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Gitmo Suicide Report Complicates DOJ Lawsuit Stance


Guantanamo detainees line up for morning prayers. (The Toronto Star/ZUMApress.com)

How did prison guards at Guantanamo Bay overlook three men hanging from nooses in their cells for more than two hours, in what was supposed to be a super-high security prison housing “the worst of the worst” terrorists in the world?

That’s one of the central questions addressed by a new report released on Monday from Seton Hall University Law School about the deaths of three detainees at Guantanamo Bay on the night of June 10, 2006. The report finds that government officials, after failing to prevent the prisoners’ deaths, then sought to deflect responsibility by claiming that the men were engaging in “asymmetrical warfare” against the United States, tried to hide what happened from the media and detainees’ lawyers, and neglected to conduct a thorough and credible investigation or hold any prison guards responsible.

[Law1]These latest revelations about the deaths of three men at Guantanamo are consistent with a broader trend in how the U.S. government has tried to conceal the circumstances of deaths in U.S. custody and shield U.S. officials from liability, by seeking to dismiss all lawsuits brought against government officials by family members of deceased detainees.

TWI recently reported that the Obama administration is fighting to squelch a lawsuit brought by the families of two of the prisoners who are the subject of the Seton Hall report, claiming that a law passed by Congress protects U.S. officials from liability for any mistreatment of detainees who were declared “enemy combatants” and held in U.S. custody. The government also argues — most recently in a legal brief filed last Friday — that the relatives of the men are not entitled to sue because, among other things, the court should not interfere in foreign policy and national security matters, and a remedy would “have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of the military.” The government also argues that the officials sued are immune from suit because the dead prisoners did not have any constitutional rights to better care or supervision, and none of the 24 military and former military officials sued personally participated in denying them any constitutional rights. The government argues that neither the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment right to Due Process nor the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment apply to Guantanamo detainees.

As Salon blogger and Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote on Monday: “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.” In each case, the administration has argued, as aggressively as the Bush administration ever did, that “federal courts have no right to adjudicate claims that the Government violated the Constitution and the law,” writes Greenwald.

TWI has pointed out and Harper’s contributing editor and human rights lawyer Scott Horton wrote over the weekend that the government is even making these claims to defend John Yoo, and to argue that no government lawyers ought to be held responsible for advising the government to engage in clearly illegal conduct, even if the consequences were, forseeably, that someone would be tortured or even killed.

In their legal complaint, the fathers of two of the young men, Yasser Al-Zahrani and Salah Al-Salami, both in their 20s, claim their sons were beaten, sleep-deprived, isolated, held in freezing cold or excruciatingly hot temperatures, humiliated, prevented from practicing their religion and denied necessary medication. The fathers, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, claim the young men were obviously suffering from deteriorating mental health and growing despair. Deemed “enemy combatants,” they’d spent four years locked up at the Guantanamo prison camp without charge, without seeing the evidence against them, and without ever even meeting with a lawyer who could press their case in a court. Both had engaged in a prolonged hunger strike with other prisoners, and, their fathers say, clearly presented a high risk of suicide.

Yet somehow, as the Seton Hall report points out, the three men were left unsupervised in their cells for long enough that they were able to tear up their sheets and clothing and braid them into a noose; make mannequins of themselves to fool guards into believing they were asleep in their cells; hang sheets to block the guards’ view in violation of prison rules; stuff rags down their own throats; tie their own feet and hands together; hang the noose from the cell wall or ceiling; climb up on to the sink in the cell, put the noose around their necks and release their weight so as to die by self-strangulation; and hang dead for at least two hours in the cell, without attracting any attention from the prison guards.

According to the report, five guards were responsible for 24-hour supervision of 28 detainees in the constantly-lit prison cells, which were also monitored by video cameras. Although the guards were initially suspected of giving false statements and read their Miranda rights, they were also ordered not to write out sworn statements, although that’s required by the military’s standard operating procedures. Ultimately, no one was held responsible for any wrongdoing, the report concludes.

Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall and Director of the school’s Center for Policy & Research, which conducted the study of the military’s investigation into the three deaths, said in a statement that the investigation shows “guards not on duty, detainees hanging dead in their cells for hours and guards leaving their posts to eat the detainees’ leftover food.”

Denbeaux also called the government’s investigation “a cover up,” adding that “given the gross inadequacy of the investigation the more compelling questions are: Who knew of the cover up? Who approved of the cover up, and why? The government’s investigation is slipshod, and its conclusion leaves the most important questions about this tragedy unanswered.”

A Pentagon spokesman reached late Monday said that defense department officials had not yet reviewed the Seton Hall report and had no comment.

In light of the Obama administration’s consistent position that government officials cannot be held legally liable for any mistreatment of Guantanamo detainees, however, the answers to those remaining questions may never be answered.

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