By Andy Worthington
It has just been reported that Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih (also known as Mohammed al-Hanashi), a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, has died, apparently by committing suicide.
The news comes just three days after the second anniversary of another death at Guantánamo — that of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi prisoner who died on May 30, 2007 — and just eight days before the third anniversary of the deaths of three other prisoners — Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani — who died on June 10, 2006, and it must surely hasten calls for the urgent repatriation of other prisoners before there are any more deaths at the prison.
The Associated Press, which first reported the story, stated that US military officials had reported that Salih, who was 31 years old, was found “unresponsive and not breathing in his cell Monday night,” and that he had died of an “apparent suicide.”
Like the other prisoners who died of “apparent suicides” at Guantánamo, Salih had been a long-term hunger striker, refusing food as the only method available to protest his long imprisonment without charge or trial. According to weight records issued by the Pentagon in 2007, he weighed 124 pounds on his arrival at Guantánamo, but at one point in December 2005, during the largest hunger strike in the prison’s history, his weight dropped to just 86 pounds.
Salih was one of around 50 prisoners at Guantánamo who had survived a massacre at Qala-i-Janghi, a fort in northern Afghanistan, at the end of November 2001, when, after the surrender of the city of Kunduz, several hundred foreign fighters surrendered to General Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, in the mistaken belief that they would be allowed to return home. Instead, they were imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi, a nineteenth century mud fort in Mazar-e-Sharif, and when some of the men started an uprising against their captors, which led to the death of a CIA operative, US Special Forces, working with the Northern Alliance and British Special Forces, called in bombing raids to suppress the uprising, leading to hundreds of deaths. The survivors — who, for the most part, had not taken part in the fighting — took shelter in the basement of the fort, where they endured further bombing, and they emerged only after many more had died when the basement was set on fire and then flooded.
Like many of the prisoners at Guantánamo, Salih had traveled to Afghanistan many months before the 9/11 attacks, to fight as a foot soldier for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s long-running civil war against the Muslims of the Northern Alliance. When the US military reviewed his case at Guantánamo in 2004, he refused to attend the hearing, but provided a statement via his Personal Representative (a representative of the military assigned in place of a lawyer), in which he said that he arrived in Afghanistan eight or nine months before the 9/11 attacks, and admitted being a member of the Taliban, but made a point of adding, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean I supported Osama bin Laden.”
He also admitted fighting on the front lines against the Northern Alliance, but added “that he fired at the enemy, but did not kill anyone,” and also admitted staying in four different Taliban-run guest houses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although he also made a point of saying that he hadn’t heard of al-Qaeda “until from the media on the front lines.” He also explained that he did not participate in military operations against the United States or its coalition partners, saying, “The first time I saw Americans was in Kandahar” (at the US prison used for processing prisoners after their capture). He also denied an allegation that Osama bin Laden spoke to “his group” in Tora Bora (the site of a battle between US/Afghan forces and remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in late November and early December 2001), saying that he had never been in Tora Bora, which was, of course, true, as he was in Qala-i-Janghi instead, and was then moved to General Dostum’s prison at Sheberghan, where he was imprisoned when the Battle of Tora Bora took place.
It is not known yet if President Obama’s Pentagon will deal more sensitively with his death than has happened previously. I would be surprised if any comments are made that can compare with those made by Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of Guantánamo at the time of the deaths in 2006, who said, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us,” or Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, who described the suicides as a “good PR move to draw attention,” but in every previous case of a “suicide” at Guantánamo, the Pentagon has subsequently made official pronouncements about the men’s alleged involvement with terrorism, even though they — like Muhammad Salih — had never been charged or tried, and even though there was no substantial evidence to suggest that this was the case.
In Salih’s case, as in the cases of many — if not the majority — of prisoners at Guantánamo, the false allegation I identified above is not the only piece of untrustworthy material masquerading as evidence in his file. As I reported just two weeks ago, when it was announced that one of Guantánamo’s “high-value detainees,” Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was to be put forward for trial in a federal court in New York, I discovered during my research for my book The Guantánamo Files that another allegation against Muhammad Salih had been made by Ghailani, while he was held in unknown conditions in a secret prison run by the CIA.
As I explained at the time, "one of the more disturbing aspects of the gathering of evidence used against the Guantánamo prisoners is the accumulation of allegations from [their tribunals and review boards, in which] an enormous number of claims are attributed to ‘a senior al-Qaeda operative” or “a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant."
With no names given, it has been impossible to establish the source of these claims, although they are frequently so at odds with a previously established chronology of the prisoner’s actions — placing them at training camps and in guest houses when they were not even in Afghanistan, for example — that it’s readily apparent that many, if not most of these allegations were produced under duress, probably when supposed “high-value detainees” were being shown the “family album” of prisoners that was used from the earliest days of the US-run prisons in Afghanistan, in late December 2001.
On one occasion only, I discovered that one of these “al-Qaeda” sources had been named, and was none other than Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. As I explained in The Guantánamo Files, “The Yemeni Mohammed al-Hanashi [Muhammad Salih] admitted to his tribunal in 2004 that he arrived in Afghanistan eight or nine months before 9/11, and that he fought with the Taliban. By the time of his review in 2005, however, new allegations had been added, including the claim that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani ‘identified him as having been at the al-Farouq camp [the main training camp for Arabs, associated in the years before 9/11 with Osama bin Laden] in 1998-99 prior to moving on to the front lines in Kabul.’ In other words, although al-Hanashi admitted traveling to Afghanistan to serve as a foot soldier for the Taliban, a man who was held in extremely dubious circumstances in another part of the world was shown his photo and came up with a story about seeing him two or three years before his arrival in Afghanistan, which would, henceforth, be regarded as evidence against him.”
I find it disturbing enough that, after seven and a half years’ imprisonment without charge or trial, Muhammad Salih has died at Guantánamo, but as we await further details from the prison authorities, I sincerely hope that this man — not a terrorist, but a soldier in what he thought was a holy war against other Muslims — is not slandered in death, as were Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, Yasser al-Zahrani and Abdul Rahman al-Amri before him.
POSTSCRIPT: The following is a press release issued by the Yemeni embassy in Washington D.C.
We are saddened to learn of the death of Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih Alhanashi, a Yemeni detainee at Guantánamo Bay who apparently committed suicide late last night (Monday the 1st of June, 2009). An Embassy representative is on route to Guantánamo to be briefed on the situation and to participate in the proceedings that are required after such incident. The Embassy representative will oversee that the remains of the deceased detainee are being treated in accordance to Islamic customs. We will work closely with the US government to repatriate the remains of the deceased as soon as possible. We extend our deepest condolences to the family of the deceased. In addition, this incident demonstrates the urgency of closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. The Yemeni government is looking forward to cooperate closely with the US administration to expedite President’s Obama decision to close Guantánamo.
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon.