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New York Times Decides Guantanamo Detainee Committed Suicide

Jason Leopold continues to do superb reporting on the mysterious death last September of Guantanamo detainee Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif. Monday, Leopold posted breaking news that a government autopsy report on Latif, not yet officially released, concludes that the 36-year-old prisoner died of suicide.

Guantanamo protesters in prisoner outfits with 'CLOSE GUANTANAMO' Banner

Despite years of pressure (& a presidential promise) Guantanamo remains open.

Leopold sourced the revelation to Yemeni government officials and “a US military investigator close to the case.” The Department of Defense has not yet officially stated any cause of death for Latif, who was discovered inert in his cell at Guantanamo’s Camp 5 on September 8.

Leopold wrote that a “spokesman for United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Joint Task Force-Guantanamo’s (JTF-GTMO) higher command” told Truthout that DoD would “issue a statement as soon as [Yemen] accepts [Latif’s] remains.” Just two days after Latif’s death, a Guantanamo spokesman told Associated Press, “There is no apparent cause [of death], natural or self-inflicted.”

But none of this stopped the New York Times from stating in an editorial Sunday calling for Guantanamo’s closure that Latif had in fact committed suicide. Coming out of nowhere, such a statement was, frankly, bizarre.

Here’s what the Times wrote, some 12 hours before Leopold even posted his story at Truthout, and with no published source anywhere definitively reporting Latif’s cause of death as suicide (bold emphasis added):

In September, a member of this stranded group, a Yemeni citizen named Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, killed himself after a federal judge’s ruling ordering his release was unfairly overturned by an appellate court. It was the kind of price a nation pays when it creates prisons like Guantánamo, beyond the reach of law and decency, a tragic reminder of the stain on American justice.

Narratives R Us

There is a lot wrong about the claims in the NYT op-ed, as much as I might agree with the overall thrust of the editorial about shutting down Guantanamo. The Times editors may have thought the latest death of a prisoner at Guantanamo highlighted the crime of keeping Guantanamo open. And they are right about that, but their conclusion — their narrative of Latif’s death — closes off inquiry into what actually occurred, and in doing that they are not acting as a watchdog upon possible government abuse.

First of all, there is no affirmative statement by the government that Latif’s cause of death was suicide. In fact, as Leopold points out in his article, all the earlier statements from DoD led one to believe that suicide was not a cause of death. The only recent article to claim otherwise was by Leopold, and it was not published until many hours after the NYT made their claim.

Secondarily, not only does the New York Times supposedly know how Latif died, they also imply they know why he killed himself, i.e., he “killed himself after a federal judge’s ruling ordering his release was unfairly overturned by an appellate court.”

Well, yes, he did die after the appellate court ruling — nearly eleven months afterward, as the ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia came in October 2011. A subsequent appeal by Latif’s attorneys to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected last June, also approximately three months before Latif died.

Since no one reads articles very carefully, and it is enough to spread a particular narrative in mainstream media sources to manufacture a version of Truth, the NYT does its readers a disservice by producing a bogus narrative of the death of Adnan Latif. According to the Times, Latif killed himself, and it was likely because his court case was overturned.

To be fair to the Times, there were stories in the press that speculated upon just such a scenario, as the Reprieve spokesperson in this Alternet article from last September appeared to do. In addition, the Swiss chapter of Amnesty International wrote about the Latif death on November 1, and indicated that the Guantanamo prisoner had died of suicide. (“Le suicide du détenu yéménite Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif en septembre 2012 nous rappelle la cruauté de ce régime de détention qui permet une détention illimitée et illégale.”).

But statements by human rights groups are not the same as statements by the editorial board of the New York Times. One wonders what led them to assert that Latif had died from suicide, when no public source, indeed no story in their own paper had reported the same, until Truthout published Leopold’s story nearly 12 hours later.

“Questions Remain”

Leopold’s story is subheaded, “Questions Remain.” Indeed they do.

The Truthout story draws upon eyewitness stories from a number of detainees as reported to human rights attorney David Remes. While Truthout withheld detainees’ names to prevent possible retribution by Guantanamo authorities, former British resident Shaker Aamer gave permission for his name to be attached to his own statements about Latif’s death.

Aamer, who is the subject of a major campaign to secure his release from the U.S. prison camp, told Remes that, among other things, Latif had been on hunger strike just before he died. He had been moved into Camp 5 only two days before he was found dead.

While readers should turn to Jason’s article to read his complete story, it is worth noting the barebones of the revelations here, as it’s unlikely you’ll get them in the mainstream media any time soon.

According to Aamer and other detainees, Latif had gotten into an argument with guards in early August, after they failed to pass on a request from Latif about not getting his medications. Latif reportedly threw a rock at a guard tower and broke one of the spotlights.

Leopold’s story explains what happened next:

The incident took place during Ramadan and resulted in dozens of soldiers being called into the rec area, some of who rolled up in Hummers, fired their weapons into the ground and threatened to kill Latif, according to several prisoners who were present.

“The guards came into Camp 5 with guns, and beat up the detainees,” another prisoner recalled. “Other soldiers surrounded the camp. [The Officer in Charge] came and told detainees, ‘You are extremists and I’m going to deal with you in a harsh way. You intend to kill our soldiers; we’ll do the same thing to you.'”

While the New York Times pushes a narrative that links Latif’s death to judicial decisions that happened many months before, I’d suggest that you don’t have to be a fan of the mystery genre to know that if someone is threatened with being killed and then ends up dead in mysterious circumstances only a few weeks later, you’ve got something that needs investigation. But such investigation should not come from the same institution whose personnel made the death threats.

In fact, the seven alleged suicides at Guantanamo, and nine deaths overall since 2002, call out for an independent investigation. (I’d note that I also revealed evidence in a government document that there were earlier deaths of detainees at Guantanamo in early 2002. These, too, should be investigated.)

As reported in my Truthout story on two earlier Guantanamo “suicides,” that of Abdul Rahman Al Amri in May 2007 and Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi in June 2009, like Latif both men died in Camp 5. The circumstances of their deaths were also strange. Al Amri was discovered with his hands tied behind his back. Al Hanashi’s ligature (the means whereby he supposedly strangled himself) was never provided to autopsy doctors. It took years to get the autopsy reports on these prisoners, and the NCIS investigations have never been released.

In January, 2010, Scott Horton published a lengthy exposé at Harpers that seriously questioned the government’s narrative about the deaths of three detainees on June 9, 2006. Like Al Amri, these detainees were also found with their hands tied behind their backs. They had cloth rags stuck down their throats in what UC Davis researcher Almerindo Ojeda has speculated could have been a form of “dryboarding.” Yet the government still claims these deaths were suicide, and much of the mainstream media has defended the government’s position.

The New York Times should be calling for an independent investigation into the death of Adnan Latif and the other supposed Guantanamo “suicides,” and not constructing a dubious, unsourced narrative that discourages further inquiry.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.