EXCLUSIVE: Long-awaited answers to the mysterious death of man detained for more than a decade at Guantanamo may reside in an autopsy report that apparently won’t be made public anytime soon – if ever.
It’s been two months since Yemeni prisoner Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died at the US Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, but the cause and manner of his death remain shrouded in secrecy.
The US government plans to turn over a long-awaited and recently-completed autopsy report to Yemeni Embassy officials in Washington, DC as early as today, but no one will say when or if the results will be made public.
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An official at the Yemen Embassy, who declined to be named, said the embassy will not comment on the autopsy report’s conclusions or whether it determined how Latif died. Instead, the report will immediately be forwarded to government officials in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Someone there will decide “what the next step” will be, the embassy official said.
[UPDATE 11/11/2012: A Yemen official confirmed to Truthout that the Yemen Embassy in Washington, DC received a copy of Adnan Latif’s autopsy report on Friday. The official said there are no immediate plans to release the contents of the autopsy report. Nor would a public comment be forthcoming as to whether it identified the cause of Latif’s death.]
Latif, who would have turned 37 in December, was detained in Guantanamo for more than a decade. He had been cleared for transfer back to Yemen by the Bush and Obama administrations four times between 2004 and 2010.
He died September 8, three months after the US Supreme Court declined to review his case. He suffered from neurological problems due to a severe head injury he sustained in a car accident in 1994.
State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said her office also would not comment on the matter and referred all questions to the Department of Defense (DOD). Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, told Truthout it’s unlikely the US government will comment on the results of Latif’s autopsy.
“It is the custom of the Department to respect the wishes of the concerned nation and to defer to that government to make statements about their own people,” Breasseale said.
But that’s not always the case. As Truthout reported last month in an expose on Latif’s life and tragic death, Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) has commented in the past on what it believed was the cause of death of eight other prisoners before autopsy reports were completed.
Indeed, last year, JTF-GTMO issued a news release announcing the death of a prisoner from apparent natural causes. In another death at the prison facility last year, JTF-GTMO issued a news release that said an Afghan prisoner apparently committed suicide. Similar news releases were issued for other prisoners who died.
JTF-GTMO spokesman Capt. Robert Durand explained to Truthout there was a “clear and reasonable assumption” into how those prisoners died and that’s why news releases included what JTF-GTMO believed was the likely cause of their deaths.
“For example, if the detainee was found hanging in a single cell, or there was clear indication of self-harm, such as slashed wrists or scattered pills from an attempted overdose, then it would be reasonable to characterize the death as an apparent suicide, with the caveat that the death is under investigation,” Durand said in an email last month. “The same is true for a death with apparent natural causes. One detainee who died [in 2007] had terminal cancer. Terminal cancer patients can and do take their own lives, but absent obvious signs of self-harm, it would be reasonable to announce that the death was presumed to be due to natural causes.”
Although Latif had previously attempted suicide, there was no evidence of “self-harm,” Durand said.
Latif was found by Guantanamo guards “motionless and unresponsive” in his cell in Alpha Block at Camp 5, a punishment wing of the prison facility where he was monitored round-the-clock by guards and via closed circuit video.
Nor was there any indication Latif suffered from a “known medical condition” that would have resulted in his death, Durand added.
The Yemeni official in Washington told Truthout that briefings the embassy received last month by the US officials indicated that suicide was ruled out as a cause of death.
That’s why, given Latif’s documented claims of the abuse and torture he said he endured during his more than ten years of indefinite detention, the US “has an obligation to release the results of his autopsy so the American people can know the views of the US government’s pathologist as to why and how he died,” said Zachary Katznelson, a senior staff attorney at the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“I think the US government should make those results public, particularly because of the numerous reports of abuse Adnan Latif suffered over the years,” Katznelson said. At the very least, Katznelson added, “The US government could still release a statement about the cause of death.”
What’s still unclear is whether the handoff of the autopsy report alone will satisfy the Yemeni government and result in its acceptance of Latif’s remains, which, as Truthout exclusively reported, have been held since mid-September at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Yemen official previously told Truthout that the Yemeni government declined to accept Latif’s remains until it received a copy of the autopsy report and a report from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which is currently conduting a probe into the cause and manner surrounding Latif’s death.
[UPDATE 11/11/2012: The Yemen official said he still does not know whether Latif’s remains would be accepted by the Yemeni government based on the autopsy report alone.]
But the NCIS investigation could take as long as a year, said Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesman.
“The investigation is still underway,” he said. “A typical case takes about 8 to 12 months at least. That includes fact-finding, evidence collection and analysis, interviews, follow-ups, review panels at the field office and headquarters. Add in the complexity of investigations at Gitmo and the fact that classified information will need to be reviewed before it could even be potentially released. So, it will be a while.”
According to two US officials familiar with the probe, NCIS investigators want to review Latif’s poetry and “piles of other papers” he kept in at least two of the cells. It’s unclear what they are looking for.
Investigators will also examine “whether the guard force broke SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) protocols” prior to his death when they are supposed to “walk the block” and check on the prisoners “to make sure they are alive.”
Neither Durand nor Capt. Jennifer L. Palmeri, another JTF-GTMO spokesperson, would respond to specific questions about Latif’s last hours. Durand said the Commander of US Southern Command is still conducting a separate commander’s inquiry into Latif’s death. It’s unknown when it will be complete.
In a telephone interview earlier this week, Latif’s brother, Muhammed Farhan, said his family is distraught because they have been unable to properly mourn his older sibling and they are desperate to learn about the details of his death.
He questioned whether the delay was due to the presidential election.
“When will America apply the principles it claims to uphold?” Muhammed asked. “When will the American people demand the US government uphold the law? America is playing politics with a dead person. America doesn’t care about our rights, my brother’s rights or human rights. Yet, America claims they are favoring human rights all over the world. It’s hypocrisy.”
Muhammed told Truthout he wants details of the autopsy report to be released publicly after the family has had a chance to review it.
Muhammed authorized his brother’s habeas corpus attorney, David Remes, to accept the autopsy report on behalf of his family and email it to him.
Remes articulated Muhammed’s wishes in an email he sent this week to Asmaa Katah, a political officer at the Yemen Embassy responsible for Latif’s case, and Adal Al-Suneini, the embassy’s chargé d’affaires.
“The family would like to receive his remains and a copy of the autopsy report right away, but if that is not possible, they will accept them separately,” Remes wrote. “They are anxious to get the report as soon as possible.”
The embassy has not indicated whether they will comply with the family’s instructions.
Remes said the secrecy surrounding the circumstances into Latif’s death leads him to believe the US government must believe the truth behind Latif’s death is a “ticking time bomb.”