Gitmo Suicides: The Unanswered Questions

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 3:15 PM EST

On the night of June 9, 2006, according to the US military, three separate prisoners in separate cells in the maximum security section of the prison at Guantanamo Bay braided nooses out of their sheets and/or pillowcases, made mannequins of themselves so it would appear to the guards that they were asleep, hung sheets to block vision into their cells, tied their own feet together, tied their own hands together, stuffed rags down their mouths and throats, hung the noose from the metal mesh of their cell walls/ceilings, climbed up on to their sinks, put the nooses around their necks, released their weight to result in death by strangulation, and hung for at least two hours, completely unnoticed by guards, even though the cells were supposed to be under constant supervision by guards and video monitoring.

The above is a slightly edited version of one of the most disturbing parts of a 58-page report (PDF) on the Guantanamo deaths by students and faculty of the law school at Seton Hall University, released on Monday morning. The study slams the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) inquiry into the incident. As Scott Horton noted in the Huffington Post, "It is not even clear that it would be physically possible for the prisoners to commit suicide consistent with these facts." Here's a list of some big questions that the NCIS left unexplained: 

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There is no indication that the medics observed anything unusual on the cell block at the time that the detainees were hanging dead in their cells.

The initial military press releases did not report that, when the detainees‘ bodies arrived at the clinic, it was determined that each had a rag obstructing his throat.

There is no explanation of how the supposed acts of "asymmetrical warfare" could have been coordinated by the three detainees, who had been on the same cell block fewer than 72 hours with occupied and unoccupied cells between them and under constant supervision.

There is no explanation of why the Alpha Block guards were advised that they were suspected of making false statements or failing to obey direct orders.

There is no explanation of why the guards were ordered not to provide sworn statements about what happened that night.

There is no explanation of why the government seemed to be unable to determine which guards were on duty that night in Alpha Block.

There is no explanation of why the guards who brought the bodies to the medics did not tell the medics what had happened to cause the deaths and why the medics never asked how the deaths had occurred.

There is no explanation of why no one was disciplined for acts or failures to act that night.

There is no explanation of why the guards on duty in the cell block were not systematically interviewed about the events of the night; why the medics who visited the cell block before the hangings were not interviewed; or why the tower guards, who had the responsibility and ability to observe all activity in the camp, were not interviewed. 

Human Rights Watch has called for the military to release an unredacted version of the NCIS report so that the public can get a better idea of what happened. "The heavy-handed nature of the redactions to the publicly-released reports of the investigations makes it impossible to get a clear picture of the events of that night. We think that the heavy redactions currently found in the documents—by which names, dates, and other key facts are completely obscured on many pages—raise concerns about whether the military is trying to hide embarrassing facts," an HRW spokeswoman told Horton.

But it's unlikely that we'll ever learn much more about these deaths. That's because the Obama administration is actively trying to block a lawsuit that could produce some answers. The lawsuit, brought by the families of two of the dead men, accuses Bush administration officials of responsibility for torture and wrongful death. Glenn Greenwald notes that the two men "had never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any wrongdoing," and that one had been cleared for release the month of his death. Greenwald continues:

In fact, the Brief filed by the Obama DOJ demanding dismissal of the case explicitly argues—in classic Bush/Cheney fashion—that merely allowing discovery in this case to determine what was done to these detainees would help the Terrorists kill us all:

All of this is depressingly consistent with multiple other cases in which the Obama DOJ is attempting aggressively to shield even the most illegal and allegedly discontinued Bush programs from judicial review.

If you want to read more about this, check out Horton's article; his Q&A with study supervisor Mark Denbeaux, who said "The most innocent explanation is that this is Gitmo meets Lord of the Flies"; Andrew Sullivan's highlighting of that Q&A; and Glenn Greenwald's piece on the story.