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Wednesday, January 20, 2010 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Journalist Kim Ives on How Western Domination Has...
2010-01-20

Casting Doubt on US Claims of Suicide, Attorney Scott Horton Reveals 3 Gitmo Prisoners Died After Torture at Secret Site

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New evidence has emerged suggesting three Guantánamo prisoners whom the US claims took their own lives in June 2006 died not from suicide, but torture. A six-month investigation by Harper’s Magazine indicates the three prisoners were suffocated and tortured during questioning at a secret black site facility at Guantánamo known as "Camp No." The article is based in part on testimony from a former staff sergeant who says the Obama administration has refused to investigate his claims. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT:

Amy Goodman filed those reports earlier in the broadcast from Port-au-Prince, where a powerful aftershock measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale just hit the Haitian capital. We still don’t know the extent of the damage or deaths from this aftershock, the strongest yet since the earthquake last week. We’ll continue to have reports from Haiti tomorrow.

Well, a year ago today, President Obama was inaugurated in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters in Washington, DC. Two days later he signed executive orders outlawing torture and vowed to close Guantánamo within a year. A year later, Guantánamo remains open, and the White House is facing accusations that it has covered up the possible murder of three prisoners at the US military prison in Guantánamo.

An explosive story has just been published in Harper’s Magazine. It’s titled "The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle." The story focuses on the night of June 9th, 2006, when three prisoners, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen, died at the base. Authorities at Guantánamo said the three men — Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, Salah Ahmed Al-Salami and Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi — had killed themselves. The commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, described their deaths as a, quote, “act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”

    REAR ADMIRAL HARRY HARRIS: ...smart. They are creative. They are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.

ANJALI KAMAT:

But new evidence has emerged suggesting the men died not from suicide, but torture. A six-month investigation by Harper’s Magazine indicates the three prisoners were suffocated and tortured during questioning at a secret black site facility at Guantánamo known at Camp No. The article is based in part on testimony from former Staff Sergeant Joe Hickman, who was on duty on the night of June 9th, 2006. Last February, Hickman approached the Justice Department after President Obama was elected, but an investigation into his claims was shelved.

For more on the story, we’re joined by the author of the article, Scott Horton. He is an attorney, international law expert and a contributor to Harper’s Magazine.

Scott Horton, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain this story. What happened? How did you find out these were not suicides?

SCOTT HORTON:

Well, you know, we should start just by noting the official story that was finally put forward by the government of how they died, because we hear Admiral Harris saying “asymmetrical warfare,” they committed suicide. There was never any detail spread out on the record at the outset. By piecing together very carefully the official NCIS investigation report, which was released —

ANJALI KAMAT:

NCIS?

SCOTT HORTON:

Is the Naval Criminal Investigation Service — we were able to see how they had concluded the suicides occurred. And they state that these three prisoners bound their feet, bound their hands with cloth, stuffed cloth down their throats, in some cases, at least, put masks over their faces to hold the cloth in place, fashioned mannequins of themselves to put in their beds to deceive the guards, put up cloth to obstruct the view of cameras, fashioned a noose which they attached at the top of an eight-foot wire wall, stepped up as their hands and feet are bound and they’re gagging on cloth, stepped up on top of a wash basin, put their head through the noose, tightened it, and jumped off — and moreover, that these prisoners, in non-adjacent cells, did all of these things absolutely simultaneously, in a clockwork-like fashion. So the story is just simply incredible and simply not believable, I should stress.

And then we began looking at autopsy evidence, all sorts of other evidence, which strongly suggested that there was something seriously inappropriate here. We talked with pathologists and so on, who told us they had rarely seen something quite as irregular as what was going on here. And then, ultimately, I was approached by Sergeant Hickman, who gave me his account. And it’s not just Sergeant Hickman, actually; it’s almost his entire unit who was on duty that night and the perimeter guards. Four other soldiers provided aspects of corroboration. There’s not a single element of Sergeant Hickman’s story that is not in fact corroborated by others, based on the their own eyewitness testimony.

And I should say, the things they observed are the things they were required to observe. It was their duty. These were the perimeter guards. They were supposed to keep close count of everything that happened, and particularly who went in and out of the base that evening. And what they tell us is that three prisoners were removed from that cellblock that evening between 7:00 and 8:00 and taken to the secret facility, Camp No.

ANJALI KAMAT:

Explain what Camp No is. Why is it called Camp No?

SCOTT HORTON:

Well, they call it Camp No because “No, it does not exist” was an answer that they were supposed to give if there were inquiries about it. In their first weeks on the job there in March 2006, they had come across it when they were doing perimeter patrols. In fact, two of the soldiers here were PIs, and they decided sort of to sharpen their skills. They were going to monitor and keep an eye on Camp No, which they did. And they largely believed that this was a facility that was being used by the CIA, or certainly by Intelligence Service agents. They noted un-uniformed government personnel from other government agencies who seemed to be involved with or connected with this facility.

ANJALI KAMAT:

And Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, might have also been involved?

SCOTT HORTON:

Absolutely. There’s quite a bit of evidence suggesting that JSOC and CIA are working together in these efforts.

ANJALI KAMAT:

Can you explain exactly what Joe Hickman told you? What was his account? What happened the night of June 9th, 2006?

SCOTT HORTON:

He was the sergeant of the guard that night. He was on duty. He came on duty a little bit after 6:00. At 7:00, he saw a vehicle that was called the “paddy wagon,” that was used strictly for detainee transportation, pull up next to Camp 1. He saw a prisoner emerge from Camp 1, was loaded into the back of the paddy wagon. Now, they were under strict instructions that the movements of this paddy wagon with prisoners were never to be recorded, nor were they to ask anything or identify the people who were on board. So he thought that was fine. It took off. He saw it make the turn and head in the direction of this camp.

Then, within twenty minutes, exactly enough time to make the trip to Camp No and return, the van was there a second time picking up a second prisoner. And in twenty minutes again, a third prisoner, a third time. He had never seen so much activity in close confines occur. He went out to the outermost perimeter checkpoint to follow exactly where this van was going. And he saw that in fact it was going to Camp No. There’s no question about that. So we know, by 8:00, these three prisoners from Camp 1 — and we have only three prisoners who were unaccounted for, the three who died by the end of that evening — had been delivered to Camp No.

He also noted then that after 11:00, that same van was pulled up in front of the detainee medical facility, backed up as if to unload something, ant that, shortly after that, that the first signs appeared that there were three dead prisoners. Also, other guards, not Sergeant Hickman, kept a close watch on the connections between Camp 1 and the detainee medical facility. The official report says that they were found in their cells, they were taken out and dropped at this medical facility. Well, there’s an alleyway that’s under tight observation by two towers at opposite ends of it, and the guards who were on duty at those two towers confirmed to me that there was no movement of any prisoner, whether on a gurney or stretcher or any other way, from Camp 1 to the detainee medical facility that night. So the claims that they were found in their cells and taken to the medical facility — no.

ANJALI KAMAT:

Explain what happened when their bodies were found. What state were their bodies in?

SCOTT HORTON:

Well, the bodies were reportedly found at about 12:30, and the medical examination showed that they had been dead for at least two hours at that point. So the pathologists are putting the time of death at, say, roughly between 10:00 and 10:30, sometime in that time frame.

ANJALI KAMAT:

And how did the commanders at the base react?

SCOTT HORTON:

The commanders reacted — we know that Colonel Bumgarner rushed to the scene, arriving there shortly before 1:00, long after all this activity is over. And the next morning, the guards are assembled in a Camp America theater, an open area, and they’re told that, “Look, many of you know that these prisoners died” — or actually, he said, “We all know that these prisoners died by having rags stuffed down their throats, but tomorrow the press is going to be broadcasting a different story. The story that will run is that they committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells, and you may not contradict or undermine that in any way. You should not talk about what you saw or observed.” And he reminded them that their telephones and their email communications were being monitored.

ANJALI KAMAT:

After your piece was published on Tuesday, Colonel Bumgarner, the former commander, sent an email to the Associated Press. It read, quote, "This blatant misrepresentation of the truth infuriates me. I don’t know who Sgt. Hickman is, but he is only trying to be a spotlight ranger. He knows nothing about what transpired in Camp 1, or our medical facility. I do, I was there." Your response?

SCOTT HORTON:

I think Colonel Bumgarner has a real problem right now. And we’ll just start with the last part, "I do, I was there." Either he lied to the Associated Press or he lied to the Naval criminal investigators, because he gave them a sworn statement, which includes the words "I was not at the camp that night," the night of 09JUN06. He says, in fact, he was at a social function in the quarters of Admiral Harris. And he goes on to say he came to the camp a little bit before 1:00 on the 10th of June, which, of course, is long after all these events had transpired.

Beyond that, he says, “I do not know Sgt. Hickman.” That’s also demonstrably false. In fact, he was so impressed with the way Sergeant Hickman had handled defusing the prison riot on May 18th, which was probably, other than these suicides, the most dramatic event that occurred on his watch, that he put him up for a medal and awarded the medal to him. And there’s quite a bit of other evidence of their direct relationships. That’s just not a true statement.

And the beginning statement is a non-denial denial. He doesn’t actually deny anything.

ANJALI KAMAT:

Scott, we just have a minute left. Talk about the role of the Justice Department in the cover-up and where the Obama administration is on this. What’s happened over the past year?

SCOTT HORTON:

Well, maybe that’s the most distressing single element other than the deaths themselves. The Justice Department is intimately involved in covering up these crimes from the first days after they occur. FBI is deployed to intimidate people not to speak about what’s going on. Justice Department is then filing papers with federal judges in which it makes apparently false statements about everything that went on here. And then when the Obama administration is notified about this, they engage in a further cover-up, claiming to conduct an investigation, but we know from the course of it that they concluded that they would not open a criminal investigation before they even contacted the critical witnesses here. Cover-up after cover-up. And Barack Obama is not upholding the pledge he made when he received the Nobel Prize to enforce the Geneva Conventions.

ANJALI KAMAT:

And these three men were about to be released? They were slated for release?

SCOTT HORTON:

All three of them —

ANJALI KAMAT:

Ten seconds.

SCOTT HORTON:

Yes. It had been concluded that none of them were al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters. And in fact, the Bush administration had decided to release all three of them.

ANJALI KAMAT:

Well, that’s all we have time for. Scott Horton, contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine. The latest piece is called "The Guantánamo ‘Suicides.’”

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