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Was detainee’s death a suicide?

Miami Herald
by Binyam Mohamed
June 11, 2009


To the prisoners at Guantánamo, Mohammed Ahmed Abdullah Saleh was simply known as Wadhah al-Abyani (Wadhah meaning “one who clarifies” and Abyan the place where he came from in Yemen). Last week, it was announced that he had apparently committed suicide in his cell. After almost eight years in US custody, Wadhah came home to his native Yemen in a coffin. He was no more than a few months older than I. He was born in 1978. Coincidentally, he was numbered 078 by the US military.

At 5’10” in height, his weakened body weighed no more than 104 pounds the last time I saw him. Wadhah had, like many prisoners still held in Guantánamo, been on a hunger strike before I left, protesting the conditions, abuses and absence of justice we were all subjected to.

We were force-fed together, transported to the chair willing or unwilling, strapped to it according to the doctor’s orders. A sympathetic-looking nurse would ask which nostril we would like to have the tube inserted in. While the 25-inch of hard tube is forced through your nostril down to your stomach, your eyes swell with tears and run down your cheeks. It’s always comforting to hear the nurse say, “Oh don’t worry. It’s OK, that happens to everyone,” as she wipes off your tears for you. And as the tube goes through the throat, you get the sensation of choking. Coughing is a norm but some start vomiting blood. With the years of hunger-striking, very few can keep what’s being pumped into them down.

Wadhah was always being put into segregation because of his determined insistence in pointing out the realities of what had happened to us all. The fact is, US authorities didn’t like him talking about words and practices they were only too familiar with: kidnap, rendition, torture, degradation, false imprisonment and injustice. But, while Wadhah opposed the policies and treatment in Guantánamo, he didn’t have problems with the guards. He was always very sociable and tried to help resolve issues between the guards and prisoners. He was patient and encouraged others to be the same. He never viewed suicide as a means to end his despair.

According to my personal diary, on Jan. 5, 2009, at around 11:20 a.m., I was taken from my cell to meet the Camp 5 NCOIC [non-commissioned officer-in-charge]. I was asked if I wanted to represent the prisoners on camp issues such as hunger strikes and other contentious issues. I declined, as did most. But poor Wadhah agreed, wanting to help his brothers the best he could. Little did he realize that if they didn’t get their way he would be the one sacrificed. The following Saturday, on Jan. 17, he was taken outside Camp 5 to meet with the Joint Task Force commander, Adm. David Thomas, and the Joint Detention Group commander, Col. Bruce Vargo.

Wadhah never returned to his cell, and two weeks later we learned that he was moved to what we called the “psych” unit — the behavioral-health unit (BHU). There has yet to be any explanation as to why he was sent there or even what was the cause of death. The BHU was built as a secure unit to prevent, among other things, potential suicide attempts.

Everything that someone could use to hurt himself has been removed from the cell, and a guard watches each prisoner 24 hours a day, in person and on videotape.

In light of this, I am amazed that the US government has the audacity to describe Wadhah’s death categorically as an “apparent suicide.”

I believe that this was a murder, or unlawful killing, whichever way you look at it. An innocent Muslim man not charged or tried for seven years has lost his life because of illegal incarceration:

• If he did take his life — after being forced into a BHU — what put him there? Who takes responsibility for making him lose hope after having held on for so many years, despite the inhumane treatment and conditions?

• If his death occurred by “natural causes,’” then the years of hunger strikes (since 2005) in protest against unjustified incarceration may well have led to some type of organ failure that caused his death.

• If he was killed by US personnel — intentionally or otherwise — then what does this mean for those left behind with no hope of release or a justified solution to their incarceration?

The United States needs to understand how yet another unsatisfactorily explained death in its most infamous prison is going to be interpreted in the Muslim world.

We need answers.

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