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DoD Cover-up: Gitmo detainee found hanged with hands tied behind back

2:24 pm in Military, Torture by Jeff Kaye

The government has withheld for years the actual facts surrounding the deaths of two of the six completed Guantanamo “suicides” to date. For instance, they hid the fact that one of the detainees was supposedly found hanged with his hands tied behind his back. Another detainee supposedly used an underwear elastic band (or “ligature”) to strangle himself — except the type of underwear described was not used by the detainees, and the ligature itself has gone missing. It was not provided to the autopsy examiners.

I have found that my ground-breaking investigation into the deaths of two Guantanamo detainees, Abdul Rahman Al Amri and Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi, based on hitherto-unexamined autopsy reports, has been largely ignored by the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Except for Jason Leopold, Andy Worthington, Marcy Wheeler and the good folks at Eurasia Review, there has been a decided reluctance to report what I have found.

So I must go public all on my own, and the powers that be know that I will not be silent. Whether it is former Guantanamo officials, or well-known journalists who regularly cover Guantanamo, none have disputed what my investigation found, not publicly, and not privately. I believe that purposeful inattention to the crimes at Guantanamo, facilitated by both government cover-up and the vagaries of the electoral season, which discourages anything that would embarrass the Obama administration and the Democrats as a whole, are responsible for this inattention to important new documented facts.

But the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings, Summary and Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heynes, has informed me he is looking into these matters. I don’t care if the grand poohbahs of the MSM and the blogosphere are going to ignore this story. “Murder will out,” and I will remind the villains involved in these affairs that murder has no statute of limitations. The changes to the war crimes laws implemented by both the Bush and Obama administrations will not protect you. Hence, I understand why you wish to sweep all this under the rug. Maybe you will succeed. Let’s see what readers think when actually informed of these materials.

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Originally posted at Truthout.org

Autopsy reports released last year by the Department of Defense raise stark questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of two prisoners at Guantanamo. Both deaths – of Abdul Rahman Al Amri in May 2007 and Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi in June 2009 – were labeled suicides by Department of Defense (DoD) investigators.

But the details in the autopsy reports show that Al Amri was found dead by hanging with his hands tied behind his back, calling into question whether he had actually killed himself. (He is referred to as Abd al-Rahman al-Umari in the report.) Al Hanashi was found wearing standard-issue detainee clothing, the undergarments from which he supposedly used to kill himself, and not the tear-proof suicide smock issued to detainees who are actively suicidal. It remains an open question if he were in fact under suicide watch, even though he had been repeatedly banging his head on prison walls, and had made five suicide attempts in the four weeks prior to his death.

Both Al Amri, who was housed in isolation at Guantanamo’s high-security Camp 5, and Al Hanashi, who was resident at the prison’s Behavioral Health Unit, were supposed to be under constant video surveillance, and according to camp officials, someone was supposed to be checking on them every three to five minutes.

A number of outside observers had deemed both prisoners’ deaths suspicious, but the autopsy reports are the first public documentary evidence of what possibly occurred. The autopsies were declassified by the DoD a year ago, but apparently went unexamined, part of a 1,100-plus-page release of documents inresponse to an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.

Al Amri was a 34-year-old former member of the Saudi Arabian Army. According to his May 2006 Detainee Assessment (released by WikiLeaks), he allegedly had “knowledge about, and connections to many high-level Al-Qaida members and operations.” He was also accused of making a film about the USS Cole bombing, a charge he denied. He was reportedly considered a “high-value” detainee, and had been at Guantanamo since February 2002. Al Amri told the Combatant Status Review Tribunal that examined his case that he had not gone to Afghanistan to kill Americans, and that if it had been his intent, he would have had ample opportunity when he was in the Saudi Army.

Al Hanashi was a 31-year-old Yemeni national who, as a young man, had left Yemen to join the Taliban side in the Afghan civil war. His father is said to be the leader of the 4,000-member Hanashi tribe in Yemen. Like Al Amri, DoD claims he was affiliated with al-Qaeda, a charge al Hanashi had denied. Captured after the Qala-i-Jangi prisoner uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif, he was transferred to Guantanamo, arriving two days before Al Amri. According to one prisoner who last saw him six months before his death, Al Hanashi had agreed to be a representative for prisoners’ grievances before camp officials.

Both prisoners had been on long hunger strikes, and at times had weighed at or under 90 pounds. Each had been force-fed while on hunger strike. Both prisoners had never met with an attorney.

“They Covered Up the Crime”

Al Amri’s autopsy (PDF) states that the “male civilian detainee” was “found hanging by his neck in his cell with a ligature made of braided strips of bed sheet. By report, similar fabric bound his hands loosely behind him.”

Despite the fact that Al Amri’s hands were bound behind him, the media was kept unaware of this fact. But it apparently was not unknown among some of the other detainees.

In a 2010 letter to his attorney, released as part of a court filing, longtime Guantanamo hunger striker Abdul Rahman Shalabi told his attorney, “You know what happened to (Abdul Rahman Al-Amri) who was killed in camp five two years ago, hanging while his hands were tied behind his back, and he was in solitary confinement…. When the Americans released the news of his death, they said that they found him dead in his cell and he was on hunger strike and they covered up the crime.”

Authorities consulted for this article agreed, as one source put it, that having hands tied behind one’s back in a hanging “does not necessarily indicate homicide but certainly requires additional investigation.”

>Al Amri’s relatives, as well, were highly dubious about the suicide verdict and, according to a report in Arab News, demanded an inquiry into his death. A Saudi official involved in monitoring “the condition of Saudi nationals being held in Guantanamo … also ruled out the suicide theory.” A follow-up story for Arab News claimed that a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesperson had indicated “a special medical committee would do an autopsy and then prepare a report that will be sent to US authorities on any particular inquires.” No such report has ever surfaced publicly. A request for comment by the Saudi Interior Ministry had not been returned by press time.

There are other curious aspects to the details surrounding Al Amri’s death. Authorities state that a ligature – the rope or other cord-like devise, in Al Amri’s case possibly torn or cut-up bed sheets, used in strangulation – must be long enough for the purpose of hanging. According to the autopsy report, the ligature in Al Amri’s case was only 22 and on-half inches long, inclusive of the portion around the neck.

Curiously, the ligature also had toward its more distant end “a 4-inch area of dark soiling with attached dark hairs.” The report does not state whose hairs these are or why they are there. Since a DNA test was run to verify the prisoner’s identity, presumably the hairs could have been identified as well, but there is no indication they were so identified.

The autopsy examiners assume that altered bed sheets were used for the hanging. But according to a summarized witness statement (pg. 7) by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Mike Dunleavy, who became commander of Guantanamo’s interrogation Task Force 170 in February 2002, the sheets used at Guantanamo were “changed” under his order “to the sheets in the federal prison system so they can’t be torn or tied.”

This previously unreported fact calls into question the narrative on Al Amri’s death, as well as that of the three 2006 Guantanamo “suicides,” who were said to have fashioned nooses, in part, out of torn bed sheets. Indeed, former detainees have questioned the suicides of these prisoners, in part, because they did not have “bed sheets that could easily be constructed into a noose.” Harper’s writer Scott Horton and a team of legal investigators at Seton Hall’s School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research have each conducted critical investigations of the 2006 deaths. More recently, Almerindo Ojeda, principal investigator at the  Guantánamo Testimonials Project, made a compelling argument that the 2006 deaths could have been examples of a torture technique called “dryboarding.” Another book by former Guantanamo guard Joe Hickman examining the 2006 deaths is due out later this year.

Important information appears to have been kept from Al Amri’s autopsy examiners. The examiners remark that the fact Al Amri’s hands were tied behind his back was something only known to them “by report,” but there should have been photographs taken and available to them.

The autopsy report, which does not provide a timeline for the events it describes, explains the supposed circumstances of Al Amri’s death:

“Investigation reveals that a razor blade from a razor was used to cut strips from one or more bed sheets and a ligature was fashioned by braiding these strips together…. The free end of the ligature was attached to a ventilation opening, and [redacted] likely stood on his bedroll to place the noose over his head.”

But, according to the official 2004 Camp Delta “Standard Operating Procedures” manual, razors were contraband items. Razors for shaving were allowed only during shower period, but guards were instructed to “Ensure the return of intact razors.” Moreover, detainees in “segregation” units, i.e., isolation, as was Al Amri, are not supposed to be issued razors during shower period at all, raising questions how he ever obtained a blade, if he did at all.

The autopsy report gives no explanation as to how Al Amri obtained a razor blade. It does mention a “superficial, incised wound” on the forefingers of each of his hands, and these could have come from a razor, although the autopsy report does not conclude what their source is. Neither does the report describe the ventilation opening or how the ligature was attached to it.

Finally, in the toxicology section of the report, the examiners note Al Amri was tested “for screened medications (including mefloquine) and drugs of abuse.” It is odd that screening for mefloquine is specially singled out. Mefloquine is a controversial antimalarial drug, which was mass administered to all detainees upon in-processing at Guantanamo. Over a year ago, Truthout examined the use of this drug, which may have been used for abusive purposes or as part of an illegal, secret experiment.

While no drugs were found, it is strange that Al Amri, who had been in Guantanamo for five years, mostly or entirely in solitary confinement, would be possibly thought to have mefloquine in his system. Only a small handful of Guantanamo prisoners were ever found to have malaria, and they came to the prison with the disease. Cuba is not considered to be malaria endemic, and US service personnel and contractors are not routinely administered mefloquine. Interestingly, one of the three purported Guantanamo suicides in 2006, but not the other two, was also tested for mefloquine.

“Stressors of Confinement”

The autopsy report of Guantanamo detainee number 78, Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi, similarly raises serious questions about the circumstances surrounding his death. The prisoner was said to have strangled himself using elastic bands from his underwear.

The report provides details about the medical and psychiatric condition of the Yemeni detainee at the time of his death. According to the report, Al Hanashi had a “long history” of psychiatric problems at the Joint Task Force penal facility, including “adjustment disorder, anti-social personality disorder and stressors of confinement.” (Emphases added.)

The presence of psychiatric problems is consistent with a reported “history of suicide gestures and multiple failed suicide attempts” going back to 2003. The previous attempts included methods of killing oneself such as hanging, “self-inflicted sharp force injuries and frequent blunt force trauma to the head,” as well as “neck ligature,” which is the kind of self-strangulation that was the manner of death found by the autopsy examiners, whose identities were redacted in both Al Hanashi and Al Amri’s reports.

The autopsy document notes that Al Hanashi made five suicide attempts in the four weeks preceding his death. While the report’s authors describe medical authorities’ diagnoses given to the prisoner, including “anti-social personality disorder,” no diagnosis of depression is given, despite the history of serious suicidal behavior.

According to the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, used by all government medical doctors and psychologists, a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder is only given to individuals who show “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years.” It is difficult to believe that Guantanamo medical staff had this kind of information available to them, raising the possibility the diagnosis was given to taint the prisoner’s behavioral profile.

In addition, the autopsy examiners describe the presence of “dark small raised lesions” on Al Hanashi’s forehead, which they explained were “consistent with reported history of witnessed repeated self-inflicted hitting/banging of the head on the detention facility walls.”

Self-injurious and suicidal behavior are two serious psychiatric symptoms long associated with the kinds of detention conditions found in Supermax prisons, or prisons using special administrative measures, where long-term solitary confinement and forms of sensory and social deprivation are the norm.

Suicide Watch?

Despite the very recent multiple suicide attempts, it is unclear if Al Hanashi was on suicide watch at the time of his death the evening of June 1, 2009, in a cell in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) at Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay. The autopsy report states he “has been on a suicide watch at BHU, where he is seen daily by medical staff.” (Emphases added.)

But was he on suicide watch the day he died? Multiple email requests for clarification from the DoD on this issue, as well as a number of others – such as what was meant by “stressors of confinement” – have gone unanswered. A Truthout FOIA request for the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) report on his death is pending.

A June 2008 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the procedures used after some Guantanamo suicide attempts. One detainee was “stripped naked, dressed in a green plastic rip-proof suicide smock, and placed in an individual cell under constant monitoring,” after a single December 2007 suicide attempt. Nothing was allowed in his cell that could be used to injure himself. He was questioned by BHU personnel daily, and only released after two months. Another detainee on suicide watch was also dressed in the suicide smock and allowed nothing “other than a mat for sleeping, a Koran and toilet paper” in his cell.

It is not known how long Al Hanashi had been at the BHU, but if he was on suicide watch, he was not wearing the special suicide smock worn by those typically held under special suicide surveillance. The 31-year-old was discovered on the floor of his cell in a fetal position under a blanket, dressed “in khaki shirt and pants without undergarments.” According to the autopsy report, the clothes were “general issue of the detention center.

The lack of undergarments is unexplained, but since the autopsy posits that Al Hanashi strangled himself using the elastic found in typical underwear distributed to detainees, it is possible that the undergarments are missing because they were used to construct the device by which it is said he asphyxiated himself.

Yet, there is some question about the type of underwear distributed to the detainees at this time. According to an October 17, 2007, article by Carol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald, after the three “suicides” in 2006, camp officials changed “procedures, including more careful monitoring of captives’ belongings, and the changing of captives’ underwear from more elastic briefs to cotton boxers less liable to be used in a hanging.” The report consistently refers to the underwear Al Hanashi supposedly altered as “briefs” or “white briefs.”

The autopsy does not mention any discovery of altered remnants of the undergarments. It says NCIS agents supplied the medical examiners with a replica of the “white brief” issued to the prisoners. The examiners found the ligature on Al Hanashi’s neck to be “identical to the elastic band of the examined brief.”

The autopsy states that “a civilian detainee” (Al Hanashi’s name is strangely redacted at this point in the document) “of unknown age, died from asphyxia due to ligature strangulation by tightly wrapping the elastic band of his underwear around the neck and apparently securing it with a twist on the right side of the neck and a head tilt.” Interestingly, on page 2 of the report, the autopsy examiners state the ligature was twisted “on the left side.” The method of securing the ligature is somewhat obscure.

An expert on asphyxiation, Dr. Steven Miles, told Truthout, “The description of the ligature, suggests garroting of a type that can be done by a person to themself or by another person, i.e., a rod, pen, utensil etc. is put into the ligature and given several twists and then it is removed.” The ligature marks are “consistent with but not conclusive of the use of an underwear band and quite unlike what would be seen with the use of a wire or cord.” Accordingly, along with other medical evidence as reported, Dr. Miles, who criticized the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for “substandard investigations and reporting of prisoners’ deaths” in his 2006 book “Oath Betrayed,” concurs with the conclusions of the autopsy examiners that the cause of death for Al Hanashi was most likely suicide. He adds the phrase “stressors of confinement” in the report clearly is “a euphemism.”

Timeline Questions

The autopsy report redacts the date of death, but combining the hourly timeline provided in the report with news accounts, it is almost certain Al Hanashi died sometime in the hour prior to midnight on June 1, 2009.

According to the report, approximately 25 minutes elapsed from the time of the last observation of the prisoner to the discovery of his body on the cell floor. In the examiner’s narrative, at “approximately 2120 hours” (9:20 PM) Al Hanashi asked to speak to a nurse, asking for a “sleeping aid.” Indeed, there were two tranquilizers found in the toxicology reports done post-mortem. Both Lorazepam and the metabolite for clonazepam, two common benzodiazepine drugs commonly known as Ativan and Klonopin, were found in the dead man’s urine and blood.

However, it is not known if this is what Al Hanashi was given for sleep, or what drugs, if any, he was prescribed at this time. No other drugs are listed in the toxicology section of the report, except for acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine.

It was “10-15 minutes later,” after his request for medications, that Guantanamo personnel had their last communication with Al Hanashi. This would have been between 2130 and 2135 hours, or between 9:30 PM and 9:35 PM, when the prisoner asked the guard if he could close his “bean hole cover.” The report opines that this was a “sign he was ready to go to sleep.” (The “bean hole” was the slot through which food was given to prisoners.) According to guards, who presumably were interviewed by NCIS, Al Hanashi was in “in ‘good spirit’ and did not appear upset.”

Only “a few minutes later,” the prisoner was “viewed through the cell window and noted to not be breathing.” The report never states the exact amount of time elapsed, though the autopsy examiners report the time of discovery as “approximately 2155 hours,” or 9:55 PM. This would mean that 20 to 25 minutes elapsed before guards or medical staff checked personally on Al Hanashi in his cell, a period that seems to be more than “a few minutes.”

The efforts at resuscitation apparently lasted approximately an hour, as Al Hanashi was pronounced dead at 2259 or 10:59 PM. Medical intervention included use of an external automatic defibrillator, an endotracheal tube and the placement of a central venous line.

Whatever the timeline of the guards’ observations of Al Hanashi, press reports have stated there is “constant video surveillance” inside prisoner cells in the BHU. Furthermore, Guantanamo spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt told Truthout in November 2009 that, while he couldn’t comment on whether Al Hanashi had been videotaped in his cell, no Guantanamo detainee goes more than “three minutes” without being checked, one way or another. That would be consistent with the “few minutes” noted in the autopsy report, but not with the narrative that presents a lapse of 20 minutes or more. It also tallies with what a prison doctor told journalist Naomi Wolf, who had visited the cells where Al Hanashi had been held in the day or so prior to his death. “They check on prisoners every three minutes,” he told her.

In addition, Wolf reported, “Cortney Busch of Reprieve, a British organization that represents Guantánamo detainees” told her “there is video running on prisoners in the psychiatric ward at all times, and there is a guard posted there continually, too.”

“Tougher Methods” Used on Hunger Strikers

By many accounts, Al Hanashi, like Al Amri, had participated along with other detainees in hunger strikes to protest their situation and treatment. As a result, Al Hanashi, like the other strikers, was forcibly fed at times. Indeed, the autopsy report states, “On January 2009 he started a hunger strike and has been fed enteraly,” that is, fed via a feeding tube. According to the autopsy report, Al Hanashi’s stomach was “distended with partially digested food.” The report does not say what this food could have been, or whether it was liquid food, such as would be fed through a tube. Some of this material was vomited up during the attempts to revive him.

While press reports state the Yemeni prisoner was a long-time hunger striker, Lt. Commander De Walt told reporters shortly after Al Hanashi’s death that the prisoner’s hunger strike had ended in mid-May. In an article for The Associated Press, Guantanamo attorney David Remes, who had a client in the Guantanamo BHU at the same time as Al Hanashi, told reporter David McFadden that “all the prisoners in the ward had been force-fed a liquid nutrition mix through a tube inserted in their noses and down their throats and that al-Hanashi had been the only one force-fed in a restraint chair.”

In another Associated Press article, Remes said there were seven detainees total in the BHU at the time of Al Hanashi’s death.

Guantanamo chronicler Andy Worthington noted in a 2010 article on the “shocking statistics of starvation” at the US “war on terror” Cuban camp that, up to and including Al Hanashi’s death, all the supposed suicides at Guantanamo had been hunger strikers.

A February 2006 story by Tim Golden at The New York Times noted, “tougher measures to force-feed detainees engaged in hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay,” implemented by US authorities at the time. This includes the period when Al Hanashi was on his final hunger strike. Military authorities have maintained that force-feeding is conducted “in a humane and compassionate manner.”

Golden wrote, “In recent weeks … guards have begun strapping recalcitrant detainees into ‘restraint chairs,’ sometimes for hours a day, to feed them through tubes and prevent them from deliberately vomiting afterward. Detainees who refuse to eat have also been placed in isolation for extended periods in what the officials said was an effort to keep them from being encouraged by other hunger strikers.”

The “tougher measures” had reduced hunger strikers to only four by December 2005, suggesting that Al Hanashi was one of a handful of hunger strikers. Moreover, it means Al Hanashi initiated his 2006 hunger strike when the harsher methods were already in place. Attorney Elisabeth Gilson, who had a client on the psychiatric ward at the same time Al Hanashi was there, called the force-feeding “abusive and inhumane.”

Testimony From a Detainee Witness

One of the released Guantanamo detainees, Binyam Mohamed, told the press that Al Hanashi had been a leader among the prisoners. In a June 11, 2009, story published at the Miami Herald, he said Al Hanashi, whom he calls Wadhah, weighed only 104 lbs. the last time he saw him in January 2009.

Mohamed stated that he was “force-fed together” with Al Hanashi. According to Mohamed, he last saw Al Hanashi on January 17, 2006, when the Yemeni prisoner “was taken outside Camp 5 to meet with the Joint Task Force commander, Adm. David Thomas, and the Joint Detention Group commander, Col. Bruce Vargo.” According to Mohamed’s account, Al Hanashi had agreed to be a prisoner’s representative “on camp issues such as hunger strikes and other contentious issues.” Al Hanashi never returned to his cell, and nothing was known of his fate among the detainees outside BHU until his death was announced.

Given what is known of the six months prior to Al Hanashi’s purported suicide, we are to believe that at the same time Al Hanashi restarted his hunger strike, he also became a prisoner’s representative and met with top camp officials. At some point, he was placed in the camp’s BHU. By mid-May, he had ended his hunger strike, but had also began a series of suicide attempts, for which he was placed on suicide watch. On the night of his death, he appears to have not been on suicide watch, since he was not found wearing the regularly issued suicide smock. He was in “good spirit,” yet he supposedly killed himself minutes later, after taking two different sedating tranquilizers, all while under supposed constant or near-constant surveillance.

No medical staff, camp guard or other prison or military official has ever been disciplined for presumed failures of standard operating procedures surrounding any of the Guantanamo “suicides,” at least so far as is known.

Stress and Mental Illness at Guantanamo

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found as early as June 2003 that the conditions of confinement at Guantanamo were “tantamount to torture,” as was documented in a “Memorandum for the Record to Major General Geoffrey Miller” on October 8, 2003. Questions about psychological torture at the Navy base prison were raised by ICRC as early as January 2003. According a New York Times article by Neil Lewis, “the Red Cross team found a far greater incidence of mental illness produced by stress than did American medical authorities, much of it caused by prolonged solitary confinement.”

The stressors of confinement at Guantanamo are many, and include the anxiety and tension associated with indefinite detention, isolation, long bouts of intense interrogation, behavioral controls of reward and punishment, periods of sleep deprivation, lack of access for years to an attorney, separation from family and loved ones, cruel treatment and at times torture.

A two-part series published at Truthout last year raised the question of whether waterboarding occurred at Guantanamo, and documented numerous occasions when similar forms of water torture was, in fact, used.

Other forms of detainee torture at Guantanamo, as documented in a 2006 report by the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, included sensory deprivation and sensory overload, exposure to cold, exposure to extreme violence and cultural and religious harassment.

One particular form of abuse that caused great controversy was the policy, still in place, of force-feeding hunger strikers. A report in the August 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association concluded, “force-feeding at Guantanamo Bay violates the Geneva Conventions, international human rights law, and medical ethics.”

Some of the Guantanamo detainees were persistently force-fed for years. The UN report noted that some forms of forced feeding, including accounts of the practice at Guantanamo, amount to torture.

Why Did Al Hanashi Die?

Whether or not Al Hanashi died a suicide, the question remains why he was driven to such a desperate measure, or why those in charge of his care failed so miserably to keep him alive. While his death may have been due to the stresses of torture and imprisonment, bringing the prisoner to despair and suicide, there may have been other, more distal causes affecting his situation.

Al Hanashi may have been singled out, along with Al Amri, as a trouble maker. Al Hanashi’s June 2008 detainee assessment, written as a memorandum for the commander of US Southern Command, labeled him a “HIGH threat from a detention perspective.” The report complained that Al Hanashi’s “overall behavior has been non-compliant and hostile to the guard force and staff.” The report, which was part of a large release of detainee files by WikiLeaks last year, listed “163 Reports of Disciplinary Infraction” up to that date, including “inciting and participating in mass disturbances, failure to follow guard instructions/camp rules, inappropriate use of bodily fluids, unauthorized communications, damage to government property, attempted assaults, assaults, provoking words and gestures, exposure of sexual organs, and possession of food and non-weapon type contraband.”

The report also describes the DoD’s version of Al Hanashi’s connections to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While Al Hanashi admitted in a written response to a Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing that he had associated with the Taliban, hedenied any association with al-Qaeda. The DoD relied for that claim on the interrogations of two detainees known to have been repeatedly torturedAbu Zubaydah and Sanad Ali Yislam al-Kazimi.

November 2009 Truthout article by this author speculated whether Al Hanashi’s death had anything to do with thepossibility that he was a material witness to the 2002 mass killings by Afghan Gen. Abdul Dostum, which possibly included knowledge or participation by US forces. (The Obama administration has refused to investigate the atrocity.) Al Hanashi had been imprisoned and then wounded at Qala-i-Janghi Prison, where there had been an uprising by Taliban prisoners. (His DoD assessment notes that, in interrogation, John Walker Lindh stated that Al Hanashi had helped negotiate the surrender of the prisoners.) Afterward, he was sent to Shabraghan Prison, where he spent the next four weeks or so recuperating in the prison hospital. In the hospital at the same time were survivors from the mass execution of Taliban prisoners. The bulk of the Taliban POWs had presumably been dumped in mass graves at Dasht-i-Leili.

A major news story by The New York Times on the Afghan mass graves, and a report on the forensic evidence gathered in the case was released in the month after Al Hanashi’s death. The Times report by journalist James Risen noted “several Afghan witnesses” to the slaughter “were later tortured or killed.” Had Al Hanashi talked to survivors of the massacre, and if so, what could he have said about it?

Interestingly, Dostum’s denial of any involvement in the murder of Taliban prisoners was posted just after the Times story broke at the web site for the US government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty web site, suggesting the US was actively involved in disseminating misinformation on the war atrocity.

Former detainee Binyam Mohamed, who knew Al Hanashi, found it difficult to believe he would take his own life, and felt Al Hanashi was murdered. “If he did take his life – after being forced into a BHU – what put him there?” Mohamed asked. “Who takes responsibility for making him lose hope after having held on for so many years, despite the inhumane treatment and conditions?”

Another Suicide

Al Amri’s death came almost exactly one year, and Al Hanashi’s death almost three years, to the day after three detainees were found dead on one night in June 2006. Another detainee, former British resident Shaker Aamer, was reportedly also beaten severely and suffocated by Guantanamo personnel on the same night. Aamer’s case has been a focus of British activists seeking his release.

All these deaths were called suicide by the DoD, and the investigations into them apparently proceeded with only the presumption of suicide. Even Al Amri, who had died with hands tied behind his back, was labeled a suicide by autopsy examiners only days after his death, with no indication of possible investigation into homicide.

In May 2011, a 37-year-old detainee, Inayatullah, also known asHajji Nassim, was found dead, reportedly hanging by bed sheets, in a recreation yard at Guantanamo. Nassim’s Guantanamo detainee assessment is one of 14 missing from the WikiLeaks Guantanamo release. Nassim’s attorney, federal public defender Paul Rashkind, has told the press that his client had attempted suicide twice before at Guantanamo, and was the long-time victim of “a paralyzing psychosis” that had begun long before he was sent to Guantanamo in September 2007.

According to the US government, Nassim was “an admitted planner for Al-Qaeda terrorist operations.” Nassim’s court filings also identify him under the alias “Harun Al-Afghani” and “Mohammed Naseem.” Other reports have described him as a father of six, “the owner of a black market cellphone store in Zahedan, Iran,” and someone who, sometime after his capture, stopped cooperating with US authorities under detention because he could not “afford his fellow Afghani detainees to believe that he cooperates with US intelligence.”

Rashkind would not answer Truthout queries about his client’s case, stating, “everything is classified.”

This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

UK Torture Inquiry Farce on Last Legs, While Rendition to “Killing” Remains Uninvestigated

8:36 pm in Torture by Jeff Kaye

Ian Cobain and Richard Norton-Taylor at the UK Guardian are reporting that the widely heralded 2010 announcement of a British government official inquiry into UK torture is facing a boycott by British human rights and attorney groups. The reason is undue secrecy.

[British Prime Minister] Cameron also made clear that the sort of material that has so far been made public with the limited disclosure in the Guantánamo cases would be kept firmly under wraps during the inquiry. “Let’s be frank, it is not possible to have a full public inquiry into something that is meant to be secret,” he said. “So any intelligence material provided to the inquiry panel will not be made public and nor will intelligence officers be asked to give evidence in public.”

This from the UK Guardian… July 14, 2010.

The handwriting was on the wall for some time on this sham inquiry, but the British human rights and lawyer groups kept fighting to make something real out of it. I can understand the impulse to do this, but really the inquiry’s true intentions were telegraphed when Sir Peter Gibson was made its chair, as I noted when the news first broke.

The investigation is being conducted by a panel of three, whose head is the intelligence-connected Sir Peter Gibson, who is Intelligence Services Commissioner, responsible for monitoring secret bugging operations by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA). Many questions have been raised by the appointment of Gibson, and it is startling to think that British human rights groups will accede to the appointment, given Gibson’s likely bias, not to mention his track record in other “judge-led” investigations.

The legal human rights charity group Reprieve describes three fatal flaws embedded within the official rules recently published for the inquiry:

First, the definition of evidence that will remain classified forever is hopelessly overbroad. Set out in Annex A [of the Detainee's Inquiry Protocol - PDF], this effectively includes anything that would in any way breach an “understanding” between the UK and its allies – in other words, anything the Americans would find embarrassing will not be made public…. Given that the essence of British complicity involves working with the US on torture and rendition, the exception to publicity swallows the rule.

Second, there is no meaningful, independent (preferably judicial) review of what should be kept secret… Unlike other inquiries where victims have made serious allegations of torture, the victims will not have meaningful legal representation. Their advisers will be denied access to any documents or hearings deemed secret by the inquiry.

Third, the Inquiry is left toothless due to a lack of powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or the provision of evidence or information from any party or organisation.

Truly, the UK government’s so-called inquiry is being set up as Reprieve director Clive Stafford-Smith called it, “a whitewash.” According to the Guardian article Shami Chakrabarti, director of the British group Liberty, states the inquiry is “a sham.” “When is an inquiry not an inquiry?” Chakrabarti asked. “When it’s a secret internal review.”

Hiding Murder in the Rendition Program

While the U.S. Department of Justice is finally considering two cases of murder of detainees by the CIA, in general, the Obama administration has an official policy of “not looking back” and non-accountability when it comes to crimes of torture. But it seems likely there are more crimes waiting to be revealed.

Last July, around the time the UK torture inquiry was first proposed, I broke the story that the revelations of UK cooperation with U.S. rendition policies included possible “rendition to killing.”

Like much of what I report, the revelation was not consistent with the accepted narrative of what the U.S. media is allowed to report, so it was also ignored by the supposed alternative blogosphere, who mainly grubs after the crumbs that are begrudgingly reported by Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or second-tier establishment-organs-cum-alternative-press like Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, or Salon.com. The mainstream press reports what government officials tell them, while the “alternative” press and bloggers report what academic and governmental dissidents say. Rarely is any real investigative work done.

But this revelation was based on hard documentation, as reported in my July 14, 2010 article.

A series of documents released on July 14 in the UK Binyam Mohamed civil case, Al Rawi and Others v Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Others, have produced a series of explosive revelations, reported in Britain and as yet unknown here in the U.S….

Now, one of the most incendiary revelations in the documents concerns instructions given to MI6 Special Intelligence Service (SIS) over detention operations. According to Chapter 32 of MI6′s general procedural manual, “Detainees and Detention Operations”, “the following sensitivities arise” (PDF – bold emphasis added):

a. the geographical destination of the target. Where will she or he be held? Under whose jurisdiction? Is it clear that detention, rather than killing, is the objective of the operation?

b. what treatment regime(s) for the detainees can be expected?

c. what is the legal basis for the detention?

d. what is the role of any liaison partner who might be involved?

The “objective” of “killing” points to the existence of extrajudicial murders carried out by the intelligence services. It’s not clear if the killings are by UK or liaison — including United States — forces. “Liaison partners” refers to instances of operational cooperation with non-UK intelligence agencies.

I have since discovered that BBC reported the same revelations about “killing” on July 15, so at least it was reported in the British press, where it made some stir, the BBC labeling as “stark” the paragraph on about “killing” as “the objective of the operation.” Still, no U.S. news outlet picked up on this.

This is not the first time that unheralded killings of detainees has appeared in an otherwise unnoticed document. Last December I reported on a discussion of Guantanamo health protocols at a February 19, 2002 meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board, where officials were told that a “number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with.”

This is not as impossible or incredible as it may sound. We know that Guantanamo, like other DoD and CIA sites had their share of “ghost prisoners,” i.e., prisoners whose existence was never reported to the International Red Cross or anyone else. Some of these disappeared forever. We don’t know how many. (Maybe a real torture inquiry would shed some light on this.) Indeed, Manadel al-Jamadi, the subject of one of John Durham’s recently announced criminal investigations, was such a ghost prisoner. And he, too, ended up dead, murdered.

Nor are such renditions and ghost prisoners a recent phenomenon. Consider the case of a Bulgarian political activist Dmitrov (aka “Kelly”) who was rendered to U.S. Fort Clayton in Panama in the early 1950s, where, according to declassified CIA documents, he became a victim of the CIA’s Project Artichoke mind control program. The full story was reported by H.P. Albarelli and myself in a Truthout article last year.

The United States, Great Britain and their partners in torture and rendition believe they are above the law, and that they can game the system forever. Perhaps they are right, and we have lost the battle before it was ever really engaged. I refuse to believe this is so. I can’t believe that I am alone in wanting justice, and seeking a radical change in the configuration of forces that control this planet, which are currently organized in the name of power and oppression, for the benefit of an economic elite, and not around justice, social and economic equality, and a rational, humane world order based on cooperation and mutual respect for all nations and all individuals.

We desperately need a real, international inquiry into the crimes of torture, rendition, and aggressive war. But there is no political force currently operative that has the power and influence to make this happen, as the pending collapse of the UK torture inquiry enterprise demonstrates. And that is truly the dilemma of our times.

Why is the NY Times Underplaying Account of Task Force 373′s Extrajudicial Killings?

12:05 am in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to examine the question posed in the title of this piece as carefully as I’d like, but even the quickly posted Wikipedia entry on Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Task Force 373 notes that there is a large discrepancy between the amount of targets on TF373′s "kill/capture" list as reported by the major media.

The figures are drawn from the extraordinary release of previously classified Afghan war reports by Wikileaks, and now searchable at the latter’s website.

Task Force 373 is alternately described by the New York Times as "a secret commando unit"; as "an undisclosed ‘black’ unit of special forces" by the UK Guardian; and "an elite American unit…. which operates in Afghanistan outside of the ISAF mandate" by Spiegel Online. These three news sources were partners with Wikileaks in the release of the documents, and had special access to the material prior to their public posting.

By all accounts, Task Force 373 seems to be a kidnapping and death squad, run by the Americans, but housed at a German base in Afghanistan. The very secret unit, unknown even to other ISAF forces, works off a "kill or capture" list known as JPEL, which stands for "Joint Prioritized Effects List." From this bland name springs an operations force that, according to the UK Guardian, has "more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida" on its seize or kill list. Most of the world press has reported this same or similar figure, though Spiegel only says the figure is "large":

The list of targeted individuals is arranged according to process number and priority level. Depending on the case, the commandos are sometimes given the option to arrest or kill their prey. Nowhere in the available documents is that list printed in full, but a total of 84 reports about JPEL operations can be filtered out of the thousands of documents. It is not possible to work out from the documents exactly how many JPEL targets there are in Afghanistan, but the four-digit process numbers are enough to suggest that the total number of targets is large.

It was the four-digit process numbers that the Guardian used to determine their figure. Simply put, they counted.

The pursuit of these "high value targets" is evidently embedded deep in coalition tactics. The Jpel list assigns an individual serial number to each of those targeted for kill or capture and by October 2009 this had reached 2,058.

But however they did it, the New York Times came up with a much different and drastically lower number.

Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.

The dramatically lower of numbers reported may be a fudged way of looking at figures. They say "top insurgent commanders", and this may be a subset of the total of 2000 or more. But the Times never reports the larger number, or even that it runs into the four digits. The import of this is to underplay the amount of killings. It’s unlikely there are 2000 or more "top insurgent commanders." So, who is the U.S. seizing or killing?

Operation Phoenix Redux

The Guardian article by Nick Davies reports much more than the single paragraph the New York Times dedicates to the story, emphasizing the legal, moral and political ramifications of the Task Force’s actions.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights, Professor Philip Alston, went to Afghanistan in May 2008 to investigate rumours of extrajudicial killings. He warned that international forces were neither transparent nor accountable and that Afghans who attempted to find out who had killed their loved ones "often come away empty-handed, frustrated and bitter".

Now, for the first time, the leaked war logs reveal details of deadly missions by TF 373 and other units hunting down Jpel targets that were previously hidden behind a screen of misinformation. They raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.

The Guardian story documents some of the cases of killings of women and children, and notes that there is also likely a British version of Task Force 373 operating in Afghanistan as well. The parallels with Vietnam are extraordinary, where U.S. counterinsurgency amounted to a large degree to a capture, torture and assassination program known to us today as Operation Phoenix.

It was only a few weeks ago that I noted (based on an observation in a Guardian story by Ian Cobain and Owen Bowcott) that documents released in Britain in the Binyam Mohammed et al. suit had referenced what sounded like extrajudicial killings associated with the rendition program. "Is it clear that detention, rather than killing, is the objective of the operation?" asks a protocol for MI6 operatives working with the U.S. on rendition operations.

Now we have evidence of massive killings underway by secretive U.S. forces, and of plenty of deaths of civilians who get in the way. But the U.S. press has mostly deep-sixed this aspect of the Wikileaks Afghan logs. A story by CNN makes no mention of how many people might be on TF373′s target list, but does add a word of dissent:

“You have people going in with a kill list and the public accountability simply doesn’t exist,” said Sarah Knuckey, director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Marc Ambinder on Task Force 373

Mainstream bloggers appear to be taking the lead of the major U.S. press. Take Marc Ambinder’s story on the release at The Atlantic, and his own reference to TF373:

The task forces themselves — well, there’s TF 373, the Joint Special Operations Command task force for Afghanistan, which has since morphed into something else. The structure is different today. There are, however, references to the activities of Task Force 2-2, a multi-element special operations element that has — and I emphasize has — the authority to basically self-task, to take bad guys off of the JPEL list (the joint prioritized effects list) and decide whether to capture or kill them based on the situation at hand.

There are several incidents in which 2-2 and other 373 elements killed civilians and saw those killings covered up or obscured in official press releases.

Ambinder’s link is to the same Guardian story on TF373 that I have quoted here, so I’ll give him that. But the failure to report the extent of the targets, and the reference to "take bad guys off the JPEL list" makes them sound, well, sort of innocuous, basically good guys. His view that the TF is "basically self-task" is belied by the Guardian’s coverage, which reports, "The process of choosing targets reaches high into the military command." Additionally, the idea that there have only been "several incidents" underplays the extent of damage done by the secret U.S. death squad.

Consider this "incident", reported by Speigel Online:

The documents don’t just reveal the existence and activities of the Taliban hunters, they also show why these special units cause so much anger in the Afghan population. Mistakes made by special units are kept secret. One particularly sensitive report of a TF 373 operation dated June 17, 2007 is classified so secret that details of the mission must not be passed on to other ISAF forces. On this day the soldiers appear to have committed a particularly fatal error. The aim of the mission seems to have been to kill the prominent al-Qaida official Abu Laith. The unit had spent weeks watching a Koran school in which the Americans believed the al-Qaida man and several aides were living. But the five rockets they launched from a mobile rocket launcher ended up killing the wrong people.

Instead of the finding the top terrorist, the troops found the bodies of six dead children in the rubble of the completely destroyed school.

The Guardian reports, "The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path."

It is a sign of how debased our society has become that reports of "targeted killings" and assassinations are met with little outrage in the press or by the public. Perhaps this is because we use terms that will not offend as much. Indeed, in the title of this very piece I use the term "extrajudicial killings" rather than "death squads" (which I do clearly use in the text) because I fear that this reality will be so discordant to readers that they will shun the article, perhaps too psychologically defended to accept the terrible truth about the government they have and the country they live in.

Let us say, too, that the mainstream press plays a major role in this. The downsizing of the figure of killings — really murders — by the Special Operations task force, as reported by the New York Times, or underplayed by major bloggers such as Marc Ambinder, lulls the population into believing the terror wrought by the U.S. military in Afghanistan is really not so bad. But it is bad. It is a war crime, and Julian Assange, who orchestrated the release of the documents upon which this story is based is correct in saying that they give evidence of war crimes. I’m reminded of recent stories that have cited the Harvard study (PDF) that showed how the media dropped using the word "torture" after Abu Ghraib.

One wonders what kind of schizoid state exists at the New York Times. One minute their ed board calls President Obama’s forcible deportation of an Algerian Guantanamo prisoner back to a country where he feared persecution, torture, or death "an act of cruelty that seems to defy explanation.” The next minute, the editorial news staff is minimizing the number of targets on a U.S. military task force hit list. I’ll let them figure that one out for themselves.

As for the rest of us, we need to step up the demand that U.S. and NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan.

UK on U.S. Rendition: “Is it clear that detention, rather than killing, is the objective of the operation?”

9:29 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

A series of documents released on July 14 in the UK Binyam Mohamed civil case, Al Rawi and Others v Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Others, have produced a series of explosive revelations, reported in Britain and as yet unknown here in the U.S. The story has been reported at the UK Guardian, while the British advocacy group Reprieve has posted links to all the documents on its site.

The fate of the "ghost prisoners" in the U.S. rendition torture program has been the subject of much speculation. It was a central mystery explored in the recently released best-selling thriller by Barry Eisler, Inside Out, which takes the CIA’s secret black site torture and disappearances as the real-world scandal around which the book’s plot revolves. Eisler’s book implies that there were more killings in the secret prisons than we know.

Now, one of the most incendiary revelations in the documents concerns instructions given to MI6 Special Intelligence Service (SIS) over detention operations. According to Chapter 32 of MI6′s general procedural manual, "Detainees and Detention Operations", "the following sensitivities arise" (PDF – bold emphasis added):

a. the geographical destination of the target. Where will she or he be held? Under whose jurisdiction? Is it clear that detention, rather than killing, is the objective of the operation?

b. what treatment regime(s) for the detainees can be expected?

c. what is the legal basis for the detention?

d. what is the role of any liaison partner who might be involved?

The "objective" of "killing" points to the existence of extrajudicial murders carried out by the intelligence services. It’s not clear if the killings are by UK or liaison — including United States — forces. "Liaison partners" refers to instances of operational cooperation with non-UK intelligence agencies.

Both the Guardian and Reprieve make it clear, as does a perusal of the documents themselves, that official British policy was to cooperate with the U.S. rendition program. At more than one point, the UK government, led then by Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, intervened to facilitate the rendition of prisoners, including UK citizens. At one point, in 2002, British officials discuss how to spin the leaks about UK cooperation with the rendition program: "Our line — that we are seeking information and reassurances and that the US is aware of our opposition to the death penalty — is not strong, but a stronger line is difficult until policy is clearer."

From the Reprieve report:

In a January 10, 2002, telegram from the FCO [Foreign Office], officials made clear that the Blair Government wanted British nationals taken to lawless detention in Guantanamo Bay: “we accept that the transfer of UK nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to the US base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet out counter-terrorism objective by ensuring that they are securely held"….

An FCO official recognized in an August 22, 2002, email that “we are going to be open to charges of concealed extradition” and that as a result of direct interference by Number 10 “we broke our policy” on consular access by failing to help Martin Mubanga. Mubanga, who was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing after years in lawless detention without charge, was rendered first to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo because Number 10 specifically refused to allow him to come home.

The Guardian article details a number of other details about "the Labour government’s involvement in the illegal abduction and torture of its own citizens." The UK government says it has identified half a million documents relevant to the Mohamed disclosure requests. The government’s request to stop the release of documents and force mediation with the plaintiffs was turned down by the British court.

Cameron Touts Secrecy for UK Torture Inquiry

The avalanche of documents has not escaped the notice of the new Cameron/Clegg coalition government. Just last week they announced the formation of a UK "judge-led investigation" regarding the complicity of intelligence personnel in the torture and rendition of detainees. The investigation is being conducted by a panel of three, whose head is the intelligence-connected Sir Peter Gibson, who is Intelligence Services Commissioner, responsible for monitoring secret bugging operations by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA). Many questions have been raised by the appointment of Gibson, and it is startling to think that British human rights groups will accede to the appointment, given Gibson’s likely bias, not to mention his track record in other "judge-led" investigations.

In any case, the six cases involved in the Mohamed civil proceedings are among those to be considered by the Gibson inquiry. While the government may not be able to stop the flow of documents in the Mohamed case, the Prime Minister was not going to let this be a precedent for the upcoming torture investigation.

From the UK Guardian:

Cameron also made clear that the sort of material that has so far been made public with the limited disclosure in the Guantánamo cases would be kept firmly under wraps during the inquiry. "Let’s be frank, it is not possible to have a full public inquiry into something that is meant to be secret," he said. "So any intelligence material provided to the inquiry panel will not be made public and nor will intelligence officers be asked to give evidence in public."

Maybe Cameron will be mollified if he looks at released documents like this one (PDF), in which almost 29 of 36 pages are totally redacted.

Exposing U.S. Torture

While on the surface this appears to be a story about Britain and torture, it is really about the United States. Tony Blair bent British rules and policies, including adherence to international treaties, such as the Convention Against Torture, at the behest of and to placate and cooperate with the United States.

At many points in the documents, it’s evident that British intelligence agents were witnessing serious abuse of prisoners. While they were told not to participate (actively) in the torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, the policies were written such that cooperation could proceed with ministerial approval.

The silence meeting these latest revelations in the U.S. press, the lack of ongoing interest in the UK torture inquiry, the failure by the so-called "progressive" components of the Democratic Party to strenuously take up the call by the ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, and other human rights groups for greater accountability and official investigations over torture is an ominous development. One can only hope at this point that the continuing revelations about great crimes and cover-up will reach a tipping point, and the outrage over other issues — the BP massive oil blowout, Mel Gibson, etc. — will attach to the torture issue, which goes right to the heart of what this nation is. And right now, that heart is rotten.