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Gitmo Detainee’s Body Returned to Yemen, New Details on His Death Revealed

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) said today that the body of Allal Ab-Aljallil Abd al-Rahman Abd (aka Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif) was repatriated to Yemen. The SOUTHCOM statement did not indicate the date or time the body was returned, nor who received the remains.

On November 26, Jason Leopold at Truthout broke the story that Latif’s death would be attributed to suicide. Two days later, Charlie Savage at The New York Times reported that the autopsy would show Latif, who supposedly was found unconscious in his cell on September 8, died from an overdose of psychiatric medication.

Meanwhile, Latif’s body languished at a US Air Force base in Germany, supposedly the object of a dispute between the Yemen and U.S. governments over the former receiving both an autopsy and the results of the full U.S. investigation into the death. The autopsy report was sent to Yemen on Nov. 8. Subsequently, the Yemen government said the body was expected to be sent to them any day, but the U.S. government said the hold-up over release was on the Yemen side. Meanwhile, Latif’s family in Yemen could get very little information about what was going on.

Acute Pneumonia”

SOUTHCOM’S statement is the first official announcement about the cause of Latif’s death. As terse as it is, it does include somewhat surprising new information.

The medical examiner concluded that the death was a suicide. Mr. Latif died of a self-induced overdose of prescription medication. The medical examiner also concluded that acute pneumonia was a contributing factor in his death.

The revelation that, according to the US military, “acute pneumonia was a contributing factor” to the death raises a host of questions. While pneumonia can develop quite quickly, it is worth noting that Captain Robert T. Durand told Jason Leopold in a statement back on October 8 that Latif had been “medically cleared for transfer to Camp 5” only a few days before his death. (Thanks to Jason for pointing that out to me.) Camp 5 is a high-security block at the Cuba-based prison, and Latif was reportedly in solitary confinement in a disciplinary wing of the facility.

Even if Latif looked well enough for transfer from the Detention Hospital where he had been held, there is a new question as to how his medical condition went unnoticed when the detainee is checked on multiple times a day, and indeed, per hour. It is also the case that the detainee’s cell is monitored by 24-hour video surveillance. Jason Leopold and I detailed in an article the other day just how difficult it would have been for Latif to have hoarded medications under such a strict regime.

The symptoms of acute pneumonia, moreover, are usually fairly dramatic — shaking, difficulty breathing, coughing — and one wonders why in the day or so before he died he had not been medically attended for pneumonia. How did that go unrecognized? Latif complained in meetings with his attorney that medical care and withholding of medications from hunger strikers in particular was a way Guantanamo authorities tried to control or break prisoners.

Medical abuse?

Other researchers have also documented serious problems with medical care at Guantanamo. In an April 2011 article for PLoS Medicine, Dr. Vincent Iacopino, senior medical advisor to Physicians for Human Rights, and Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired US Army Brigadier General, wrote:

Medical doctors and mental health personnel assigned to the US Department of Defense neglected and/or concealed medical evidence of intentional harm. The full extent of medical complicity in US torture practices will not be known until there is a thorough, impartial investigation including relevant classified information. We believe that, until such time as such an investigation is undertaken, and those responsible for torture are held accountable, the ethical integrity of medical and other healing professions remains compromised.

The U.S. government has long contended that detainees are treated humanely, and that medical issues are given as much care as that of any U.S. military personnel.

Further information from DoD about the circumstances surrounding the repatriation and the autopsy result has been difficult to obtain, as the voice mailbox at the Public Affairs Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD-PA) is “full.”

However, late today, I did receive an email back from an unnamed Duty Officer, Defense Press Office. I had asked SOUTHCOM a number of questions, including what medications Latif supposedly overdosed with; when Latif was diagnosed with pneumonia; why had he been “medically cleared” earlier and by whom; and why the body was finally released and what its disposition would be once in Yemen.

OSD-PA replied, “Jeffrey, the US Southern Command press release represents the extent to which the Department is currently prepared to publicly discuss the matter. Until such time as any future statements by the Department may be made, we refer you to the Yemeni government. Thank you.”

Meanwhile, the message machine at the press affairs office at the Yemen Embassy in Washington, D.C. also says it is “full” and can’t currently take messages. An email query to the embassy had not been returned at time of publication for this article.

[UPDATE, 12/16/12, 8:00 AM: Yemen embassy spokesperson Mohammed Albasha returned my queries early Sunday morning via Twitter. Asked when the family might be receiving Latif’s remains, and whether there were any plans for a second autopsy, Albasha replied, “subject is now between the family and the state[.] not sure what or when the next step will be executed.”]

In a brief post at Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler notes the irony of the SOUTHCOM press release reiterating the statement DoD always makes, viz. “Joint Task Force Guantanamo continues to provide safe, humane, and lawful care and custody of detainees. This mission is being performed professionally, transparently, and humanely by the men and women of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.”

You could basically take issue with every modifier SOUTHCOM uses to describe JTF-Gitmo’s mission and its treatment of prisoners. Wheeler focuses on the ostensible “transparency”:

It took two and a half months to learn Latif committed suicide. We’re only now learning he suffered from acute pneumonia. And we still do not officially know how badly his head injury–the one the government claims didn’t really exist so they could keep him detained–expressed itself while at Gitmo, much less the drugs he was being given, ostensibly for that and mental health problems.

Let me focus for just a moment of the “safe and humane” claim.

Other Gitmo Deaths in the Light of What Is Known About Latif

Latif’s death and the secrecy surrounding it reminds me of the way other deaths at Guantanamo have been treated. Last February, I noted in a Truthout article that the released autopsies of two purported Guantanamo “suicides” had raised real questions about their treatment and the way they died. (Later, the UN Special Rappporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions announced he was going to look into these cases.)

One detainee, Abdul Rahman Al Amri, was, like Latif, found in his isolation cell at Guantanamo. Al Amri was reportedly discovered with his hands tied behind his back. The autopsy report stated, “Investigation reveals that a razor blade from a razor was used to cut strips from one or more bed sheets and a ligature was fashioned by braiding these strips together.”

But as I reported at the time, there were strict rules around the possession of razors by detainees. How had Al Amri gotten a razor, hidden it from the many searches, and assembled the ligature (out of what were supposedly “tear-proof” sheets, by the way) with all the surveillance (including video surveillance in the cell)?

The revelation reported by Jason Leopold and I in a story the other day that Latif written a letter to his attorney David Remes in May 2010 that guards were placing “contraband” article in his cell that could be used for self-harm.

Furthermore, and to make you believe that they want me to die and to kill me; they prevented me from having anything that can help me live normally. They don’t give me books, a blanket, soap, medical supplies that I need for my hearing, eye glasses, tooth paste, medical shoes or a neck pillow. Instead they give me contraband items like a spoon to hurt myself with it right after all the pressure they exerted on me as I mentioned in the beginning of this letter. They even gave me a big pair of scissors. It was given to me by the person responsible for camp five. This made me ask for the police.

Could Al Amri have been given a razor while guards looked the other way? Like Latif, Al Amri was a hunger striker and considered a troublemaker.

So was Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi, who was found dead in an isolation cell in the psychiatric ward, where surveillance is supposed to be if anything even stricter. Al Hanashi was said to be depressed, and upset that he was not allowed a walker. He supposedly strangled himself to death with the elastic from his underwear — except, as I reported, the kind of underwear in use at Guantanamo at this time did not have elastic bands. Not surprisingly, the actual ligature for the “suicide” was never provided to medical examiners. Naval investigators provided an sample for the autopsy they said was similar to what Al Hanashi used. Where was the original ligature?

Of course, there was also the incredible reporting by Scott Horton at Harper’s, which relied on reports by former Guantanamo Army guard Joe Hickman and other guards to show that the official government story about the deaths of three Guantanamo suicides in June 2006 was not coherent. (Investigators at Seton Hall School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research also examined critically the government report.)

While I have FOIA requests for the NCIS investigations of both the Al Amri and Al Hanashi deaths, nothing has been released as yet. The Al Hanashi request is nearly a year old now.

On November 28, the ACLU filed FOIA requests for the autopsy reports for the last three prisoners to die at Guantanamo: Latif, along with Awal Gul, and Hajji Nassim (also known as “Inayatullah”). The three died on September 8, 2012, February 2, 2012, and May 18, 2011, respectively. While not much has been written about the latter two cases, there are important lingering questions about these deaths as well. Gul’s family did not accept the verdict of death by heart attack, which Nassim’s death seemed especially strange, as he supposedly hanged himself outside in the recreation yard, where there are plenty of guards present.

Little bit by little bit we are learning more about the death of Adnan Latif, but there is much more to learn. I hope the release of Adnan Latif’s body and its final internment will help bring his family some emotional release. They want to know what happened to their brother and son. They deserve to know. The American people, too, deserve to know what happened as well.

But on one level we already know, whether by his own hand or by his horrendous treatment and the living death assigned him via the Obama policy of indefinite detention, Guantanamo certainly killed Adnan Latif.

The Struggle to Close Guantanamo

Next month, the Guantanamo prison will go into its 11th year of holding so-called “war on terror” prisoners. Since Obama’s reelection, human rights groups have started to put pressure on President Obama to hold true to his January 2009 promise to close the prison.

In an Twitter exchange with me last month, Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, said prisoners like former British resident Shaker Aamer could be transferred out of Guantanamo under the NDAA’s section 1028. Johnson said Congress should “withdraw [the] AUMF (incl from NDAA) and ‘global war’ idea.”

Furthermore, Zeke wrote, “all detainees must either be charged with recognizably criminal offenses and prosecuted fairly in civilian court without the death penalty, or released to countries that will respect their human rights. And there must be accoutntability for torture & other abuses (investigation, prosecution and remedy).” Johnson indicated more regarding AI’s position could be accessed at their website.

Recently, AI has announced its Write #4Rights campaign. It is asking people to get involved in the case of Guantánamo detainee Hussain Salem Mohammed Almerfedi. Almerfedi, like Latif, a Yemeni cleared for release by both Bush and Obama administrations, has been held for over nine years. Originally, AI meant to highlight Latif as part of their campaign, but that was not to be.

How many more like Latif will die, victimized by a cruel and insane system, by what the assistant commandant of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Ft. Huachuca once called “America’s ‘Battle Lab’ in the war on terror.”

Photo from File:ISN 156’s Guantanamo detainee assessment.pdf via Wikipedia.

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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.