What Happened to Mohamed al-Hanashi?

NEW YORK – Mohammed al-Hanashi was a 31-year-old Yemeni citizen who was held at Guantánamo Bay without charge for seven years. On June 3, while I was visiting Guantánamo with other journalists, the press office there issued a terse announcement that al-Hanashi had had been found dead in his cell – an “apparent suicide.”

Because my commercial flight was canceled, I got a ride back to the United States on a military transport. I happened to be seated next to a military physician who had been flown in to do the autopsy on al-Hanashi. When would there be an investigation of the death, I asked him? “That was the investigation,” he replied. The military had investigated the military.

This “apparent suicide” seemed immediately suspicious to me. I had just toured those cells: it is literally impossible to kill yourself in them. Their interiors resemble the inside of a smooth plastic jar; there are no hard edges; hooks fold down; there is no bedding that one can use to strangle oneself. Can you bang your head against the wall until you die, theoretically, I asked the doctor? “They check on prisoners every three minutes,” he said. You’d have to be fast.

The story smelled even worse after a bit of digging. Al-Hanashi, it turned out, had been elected by the detainees to serve as their representative. (The Geneva Conventions call for this process but the US did not give it any formal recognition). As their designated representative, al-Hanashi knew which prisoners had claimed to have been tortured or abused, and by whom.