One month ago, Truthout’s Jeffrey Kaye published a review of autopsy reports released last year by the Department of Defense in response to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request concerning two unwitnessed prisoner deaths at Guantánamo that authorities had described as suicides. Now, Kaye reports that Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, is “looking into” the deaths. Heyns is a South African law professor who teaches at American University in Washington and holds a fellowship at Oxford.
Kaye also asked Cyril Wecht, a renowned forensic pathologist, to review the autopsy report and its supporting documents. Wecht agreed that the autopsy results supported the conclusion of suicide, but he noted that the report failed to rule out the possibility of homicide. He also faulted the military for not providing the pathologist conducting the autopsy with the ligature used in the alleged suicides. “If this is what a respected forensic expert states,” Kaye told me, “then the government should listen and release the evidence held in their investigations and be open to independent investigations held by international forensic investigators.”
In his initial February 29 review of the autopsy reports for Abdul Rahman Al Amri, who died in May 2007, and Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi, who died in June 2009, Kaye wrote:
[D]etails 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…
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 [was] 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.
Kaye noted that the reported deaths and autopsies are odd in a number of respects. First, the detention facility supposedly stopped using regular bed linens in February 2002, replacing them with “suicide watch” linens that could not be torn and used in such a manner. Second, the report claims that the linens were fashioned using a razor blade, but the Gitmo Standard Operating Procedure then in effect denied prisoners access to razor blades other than during shower periods, when their use was supervised. Kaye also focused on the fact that the autopsy failed to scrutinize the ligature purportedly used in the suicide.
According to the autopsy report on Al Hanashi, he had made five suicide attempts in the four weeks prior to his death, and was therefore under suicide watch, which entailed continuous monitoring. The report noted that his death was detected 25 minutes following the last check. Both Al Hanashi and a prior alleged suicide, Yasser Al Zahrani, had been held in northern Afghanistan at the time of the prison riot at Qali Jangi and the massacre at Dasht-i-Leili, and both could have figured as witnesses in an inquiry into those events.
I asked professor Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School, who has directed a series of studies on prisoner deaths at Guantánamo, what he thought of the latest developments. “Once again,” he replied, “a report of suicide, a questionable autopsy, and no investigation. It is deeply troublesome.”
The issues surrounding the autopsy reports from the Al Hanashi and Al Amri deaths are in some respects similar to those surrounding the three deaths that occurred on June 10, 2006. These questions do not disprove the U.S. government’s claims of suicide. But as U.N. rapporteur Philip Alston noted in a confidential communication about the 2006 deaths to the U.S. government:
When the State detains an individual, it is held to a heightened level of diligence in protecting that individual’s rights. As a consequence, when an individual dies in State custody, there is a presumption of State responsibility…
In order to overcome the presumption of State responsibility for a death in custody, there must be a “thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions, including cases where complaints by relatives or other reliable reports suggest unnatural death in the above circumstances.”
Serious questions remain about Guantánamo authorities’ claims that they have taken steps to address prisoner suicides since 2006. Rather than dispel these questions, the recent autopsy reports bear signs of errors and secrecy that actually multiply them. Was this just sloppy work, or was it a desire to cover up embarrassing or harmful facts associated with the deaths?