Questions raised over Guantanamo deaths

Magazine article disputes official version of suicide

Camp Delta guards told Harper’s magazine that three detainees were taken to a “black’’ site shortly before their deaths in 2006. Camp Delta guards told Harper’s magazine that three detainees were taken to a “black’’ site shortly before their deaths in 2006. (Joe Raedle/ Getty Images/ File 2004)
By Pete Yost
Associaetd Press / January 19, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Three Guantanamo Bay detainees whose deaths were ruled a suicide in 2006 apparently had been transported from their cells hours before their deaths to a secret site on the island, an article in Harper’s magazine asserts.

The published account released yesterday raises serious questions about whether the three detainees actually died by hanging themselves in their cells and suggests that the US government is covering up details of what happened in the hours before the deaths on the night of June 9, 2006.

In response to the magazine article, the Justice Department said yesterday that it had thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Harper’s reported that the deaths of the three detainees, or the events that led directly to their deaths, most likely occurred at a previously undisclosed facility a mile or so from the main Guantanamo Bay prison complex.

Harper’s based much of its account on interviews with several prison guards who said they knew of the existence of the “black’’ site and that they saw three detainees removed from Camp Delta several hours before the deaths were reported and transported in a white van toward the secret site.

Those who knew of the black facility referred to it as “Camp No,’’ reported the magazine, quoting Army Sergeant Joe Hickman, one of the guards.

Anyone who asked if the black site existed would be told, “No, it doesn’t,’’ the magazine reported, quoting Hickman.

After the terrorist attacks on US soil on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA set up a number of so-called “black’’ sites around the world, where harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists took place. The Harper’s article suggested such a site at Guantanamo Bay may have belonged to the CIA or to the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command.

The three Guantanamo detainees were Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, 37, of Yemen; Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, 30, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, 22, both of Saudi Arabia.

According to Harper’s, at a 7 a.m. meeting on June 10, 2006, with 50 or so soldiers and sailors, Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner said the three men had swallowed rags, causing them to choke to death.

Bumgarner, a commander at Guantanamo Bay, went on to say that the news media would be guided to report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells, according to the magazine.

The servicemen were to make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report, Bumgarner reminded them, according to the Harper’s piece, written by Scott Horton, an attorney who has worked for years on Guantanamo Bay detainee issues.

Four guards on duty the night of the deaths gave an account to the magazine that differs from the official account and the four were not interviewed by the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which looked into the deaths, Harper’s reported.

Yesterday, in response to the article, Bumgarner said in an e-mail that “this blatant misrepresentation of the truth infuriates me.’’

Bumgarner said that Hickman “is only trying to be a spotlight ranger; he knows nothing about what transpired in Camp 1 or our medical facility. I do, I was there.’’ Camp 1 is the facility where the three detainees were ordinarily held.

Bumgarner added that he wanted to set the record straight but would have to get clearance before he could talk to the news media.

“The department took this matter very seriously,’’ Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said in response to the Harper’s article. “A number of department attorneys extensively and thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing.’’