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Rachid Mesli is the legal director of Alkarama, a Geneva-based organization that documents human rights abuses throughout the Arab world. After Ahmed Ali Al-Salami died at Guantánamo Naval Base in 2006, his family asked Alkarama for assistance in arranging a secondary autopsy. As I recently reported, the doctor who performed that autopsy also requested that U.S. authorities send him Al-Salami’s throat, which had gone missing. Now the Pentagon appears to be claiming that Alkarama made no such request, so I asked Mesli for a more detailed account of what happened.
1. How did you come to be involved in the arrangements for a secondary autopsy for Ahmed Ali Abdullah Al-Salami, the Yemeni prisoner who died at Guantánamo on June 9, 2006?
Alkarama was approached by Mr. Al-Salami’s family. They made clear that they did not trust the results of the first autopsy performed in Guantánamo Bay by the U.S. authorities. We were formally engaged to organize an alternative autopsy by an independent team of forensic scientists.
2. What specific arrangements were made for a secondary autopsy? Was the body sent directly there by the Americans, or was it transferred from Yemen first?
The body was sent from Guantánamo Bay to Sanaa, Yemen to be returned to the family. They contacted Alkarama after taking custody of the body. Alkarama sought the medical assistance of the University Institute for Forensic Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland, which agreed to send a team led by Professor Patrice Mangin to Sanaa. The autopsy was performed on the premises of a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. After the autopsy was performed, Professor Mangin and his team produced a detailed report for Alkarama. We have sent you a copy of the public version of the report.
3. When and how did you learn that the neck organs and matter and the internal organs had been removed? What steps did you take to secure their return?
This was discovered by Professor Mangin’s team during the autopsy. I promptly raised this fact in a letter addressed on June 29, 2006 to Dr. Craig Mallak, the head of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland:
The family of Ahmed Ali Abdullah requested our organization to help them organize an autopsy of the body of their son who died on 10 June 2006 in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. We gave a mandate to a medical team directed by Prof. Patrice Mangin, head of the Institute of Legal Medicine of Lausanne University, in Switzerland, to perform this task and the autopsy took place last week in Sanaa.
We would like to put you in touch with the Lausanne medical team which needs some documents, materials and explanations from your side in order for them to finalize their report of autopsy. They need in particular the following:
1) A copy of the report of autopsy carried out by your team and the histological samples as well as the anatomical sample corresponding to the upper airways including the larynx, the hyoid bone and the thyroid cartilage removed in one piece during the autopsy.
2) A copy of the report of the investigation performed by the authorities of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. More information is required about:
a) The circumstances of the discovery of Ahmed Ali Abdullah in a state of hanging in his cell.
b) The modus operandi and the exact nature (documented by photos if possible) of the ligatures used to this effect (the press talked about clothes and bed sheets).
c) If reanimation measures were taken or not. If yes, what is the nature of these measures (administration or not of drugs, endotracheal intubation)?
d) The previous state of the victim, in particular the possible existence of signs of depression, attempt of suicide, hunger strike, and if possible a close photography of the face of Ahmed Ali Abdullah showing his dentition.
e) The exact conditions of conservation undertaken for the repatriation of the body of Ahmed Ali Abdullah.
f) The justifications for cutting off the extremities of all the nails of the fingers and toes of the victim.
g) Any information about suicide attempts during the preceding days or months.
3) A confirmation that the soft internal organs put in a plastic bag inside the body of Ahmed Ali Abdullah belong to him.
So I identified myself as the properly empowered legal representative of the deceased’s family and the requests relayed were, of course, coordinated with Professor Mangin and his team, the pathologists conducting the second autopsy.
This letter was delivered by mail directly to Dr. Mallak, with a copy also delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Bern. No written response was ever received, up to this day. We contacted the Embassy several times by phone and by email to inquire about our letter, without response.
We also followed up many times directly with Dr. Mallak by calling and emailing him at his office in Maryland. On July 31, 2006, Dr. Mallak stated that he was not allowed to cooperate with any organization without an explicit authorization from U.S. authorities. Such authorization had not been granted to him, he said. Accordingly, our request for the missing body parts and other documents was made formally and in writing, we know it was received by Dr. Mallak, and Dr. Mallak made clear that he was not being permitted to cooperate with us or the pathologists conducting the second autopsy.
4. Did you also confer with Dr. Said Al-Ghamadi, the pathologist handling the Saudi autopsies? Did he also attempt to secure the missing body parts to complete his autopsy?
We did try to organize an autopsy of the two Saudi victims. The families, the Swiss medical team and Dr. Said Al-Ghamadi all agreed for it. But this was not authorized by the Saudi authorities.
5. What did the second autopsy conducted by Dr. Patrice Mangin at the University Institute in Lausanne conclude?
You should examine the autopsy report itself for its conclusions. However, the main conclusions were that there were some troubling and unexplained facts: missing organs, cleanly cut nails (Prof. Mangin said that nails are important in forensics as they could give clues about the last movements, fights, etc. of the victims). Prof. Mangin’s conclusion was however that due to the fact that he was performing a second autopsy and important organs were missing, he was not in a position to give a clear opinion on the cause of death. He would neither imply nor rule out any possibility. He insisted he wished he had at least some cooperation from the U.S. pathologists who conducted the original autopsy and who retained the throat organs, internal organs and clippings.
6. Did you research Al-Salami’s psychological state by contacting those close to him?
Yes, we spoke with his father about his mental and physical health. Here is the relevant passage from an interview with Al-Salami’s father from March 1, 2007:
Q: How do you understand what transpired with your son at Guantánamo Bay?
A: What happened in this camp of such sinister reputation is an odious crime. It was an act contrary to the most elementary values shared by humanity. A prisoner has rights, he must be protected until he has been tried and convicted or freed. Those who claim that my son and his two Saudi fellow prisoners have committed suicide are liars. According to the information we received from others at the camp before their murder, the three victims were in good health and good spirits. They continuously studied the Holy Quran.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”