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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Posted: May 30, 2009 09:44 PM

Forgotten: The Second Anniversary of a Guantanamo Suicide


Today, unnoticed in the Western media (although I can't vouch for the Arabic world) is the second anniversary of the death at Guantánamo -- apparently by suicide -- of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi prisoner, and a long-term hunger striker, who had admitted that he was a foot soldier for the Taliban, but who went to his death with a ludicrous and unsupported allegation against him that, to this day, is regarded by the Pentagon as "evidence" -- a claim that, despite arriving in Afghanistan in September 2001, he became a "mid-level al-Qaeda operative" who "ran al-Qaeda safe houses" in the three months before his capture in December.

The date of al-Amri's death is always significant for me, because it was in response to his death -- and with no interest from the mainstream media -- that I wrote my first two articles for my blog (after completing the manuscript for my book The Guantánamo Files), providing some background to his story that would otherwise have been overlooked.

I have followed this up in the two years since with several articles about the other prisoners who have died in Guantánamo: the three men who died in June 2006 -- Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani -- and the belated and inadequate results of an investigation into their deaths, and Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, the Afghan prisoner who died of cancer in Guantánamo on December 26, 2007, who was featured in a front-page story that Carlotta Gall and I wrote for the New York Times in February 2008.

Al-Amri's death, like those of the three men the year before (two of whom were Saudis) provoked the Saudi government to break the festering mistrust that had developed between the Saudis and the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (in which most of the operatives were Saudis) by pushing the U.S. government to repatriate the majority of the remaining 106 Saudi prisoners in Guantánamo (93 between June 2006 and December 2007), so that they could be put through a rehabilitation program that, with a high degree of success, has involved religious reeducation, counseling and support in finding wives and jobs, in order to enable them to re-enter Saudi society.

As a result of this pressure, only 13 Saudi prisoners remain in Guantánamo, even though, as I reported two months ago, six of these men were "approved for transfer" after multiple military review boards.

However, the 100 or so Yemenis still held at Guantánamo (who make up over 40 percent of the prison's remaining population) have been less fortunate, even though one of the three men who died in June 2006 was a Yemeni. Only 13 Yemeni prisoners have been released throughout Guantánamo's history, as negotiations between the U.S. and Yemeni governments have dragged on interminably, and even a recent proposal -- that the Saudis would take them, and put them through their rehabilitation program -- has not yet resulted in any official agreement, despite being discussed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by defense secretary Robert Gates.

In the meantime, two Yemeni prisoners have had their habeas corpus petitions granted by U.S. courts (and more are likely to follow), and with each passing day it becomes more apparent that Obama's promise to close Guantánamo within a year will only be achieved if a solution can be reached regarding the Yemeni prisoners.

The great irony about this delay is that, as my three years of research into the stories of the Guantánamo prisoners has demonstrated, the Yemeni prisoners, like their Saudi counterparts, are, for the most part, not the "hardcore terrorists" invoked in Dick Cheney's fearful, self-seeking rhetoric (as he attempts to evade prosecution for his central role in the illegal and counter-productive "War on Terror"), but rather a mixture of innocent men -- missionaries and humanitarian aid workers, sold for bounties by the U.S. military's unscrupulous allies -- and low-level Taliban foot soldiers, recruited, like Abdul Rahman al-Amri, to support the Taliban in Afghanistan's long-running civil war, in which the enemy was not the United States, but the Muslims of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance.

In the absence of any news regarding Abdul Rahman al-Amri's forgotten death, I can only reiterate what I wrote exactly a year ago, to mark the first anniversary of his death:

On this somber anniversary, the best I can do to mark the shameful circumstances of Abdul Rahman al-Amri's passing (without having been granted an opportunity to present his case in a court of law) is to repeat one of the few statements attributed to him during his imprisonment in Guantánamo, which demonstrates, I believe, how he never presented a threat to the United States or its interests.
Responding to an allegation that he admitted to "carrying an AK-47 while retreating" to Pakistan (which was supposed to suggest militancy against the United States), he pointed out that "Americans trained him during periods of his service" with the Saudi army, and insisted that, "had his desire been to fight and kill Americans, he could have done that while he was side by side with them in Saudi Arabia. His intent was to go and fight for a cause that he believed in as a Muslim toward jihad, not to go and fight against the Americans."

Two years after his death, Abdul Rahman al-Amri's words remain as relevant as ever for many of those still held at Guantánamo, when, as President Obama vacillates, Dick Cheney's monstrous lies once more draw politicians of both parties to resort to preposterous fearmongering, unable -- despite the evidence available to them -- to differentiate between the few dozen terrorists at Guantánamo, and the rest of the prison's population: innocent men and foot soldiers in a distant war that preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001 and that had nothing to do with the events of that dreadful day.

One day, when historians look back on the history of Guantánamo, they will realize that, behind all the arrogant labeling of randomly-seized prisoners as "enemy combatants," who could be held neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trials in federal courts, and behind all the torture that was introduced when these nobodies were unable to come up with "actionable intelligence," was a war that, although justified in its pursuit of al-Qaeda, was fatally flawed when those who instigated it -- and the politicians who supported them -- decided to equate a despised government that had sheltered al-Qaeda (the Taliban) with al-Qaeda itself.

Four months into the new administration, the grievous errors made by the Bush administration in its pursuit of that small group of men who had gathered around Osama bin Laden, as the Saudi billionaire, or his proxies, launched the attack on the United States, have not been addressed in an adequate manner, and seem, instead, to have inflicted permanent damage on America's moral compass.


Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.