by Leili Kashani, Center for Constitutional Rights
This month marks five years since three men who were never charged with any crime died in US custody at Guantánamo under circumstances that remain unexplained and that were never independently investigated. The men’s names were Yasser Al-Zahrani, Salah Al-Salami, and Mani Al-Utaybi, and they reportedly died on June 9 or 10, 2006. The military has persistently maintained that their deaths were suicides by hanging. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of Guantánamo at the time, shamefully called them “acts of asymmetrical warfare waged against us,” while a State Department official characterized them as a “good PR move.”
However, as investigative journalist Scott Horton revealed in his award-winning article in Harper’s Magazine last year, eye-witness accounts from four decorated soldiers stationed at the base strongly suggest that the government covered up the actual cause and circumstances of the deaths, and that the men did not die in their own cells by their own hands, but at the hands of government officials at a secret site in Guantánamo. Moreover, as Horton also documents, independent pathologists in Switzerland and Saudi Arabia who performed autopsies on the men’s corpses—once these were released by the US military—noted that they bore marks of trauma and were missing various body parts including neck organs and the throat, which are critical to determining the cause of death. Both pathologists contacted the American authorities responsible for the initial autopsy at Guantánamo with questions and requested the missing body parts. Like the families of the men, they have never been contacted by US authorities or received any answers.
Not only have both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to conduct a full and independent criminal investigation into these deaths, but they have worked to block the families of the dead from even having their day in court. As I have previously written, last autumn the DC District Court dismissed Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld, a civil lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)—the human rights organization at which I work—in an effort to secure answers for the families of the dead and ensure that those responsible are held accountable. Obama administration lawyers, like the earlier Bush attorneys, argued that no court should even review the evidence and facts of the case, but should instead dismiss it given that responsible officials would have immunity even if they had committed the alleged abuses and caused the three men’s deaths. Government attorneys also cited national security considerations as a basis for dismissing the case and argued that federal courts lack legal jurisdiction over any foreigners in US custody designated as “enemy combatants.” This position effectively grants the government the power to arbitrarily label a foreign citizen as an “enemy combatant,” torture or kill that individual, and then cover it up, without any legal accountability whatsoever.
It should continue to stun people—and inspire protest and resistance—that US courts have so far accepted the government’s position with regards to this particular case, and more broadly have consistently relied on “special factors,” “state secrets,” and “political question” doctrines to dismiss cases brought before them about US torture and abuse. Not once in the past decade has a court decided to evaluate the actual facts of a case alleging torture, or rule on the legality of torturing individuals in offshore detention.
Six days ago, CCR appealed the District Court’s decision on behalf of the families of two of the three men who died. CCR attorney Pardiss Kebriaei said, “The new evidence with which we are trying to re-open this case does not result from any wild speculations from the families of the dead, or their attorneys, or a journalist. It comes from the eye-witness accounts of four soldiers who were compelled to come forward by their consciences, out of a sense of duty, and at great personal and professional risk.” She continued, “In this context, where the only people who know the truth are our clients’ dead sons and individuals within the government, the information these four men have brought forward is critical. It must give the families of the dead a chance to reopen their case. It is shameful that this information hasn’t been given greater consideration by the court.”
Days after the three deaths in 2006, nine British citizens who had been detained at Guantánamo and knew the deceased expressed that they did not believe the men had committed suicide. One of them, Tarek Dergoul, who is now back home in England, recently told me, "I knew Yasser, Salah and Mani personally, for a long period of time, and I knew of their deep will to resist being broken by Guantánamo and to live. These were beautiful men, and Yasser and Mani used to sing songs and recite poetry to lift the spirits of the other detained men. They always fought for the rights of all of us to be free from the abuses we were tormented with, and they were repeatedly subjected to harsh treatment because of this. I have never believed these men committed suicide as the government claims." Several other formerly detained men have also independently expressed that they do not believe the three 2006 deaths were suicides.
Today is Father’s Day in the United States and other countries around the world, and I promised two men whose loved ones were among the three who died that June night in Guantánamo that I would share the statements they each composed for this day, reflecting on their families' dead sons. The first is from Talal Al-Zahrani, Yasser’s father. The second is from Nashwan Al-Salami; he is Salah’s brother and writes in the absence of their father who died without ever receiving any answers about how his son died at Guantánamo.
I hope that readers will not only learn and tell the story of what happened to these men, but also demand that the Department of Justice both conduct an independent investigation into their deaths and also change course from the government’s policy of attempting to block every torture and abuse case, including Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld, from proceeding. (See CCR’s webpage here about contacting the Department of Justice, and see this factsheet to learn more about Guantánamo today.)
A Father’s Day Letter from Talal Al-Zahrani: “I address you as a grieving father who is haunted by questions about how my son died in US custody”
Today is Father’s Day in the United States and in various countries around the globe, and today I mourn my son’s death anew, as I and my family have done with every new dawn since his unexplained death in US custody at Guantánamo in June 2006.
I address you as a grieving father who is haunted by questions about how my son died in US custody, and who knows my family, like all families facing such a nightmarish state, deserves answers. My son Yasser was a 17 year old boy when he was taken to Guantánamo and 22 years old when he died there, never having been charged with any crime and on a list of detained men slated for release. The US government has claimed that Yasser and two of his friends committed suicide, despite all the evidence that has surfaced to the contrary, including first-hand testimonies by four Guantánamo prison guards who make clear that what they saw contradicts the official story, and despite the clear marks of torture and abuse that I saw on my son’s body with my own eyes, once he was finally returned to me, broken and dead.
I have waited for five years for recognition of my loss and for meaningful answers to my questions about how my son died, but no one in the US government has ever contacted me. Not when my son died, not in response to my questions afterwards, and not to this day. US officials did not even have the courtesy of telling me that my son had died in their hands; I was delivered this shocking and colossal blow through a family member who learned of it over the television news.
So far the US government has not only failed to properly investigate my son Yasser’s death but is also attempting to block an investigation and review of the facts by the courts. This is incredibly painful for me, my wife, our other children, and all who knew and loved Yasser. The Center for Constitutional Rights has recently appealed the lower court’s decision to side with the government and not even hear our case, and my deep hope is that the US justice system acts as it should in a democratic society and helps bring closure to my family.
I also hope that every American parent might have the compassion and empathy to imagine themselves in my shoes, and does what they can to help secure accountability for my son’s death. I hope they tell his story and demand answers from their courts and government. I believe that a bond of solidarity between parents, and between all people, can emerge when we are our most compassionate and best selves. And I know that there are American people who believe this too. I hope they will act to ensure that their courts and government do not make a mockery of their most cherished ideals.
For the last two and a half years of my son’s life, my family was not allowed any communication with him, and US authorities never allowed us any meaningful communication during the more than four years he spent at Guantánamo. This was another layer of torture inflicted on our son, and it was torture for us.
Now death has cut my young son Yasser off from us for the duration of our lives, and his mother and I are forced to confront this horrible reality every day, each time we open our eyes and realize, again, that he is not with us. I often wake up in the middle of the night and go from my bed to my son’s bed, missing him and thinking I can find him sleeping there, only to relive the nightmare of his loss. When my wife passes by Yasser’s room, she too cannot help but feel that he can’t be gone and that he will return, while at the same time suffering with the knowledge that it will not be so. My wife and I often sit on our son’s bed together, and remember him.
Yasser was smart and young and so very alive. He was open to life, open-minded, and hopeful about the world. He loved to play soccer and to make friends, and he wanted to learn about the world and to help people.
My wife and I will not see Yasser again, except for in our dreams, where he has been with us all this time.
No one can bring our son Yasser back to us, but I fervently hope that another Father’s Day does not arrive without answers and recognition for his loss. Whatever ultimately happens in the courts, I count on all of you to remember him and press for justice for all who have been tortured in US detention sites.
Father of Yasser Al-Zahrani
A Father’s Day Letter from Nashwan Al-Salami: “My father died with the grief of having lost a son, and of never having been afforded any sort of closure about his son’s death”
In the Name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful
I address this letter to the American people and all who seek justice and its implementation on the face of this earth. It is Father’s Day in the United States, and for me it is a sad day as I write in lieu of my father who died without having received any meaningful answer about how his son, my brother Salah Eddine Ali Abdullah Al-Salami, died at Guantánamo.
My brother Salah died at Guantánamo when he was thirty seven years old. The US government claims that he committed suicide. No one who really knew him believes this, and there was never a full and independent investigation into his death or that of the two other men who died in US custody on the same night. Also, the Swiss pathologist who handled the examination of my brother’s corpse confirmed that there is strong evidence that Salah was killed and did not commit suicide. Questions were sent to the US government about this, but to this day we have not received any response.
The US government has attempted to block judicial inquiry and review of my brother’s case, which is handled by the Center for Constitutional Rights, an American human rights organization. The same US authorities who profess to be the guardians of justice and democracy all over the world have refused to conduct any real investigation or render accountability for my brother’s death. For five years the US government and courts have only blocked my family’s efforts to know the truth about how my brother died.
These authorities do not realize that they lose credibility with every day they delay answering to the families of the men who died at Guantánamo, families whose hearts ache with grief.
I appeal to all people who care about justice—as understood by all human beings and enshrined by every faith—to do everything in their power to make it a reality, so that all the world’s nations can live in peace.
My father died with the grief of having lost a son, and of never having been afforded any sort of closure about his son’s death. On this Father’s Day, I wish for a different fate for myself and others who loved Salah, and for a time in which no father or person has to suffer what my family has suffered.
Nashwan Ali Abdullah Al-Salami
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June 20, 2011