In the Name of Allah Most Compassionate Most Merciful
It is with great sorrow and anger that we have received news of the deaths of three Muslim men detained for over four years in Guantánamo Bay. Our first words are condolences from the Qur’an, “Verily, we came from Allah and to Him we shall return”, with which we reach out to the families of the deceased. Manei al-Otaibi, Yasser al-Zahrani (Saudi Arabia) and Ali Abdullah Ahmed Al Salami (Yemen) were victims of a system we all know painfully too well – a system that has led to their deaths.
Some of us know what it’s like to see our own children for the very first time, after years spent in a cell the size of a small toilet; or to see our fathers, mothers and wives after being made to believe that we would never see them again. Sadly, that threat is now a reality for these three men and their families – at least in this life. Just like all of us, these men were sons, brothers, husbands and kin to people who waited in agony for years hoping for news of their loved ones. And this is how they receive it.
One of the tools used by US interrogators – a fact now accepted by several former US personnel who served in Guantánamo – was to remove all notions of hope. We were not only made to believe that we would never see our families again, but also, that we would remain in custody for decades, without charge or trial. Some of us were even threatened with execution. We were constantly told the US administration’s policy toward detainees, which has not changed to date, was that we had “no rights”. Toilet paper, soap, toothbrushes, bed sheets, reading and writing materials, 15 minutes of ‘recreation’ twice weekly in an area three times the size of our cells, showers and changes of clothing were all considered privileges which could be, and were, removed at the whims of guarding Military Police (MP) units.
In Guantánamo we witnessed numerous suicide attempts; we know that hundreds of prisoners were regularly on hunger strike in protest against arbitrary, long-term incarceration and ill treatment, because we were among them. We know that prisoners were force-fed and forcibly injected with unknown chemicals in order to keep them alive. We were told that the US really ‘didn’t give a damn’ about the detainees, but they [detainees] had to remain alive to ‘feel the punishment for their crimes’ despite having no charges, no trials and no recourse to justice.
All of us had been physically and sexually degraded, beaten, forcibly stripped and shaved, and then abandoned for up to three years by our government. Some of us were placed in isolation cells for years – with no natural light. We all contemplated suicide at some point (some of us were even shown innovative methods of killing ourselves, as suggested by US military psychiatrists). As days turned into weeks, months and years – without a foreseeable end, thoughts of never wanting to wake up, after falling asleep, often came. As a result, severe depression was something none of us were immune from. But our will to survive prevailed. Our hope against hope was that we lived to tell our story to the world one day.
We only have the US military’s word for it that the three men in fact did commit suicide, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario where US authorities would ever allow an independent and timely inquiry into the deaths, or even release the ‘suicide notes’ they claim were left. After all, US guards in other military detention facilities have been found responsible for killing detainees – almost four years after the fact.
The prisoners in Guantánamo knew Manei al-Otaibi as someone who recited the Qur’an and poetry with a beautiful voice. He was of high moral character and was loved and respected amongst the prisoners, as was Yasser. They both came from wealthy backgrounds and had everything to live for.
They were often involved in protests and hunger strikes, which meant that they were always given ‘level four’ statuses. That means the only items they would be allowed in the cell were a mat, and a blanket (only at night). They didn’t have toilet paper, let alone bed sheets that could be easily constructed into a noose, or even a pen and paper with which to write a suicide note. After being on hunger strikes for months on end there is little doubt these men would also have been very weak. To end the hunger strike Extreme Reaction Force (ERF) teams were usually sent in to forcibly enter the cell and remove prisoners to the hospital, where the medical staff would then force feed them. That means soldiers, in helmets and full body armour, carrying shields, would charge down the block and enter the cell. Just before entry, the prisoners would be dowsed with pepper spray in the face, causing them to cover their eyes and mouths, often before vomiting. The prisoners were often smashed down against the floor under the full crushing body weight of five US Military Policemen. Some of us had our heads hit against the ground or put in the toilet; fingers were poked in our ears and eyes; we would be put in headlocks, arm locks, jumped on and kneed in the back whilst all the other detainees listened to the screams and shouts and fearfully awaited their own turn. Some of us were even rendered unconscious by this method. These actions were filmed by a 6th guard and watched by the guard commander. The same procedure would be repeated for each detainee who ‘failed to comply’. It is not difficult to envisage unintended deaths ensuing from this process, since we feared for our own lives when it happened to us. It is harder to imagine three simultaneous suicides.
It has been reported that the three men died in Camp 1 (Delta). We know that the only isolation block in Camp 1 is ‘India’, where there are no places to attach or tie anything, since the cells are made of sheet steel welded together. In our experience, suicide attempts in this camp could only be, and were, made in the main cellblocks, where the cells were constructed of meshed steel, through which sheets could be threaded. Those of us who ever witnessed a prisoner attempting suicide always raised the alarm instantaneously by screaming and banging on our cells. The guards, who were always patrolling the blocks or were close by, would respond immediately to take down the prisoner. Many questions about the official story remain unanswered.
In our experience, the official US response from Guantánamo to the deaths is not surprising: they call it a ‘Public Relations stunt’ and a method of ‘asymmetrical warfare’. We, who have suffered the misery and hopelessness of Guantánamo and understand what it is which can drive a perfectly rational man to take his own life, know otherwise. The Americans were always dreading the possibility of the death of a prisoner in Guantánamo precisely because of Public Relations and world opinion. In sharp contrast, the US administration has had no qualms about detainee deaths in places like the Bagram detention facility it operates in Afghanistan – where many detainees were initially held. The media has had very little access to Bagram, where, not surprisingly, world opinion remains muted. They have always known that the rest of the world – allies included – feels at best uncomfortable with Guantánamo, while the chorus of powerful voices unequivocally calling for the closure of the US base grows daily. The pathetic response offered by the US military commander at Guantánamo Bay is symptomatic of the paranoid and ludicrous nature that now shapes the disastrous ‘war on terror’. The fact is that the US began losing its own asymmetrical PR war on the very day pictures of Camp X-Ray were circulated by the world’s media. We hope that this episode produces the final nail in the coffin of Guantánamo Bay, that the detainees are safely returned to their families, and that this darkest of chapters in modern US history is finally closed.
Feroz Abbassi, Rhuhel Ahmed, Moazzam Begg, Richard Belmar, Tarek Dergoul, Jamal al-Harith, Asif Iqbal, Martin Mubanga and Shafiq Rasul.
British citizens formerly held at Guantánamo Bay