Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Four US soldiers cast doubt on Gitmo ’suicides’

By Daniel Tencer

Four members of a US military intelligence unit assigned to Guantanamo Bay are questioning the government's official version of the deaths of three detainees in the summer of 2006.

The soldiers are offering a very different version of events than the one provided by the official report carried out by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. Their stories suggest the three inmates may not have killed themselves -- or, at least, not in the way the US military claims.

"All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths," reports Scott Horton at Harper's magazine.

According to the US Navy, Gitmo detainees Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani were found hanged in their cells on June 9. 2006. The US military initially described their deaths as "asymmetrical warfare" against the United States, before finally declaring that the deaths were suicides that the inmates coordinated among themselves.

But a report from Seton Hall University Law School, released last fall, cast doubt on almost every element of the US military's story. It questioned, for example, how it would have been possible for the three detainees to have stuffed rags down their throats and then, while choking, managed to raise themselves up to a noose and hang themselves.

Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman told Harper's magazine that he was made aware of the existence of a secret detention center at Guantanamo, nicknamed by some of the guards "Camp No," because "No, it doesn't exist." According to Hickman, it was generally believed among camp guards that the facility was used by the CIA.

Hickman also said there was a van on site, referred to as the "paddy wagon," which was allowed to come in and out of the main detention area without going through the usual inspection. On the night of the three detainees' deaths, Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon leave the area where the three were being detained and head off in the direction of Camp No. The paddy wagon, which can carry only one prisoner at a time in a cage in the back, reportedly made the trip three times.

Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon return and go directly to the medical center. Shortly after, a senior non-commissioned officer, whose name Hickman didn't know, ordered him to convey a code word to a petty officer. When he did, the petty officer ran off in a panic.

Both Hickman and Specialist Tony Davila told Harper's that they had been told, initially, that three men died as a result of having rags stuffed down their throats. And in a truly strange turn of events, the whistleblowers say that -- even though by the next morning it had become "common knowledge" that the men had died of suicide by stuffing rags down their own throats -- the camp commander, Col. Michael Bumgarner, told the guards that the media would "report something different."

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