Exactly three years ago, having recently finished the manuscript for my book The Guantánamo Files, I began working on a full-time basis as a freelance journalist. My inspiration was the death in Guantánamo of a 34-year old Saudi prisoner, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, who died, reportedly by committing suicide, on May 30, 2007. In the course of my research, I had built up profiles of the majority of the prisoners in Guantánamo, and when al-Amri died, I thought it was worth pointing out a few facts about his story, as revealed in documents made publicly available by the Pentagon.
I approached a few reputable media outlets with this story, but when they expressed no interest, I decided to write an article and publish it on my blog, which until that point, I had used only to publicize my first two books, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield, and to cross-post a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth (about Abu Ghraib), which I had written for the website Nth Position in 2006, and which provided part of my inspiration to begin researching and writing about Guantánamo.
104 people visited my site on that first day, but once I had begun responding to the news emerging from Guantánamo I found it impossible to stop. I now receive nearly 8,000 page visits a day, and would like to thank everyone who has begun following my work in the last three years. However, every year, on May 31, I remember how it was the death of Abdul Rahman al-Amri — and the mainstream media’s general lack of interest in his story — that prompted me to start writing articles about Guantánamo on an almost daily basis (five chronological lists, with links, are here, covering the period from May 2007 to December 2009), and every year I mark his passing.
I know little about the man beyond what was made available by the Pentagon, as he was not represented by a lawyer, and even my conversations with former prisoners have elicited little information. Omar Deghayes recalled a devout man who was deeply troubled by the kinds of humiliation that were used on him at Guantánamo, but the rest is only what the Pentagon or al-Amri himself supplied. An admitted fighter with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, he maintained that he had no intention of fighting Americans. In his tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004, he pointed out that "Americans trained him during periods of his service" with the Saudi army, and insisted that, "had his desire been to fight and kill Americans, he could have done that while he was side by side with them in Saudi Arabia. His intent was to go and fight for a cause that he believed in as a Muslim toward jihad, not to go and fight against the Americans."
In his last review, in June 2006, the following statement was included in "Factors favoring release or transfer":
When asked about the events on 11 September 2001 and the devastation that the World Trade Center attacks caused, the detainee was very upset that so many civilians were killed. The detainee believes, as a fighter, it is unfair to kill civilians. If someone came at him with a weapon then the detainee would fight, but he would not kill any civilians or unarmed individuals. The detainee went to fight for jihad because it is every good Muslim’s duty.
Despite this, the US military responded to his death by producing ludicrous allegations about his purported activities in Afghanistan, which not only made no sense, but also revealed them as nothing short of callous. As I explained three years ago:
In a statement … US Southern Command claimed, "During his time as a foreign fighter in Afghanistan, he became a mid-level al-Qaeda operative with direct ties to higher-level members including meeting with Osama bin Laden. His associations included (bin Laden’s) bodyguards and al-Qaeda recruiters. He also ran al-Qaeda safe houses." Quite how it was possible for al-Amri, who arrived in Afghanistan in September 2001, to become a "mid-level al-Qaeda operative" who "ran al-Qaeda safe houses" in the three months before his capture in December has not been explained, and nor is it likely that an explanation will be forthcoming. Far more probable is that these allegations were made by other prisoners — either in Guantánamo, where bribery and coercion have both been used extensively, or in the CIA’s secret prisons. In both, prisoners were regularly shown a "family album" of Guantánamo prisoners, and were encouraged — either through violence or the promise of better treatment — to come up with allegations against those shown in the photos, which, however spurious, were subsequently treated as "evidence."
As a result of these allegations — and because he was a long-term hunger striker, whose weight dropped, at one point, to just 88 pounds — al-Amri was held in the maximum security Camp V, reserved for what a military spokesman described as the "least compliant and most 'high-value’ inmates." How he managed to kill himself in a block where the cells were constantly monitored has never been adequately explained, and, to my knowledge, the only explanation about the circumstances of his death that has ever been provided by the authorities came in October 2007, when Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the senior lawyer on Guantánamo’s management team, declared that al-Amri had fashioned "a string type of noose" to kill himself.
Perhaps this is the case, although it was noticeable that, on June 10, 2007, after al-Amri’s body was sent back to Saudi Arabia, the human rights organization Alkarama reported that his brother stated that his body "presented no trace that would lead to the conclusion of suicide." Alkarama also reported that "The Saudi Ministry of the Interior spokesman Gen. Mansour Al-Turki declared that a special medical committee would undertake an autopsy" and that "A report would then be sent back to the US authorities."
Despite this promise, no report has ever surfaced, and the questions about Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s death remain. In the hope of keeping his story alive, I will be reporting over the next nine days on four other deaths at Guantánamo, which have also not been addressed adequately. The first is that of Muhammad Salih, a Yemeni who died on June 2 last year, reportedly by committing suicide, and the other three — Salah Ahmed al-Salami, a Yemeni, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi, a Saudi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, also a Saudi — died on June 9, 2006.
All, like Abdul Rahman al-Amri, were long-term hunger strikers, and all died in circumstances that provide more questions than answers. In the case of Muhammad Salih, despite apparently being in sound mental health, he was removed to a secure psychiatric unit several months before his death, where he reportedly died, even though these units are designed to prevent all access to any item that might be used to commit suicide, and in the cases of the three men who died in June 2006, the authorities’ claims that they hung themselves simultaneously as part of a suicide pact were undermined in January this year in a deeply disturbing article in Harper’s Magazine, which I discussed here.
In the article, Scott Horton added to doubts about the official narrative that had been exposed in a study of the men’s deaths by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey (and see here for a follow-up report in February this year). Horton’s article drew on the accounts of a number of military eyewitnesses, who provided compelling explanations of why the official story was a cover-up, and also explained that, on the night of the men’s deaths, a feasible chronology could be established that involved the men being transported off-site to a secret prison outside the perimeter fence, where they were subjected to torture that, accidentally or otherwise, led to their deaths.
Despite its gravity, this story was almost entirely overlooked in the mainstream US media, and I hope, therefore, that reviving it at this particular time will not only provide some impetus for calls for a thorough investigation, but will also allow questions to be asked about the deaths of Muhammad Salih and Abdul Rahman al-Amri.
Please watch this space, and, if you have a few moments today, spare a thought for Abdul Rahman al-Amri.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes and deaths at Guantánamo, see Suicide at Guantánamo: the story of Abdul Rahman al-Amri (May 2007), Suicide at Guantánamo: a response to the US military’s allegations that Abdul Rahman al-Amri was a member of al-Qaeda (May 2007), Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), The Pentagon Can’t Count: 22 Juveniles Held at Guantánamo (November 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s "Humane" Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the "Dark Prison": Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Forgotten: The Second Anniversary Of A Guantánamo Suicide (May 2009), Yemeni Prisoner Muhammad Salih Dies At Guantánamo (June 2009), Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation (June 2009).
Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).