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Human Rights Watch calls on government to release full reports into Guantanamo deaths

Seton Hall report raises troubling questions about alleged suicides

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Washington, DC, December 7, 2009 - The US government should release in full the military investigative reports into the deaths of three prisoners at Guantanamo in June 2006, Human Rights Watch said today. A Seton Hall University study issued today raises questions about the US military's findings that the deaths were suicides.

The Seton Hall University School of Law's Center for Policy and Research concluded that the military's investigation into the deaths of Yassar Talal al-Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki Al Habardi al-Tabi, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, allegedly by suicide on June 10, 2006 at Guantanamo Bay, "failed to conform to minimum standards." In each case, the military determined that the men died by hanging.

The Seton Hall researchers reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including official reports on the deaths from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), and the Staff Judge Advocate, as well as the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's autopsies of the three men. Because the military reports are heavily redacted, the researchers found it impossible to get a clear picture of the events the night the men died.

"Whatever the cause, there should be no confusion about the deaths of prisoners in US custody," said Andrea Prasow, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program. "The military reports should be released in full so the public can be confident in the nature and scope of the investigations."

Human Rights Watch urged the US government to release versions of the reports in which redactions are kept to those absolutely necessary for privacy and security considerations so that there is sufficient factual information to allow the public to obtain a clear understanding of the relevant events.

In their current redacted form, the reports leave several key questions unanswered, including why guards did not check on the prisoners for more than two hours before the men were discovered hanging in their cells.

In the immediate wake of the deaths, US officials were not only quick to label them suicides, but also spoke of them in a provocative and inflammatory way. Guantanamo's then-Commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, called the deaths an act of "asymmetric warfare," while Colleen Graffy, then-deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, described the deaths as a "good PR move."

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the Justice Department, in a brief filed last week, argued that a federal court lacked jurisdiction to hear a damages action filed by the families of al-Zahrani and Ahmed, and that the case should be dismissed. According to the Justice Department brief, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 stripped the courts of jurisdiction to hear such cases.

The Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush in 2008 rejected the government's theory that the Military Commissions Act strips courts of jurisdiction to hear claims by Guantanamo detainees when it ruled that detainees had the right to file habeas petitions, Human Rights Watch said. Whether or not courts have jurisdiction to hear other claims is still in dispute.

"If the three detainees at Guantanamo died as a result of mistreatment, their families have a right to a remedy," Prasow said. "The Military Commissions Act should not be used to hide government misconduct."

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