January 29, 2009, Washington, D.C. – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the Washington College of Law filed the final brief in a civil action naming Donald Rumsfeld and 23 other military and medical officials for their role in the illegal detention, torture, inhumane conditions, and ultimate deaths of Yasser Al-Zahrani and Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed Al-Salami while in the custody of the United States at Guantánamo Bay. The case was filed by the families of the two men, who also seek to hold U.S. officials responsible for the government’s callous response following the deaths.
“I am a father who lost his son. The families were never contacted, the U.S. government never made any effort to explain what happened to us. The manner in which they handled this case shows a level of arrogance and total disregard for the feelings of others – like this was a traffic accident,” said Talal Al-Zahrani, father of Yasser Al-Zahrani and one of the plaintiffs. “It doesn't really matter if this was an intentional death or an accidental death or suicide. The point is that the U.S. government bears responsibility. The death of a child brings sadness in normal circumstances. Add to this that our son experienced harm, systematic torture, and then wrongful death. Add to this that the U.S. government tried to cover up what happened. Add to that that we thought he was coming home.”
Continued Al-Zahrani, “Even if the U.S. government gave me the world’s money, it would not bring my son back, and no amount of money can compare to or replace even a minute of time I could have spent with my son if he were alive. The American government has already admitted its use of torture at Guantanamo. Those who were involved in my son’s death should be brought to justice.”
Al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia and Al-Salami of Yemen, as well as a third detainee, Mani Al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia, were reportedly found dead in their cells at Guantanamo on June 10, 2006. At the time of their deaths, Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami had been detained incommunicado for more than four years without charge. In letters found following their deaths, the men described their conditions and abuse, including being beaten by teams of military police known as the “Extreme Reaction Force,” deprived of sleep for up to 30 days, subjected to desecration of the Qur’an and forced shaving, and denied necessary medical care. Al-Zahrani, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, wrote of the “continuous oppression” of being isolated in a small cell each day and prohibited human contact.
Both men were also long-time hunger strikers and force-fed with restraint chairs introduced at Guantanamo in late 2005, which continue to be used. The process involved strapping the men into chairs and restraining them at their legs, arms, shoulders, and head. A tube was then forcibly inserted up their noses and down their throats, and as much as 1.5 liters of formula was pumped into their stomachs at a time. The men were kept restrained for an hour following their “feeding” to ensure that they wouldn’t purge the formula.
“The conditions these men lived and died under haven’t changed significantly since their deaths – they need to change, and Guantanamo needs to be closed, before another detainee dies on Obama’s watch,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The U.S. government never directly notified the men’s families that their sons had died. Al-Zahrani’s family heard from relatives that the name “Al-Zahrani” was mentioned on television in connection with the deaths and then contacted the Saudi Ministry of Interior, which confirmed that Al-Zahrani was one of the deceased. While Islamic law calls for burials within 24 hours of death, the remains of the men were not returned to their home countries until almost a week after they died, and with organs removed and signs of physical injury and trauma. Autopsies were performed on the men without notifying their families or obtaining the families’ consent. The U.S. government has also refused to answer repeated questions from the families and physicians who conducted independent autopsies about the condition in which the bodies were returned.
Government spokespersons and military officials also made a number of derisive comments about the men following their deaths. One official referred to the deaths as “a good PR move.” The government also continued to vilify the men as “terrorists,” despite the fact that it has never presented any evidence to support its claims.
“We must not – and cannot as a society – forget the stories of who these men were and what they endured at the hands of U.S. officials. Nor can we ask their families to sacrifice their quest for justice and accountability,” said Meetali Jain, faculty in the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Washington College of Law.
Two other men have died in U.S. custody at Guantanamo – Saudi Abd ar-Rahman Maadha al-Amry in May 2007, and Afghan Abdul Razzak Hekmati in December 2007, reportedly of a treatable disease. Neither of these men was charged with a crime by the government. The results of any investigation into their deaths have yet to be released.
CCR has led the legal battle over Guantanamo for over six years and has been responsible for organizing and coordinating more than 500 pro bono lawyers across the country in order to represent the men detained there. CCR also works with men who were formerly detained and their families to seek justice and accountability for the abuses suffered during their imprisonment.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.