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Sold Into “a Piece of Hell:" A Death of Innocence at Gitmo

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Sold for a $5,000 bounty, Adnan Latif was among the first prisoners detained at Guantanamo. A federal judge and two presidential administrations said he didn’t belong there. A decade later he left in a box – and no one will say why.

“Ya Baba! Ya Baba!” Ezzi Deen shouted in Arabic.

The 14-year-old boy was crying out for his father. He last uttered those words as a toddler. Ezzi Deen never received a response then, either.

He remained connected to his father through pictures and letters that trickled into his home from the International Committee of the Red Cross. But it did little to ease his pain. He woke up every morning and imagined, “Today is the day my father will come home.”

He had it all planned out: His father would walk through the door and he would leap out of his bed and embrace him. Then he would go outside to play with the other boys in his village, the anguish of the past 11 years gone – just like that.

Ezzi Deen believed in his heart this is exactly how it would play out. He believed this even though his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins had given up hope that their son and brother would ever return to Yemen.

So, Ezzi Deen wept, dropped to his knees and screamed when his uncle, Muhammed, broke the news on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that the tragedy had claimed his father as its latest victim.

No, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif wasn’t a passenger on the airplanes that plowed into the twin towers or the Pentagon. Nor was he among the thousands of people on the ground who perished that day.

He was just a man, one of hundreds – thousands perhaps – who was in the wrong place at the wrong time after the tragic events unfolded.

It was not a good time to be a Muslim.

“He was the favorite of all my sons,” said Farhan Abdul Latif during a telephone interview with Truthout from his home in Yemen. Adnan was his fourth child, a treasured member of a large and loving family.

Before the Arabic interpreter translated Farhan’s words into English, his voice had already conveyed the sentiment: Grief is an international language understood by all.

“He never created any problems,” Farhan said of Adnan, his voice loud and filled with emotion. “Everybody loved him. He had very good manners. After the accident, his manner and conduct changed a little bit. But not much.”

Adnan was a teenager in 1994, when the car he was traveling in flipped over and changed his life forever. He emerged from the wreck with a fractured skull, a punctured eardrum, a hemorrhage above one eye and a legacy of blinding headaches and neurological problems.

Adnan traveled to Jordan for medical treatment, paid for by the Yemini government because his family could not afford it. His hearing and sight impaired, his body wracked with unrelenting pain, Adnan was declared disabled by his government and encouraged to seek further treatment through charitable organizations in other countries.

He spent the next seven years obsessively searching for affordable medical care, his father said. “I have his medical papers that proves this.”

When he wasn’t helping his father at the family’s home goods store, Adnan would visit mosques, clinics and charities in search of medical treatment that was largely unavailable in Yemen. Finally someone at a hospital directed him to Pakistan – that was where he could find reliable, free health care, the man told him.

And so, in August 2001 – a month before terrorists turned commercial jetliners into guided missiles – Adnan gathered his medical records and left home for what would be the last time. He promised his wife and 3-year-old Ezzi Deen that he would soon return as a new man.

Instead, he became ensnared in a post-9/11 dragnet for Arabs that earned him the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first residents of the newly-designated detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where he would spend the rest of his life trying to prove he was not a terrorist.

Sold Into “a Piece of Hell”

Adnan’s medical odyssey had led him across the border into Afghanistan at a most unfortunate time. When the US invaded the country in October 2001, he was trapped during the bombing of Kabul.

Two months later, he was arrested by Pakistani police at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and sold to the Northern Alliance for the princely sum of $5,000.

That was one of the many problems that arose in the early days, when innocent “war on terror” prisoners, like Adnan, were turned over to US forces “for the wrong reasons, particularly for bounties and other incentives,” said Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Wilkerson made that assertion in a stunning nine-page sworn declaration about weaknesses in the detainee system. According to his 2009 declaration:

A related problem with the initial detention was that predominantly US forces were not the ones who were taking the prisoners in the first place. Instead, we relied upon Afghans … and upon Pakistanis, to hand over prisoners whom they had apprehended, or who had been turned over to them for bounties … Such practices meant that the likelihood was high that some of the … detainees had been turned in to US forces in order to settle local scores, for tribal reasons, or just as a method of making money.

President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were well aware that the “vast majority” of prisoners in US custody in early 2002 were innocent, Wilkerson stated, but they continued to be held because of the political repercussions that would have ensued if the US government set them free.

Adnan told his CIA and Pakistani interrogators he was in Afghanistan seeking medical treatment, that he was not as a fighter. He even had medical records with him when the US took custody of him in Kandahar, a fact noted on the Department of Defense intake form.

A US District Court judge would later find his story, supported by the documentation, to be credible. But at the time, neither the CIA nor the US military believed the young man from Yemen.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Muslim had become synonymous with terrorist. Even wearing a certain model of Casio wristwatch was enough to raise military suspicions that its owner was linked to al-Qaeda.

Adnan had no Casio watch, only medical records. Nonetheless, intelligence and military officials decided he had attended a jihadist training camp and fought alongside the Taliban and that, they concluded, was why he was in Afghanistan.

He was sent to Guantanamo, arriving on January 17, 2002, a month after his 26th birthday. A decade later, Adnan would leave the island – in a box.

Not a Model Prisoner

At Guantanamo, prisoners were expected to be compliant, even submissive. But Adnan, despite being in desperate need of medical treatment, refused to bow to the demands of his detainers, said David Remes, a Washington, DC-based human rights lawyer who began challenging Adnan’s detention in 2004.

Adnan protested his confinement by staging hunger strikes, punctuated by suicide attempts. His behavior resulted in forced feedings and severe beatings by Guantanamo’s brutal Immediate Reaction Force police team, followed by lengthy stretches in solitary confinement and periodic commitment to the prison camp’s psychiatric ward, which only exacerbated his fragile mental state.

“I think he was psychotic or schizophrenic,” said a former senior intelligence official who served at Guantanamo between 2002 and mid-2003. The official, who requested anonymity because he still serves in US military intelligence, said it was “fairly common” to deal with noncompliant detainees by injecting them with sedatives.

“In this detainee’s situation, because he was also a mental case as well as being a troublemaker, he was always doped up with sedatives and anti-depressants and who knows what else,” he said. “It was the only way we could deal with his mood swings.”

In July, Truthout obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request an inspector general’s report from the Department of Defense that revealed “war on terror” prisoners in custody of the US military at Guantanamo and elsewhere were forcibly drugged with powerful antipsychotics and other medications, and also subjected to “chemical restraints” when they got out of hand.

In some cases, prisoners diagnosed with severe mental health conditions were drugged and interrogated, which could impair their ability to provide accurate information, the inspector general concluded.

Remes said the government’s idea of medical treatment was simply to keep Adnan “subdued.” During interviews with Remes, Adnan often spoke of being forcibly administered unknown “medications,” and being beaten when he resisted.

“On many occasions he told me he was drugged and sedated,” Remes said. “When he met with me he told me he was given energy boosters or mood boosters.”

Remes won access to Adnan’s medical records from his early years at Guantanamo. The documents likely reveal the medications he had been administered. But the records are classified and Remes, who has a secret-level security clearance, is not permitted to discuss it.

Remes did say he saw evidence of the physical and psychological torture Adnan endured. So when he traveled to Guantanamo to meet with his client, he would take an inventory of Adnan’s scars, rashes, swellings and broken bones.

In the interview room, Remes would ask Adnan, whose ankle was chained to the floor, to remove his light, cotton shirt. Adnan sat quietly as Remes assumed the role of physician and carefully ran his fingers over the skin of his neck, chest, back, waist, knees and feet. Even though Guantanamo had destroyed his spirit and body, there was still a childlike innocence to Adnan as he watched Remes catalog his injuries.

“I often found scrapes and scarring around his wrists, signs that he had been too tightly bound, or had been roughly pulled by the guards,” Remes said. “Mine was undoubtedly the only comforting human touch he ever felt at Guantanamo.”

Remes was devastated when he learned Adnan had died.

“Of all of the detainees I’ve represented over the years, I was fondest of Adnan,” Remes said. “Our relationship was far more than that of lawyer and client … I’ll miss him.”

Adnan often said he wanted to die.

Guantanamo “is a piece of hell that kills everything,” Adnan wrote in a letter to his attorneys.

In 2007, Adnan contributed a poem, “Hunger Strike Poem,” to the book “Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak.” In just 20-lines, Adnan captured his despair and gave a voice to the other prisoners who could not speak for themselves.

Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?

Adnan’s younger brother, Muhammed, told Truthout in a recent interview he is not surprised his brother expressed himself through poetry while imprisoned at Guantanamo.

“Adnan created a lot of poetry about nature and the things around him when he was a young man,” Muhammed said through an interpreter. “He was very good. He also very much liked to read a lot.”

A three-year age difference separated Adnan and Muhammed, who were very close.

“We went to the same school together and were friends during our childhood and took care of each other and loved each other very much,” Muhammed said. “I also remember how much he liked to play sports with the other boys. No specific sport. Just whatever was available in the village that could be made into a sport.”

Muhammed said, for a time, he believed he would see his brother again and that certainly seemed to be a possibility when the Bush administration, despite insisting that Adnan fought with the Taliban, recommended Adnan’s transfer out of Guantanamo no less than three times between 2004 and 2008.

Fight for Freedom

One Kafka-esque moment of Adnan’s detention came during his 2005 Combatant Status Review Tribunal where the tribunal president asked Adnan to respond to the charges leveled against him. Adnan protested because the name on the complaint read aloud was not his.

“Well, that’s the name we have,” the tribunal president replied.

Adnan continued to languish at Guantanamo, largely due to disagreements between the US and Yemen over the conditions the US set to allow for his repatriation and rehabilitation, according to a State Department official privy to the diplomatic communications in Adnan’s case.

The official declined to elaborate and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

When Barack Obama was elected president it seemed that Adnan had a real shot at reuniting with Ezzi Dean, his wife and the rest of his family in Yemen. Aside from promising to permanently shutter the island prison, Obama set up a task force to review all of the cases at Guantanamo and decide who should stay, who should go and who could be prosecuted for war crimes.

In 2010, the task force issued a report that recommended the release of 126 prisoners. Adnan was one of them. But only his attorneys knew about it. The information was deemed “protected,” meaning they could not discuss it publicly.

Remes and the other lawyers on Adnan’s legal team continued to pursue one simple issue: getting his case before a judge so the circumstances surrounding his detention could see the light of day.

Not long after Obama’s task force issued its recommendations, a federal judge in the nation’s capital granted Adnan his habeas petition and ordered his release from Guantanamo.

Judge Henry Kennedy ruled that the government could not prove Adnan attended a training camp and was a Taliban foot soldier. The cornerstone of the government’s case against Adnan was a single CIA intelligence report that purported to show he had incriminated himself after he was captured.

Judge Kennedy found that document “unconvincing” and said Adnan’s continued detention was “not lawful.”

Why the Obama administration decided to appeal the ruling when its own task force – and even the Bush administration – recommended Adnan’s transfer to Yemen is unknown. The US Justice Department did not return repeated requests for comment.

In October 2011, the government won. A divided three-judge panel on the US Court of Appeals, Washington, DC, Circuit, vacated the lower court’s ruling. The judges essentially said the government’s evidence, no matter how thin or unreliable, “was entitled to a presumption of regularity.”

In other words, the burden fell upon Adnan to prove he was not the terrorist recruit the government claimed he was.

“I am a prisoner of death,” Adnan said during a meeting with his lawyer about two weeks after the appellate court’s decision.

Adnan’s attorneys pursued his case all the way to the Supreme Court. But in June, the high court’s justices, who in 2008 issued a landmark ruling that said Guantanamo prisoners were entitled to challenge the legality of their detentions, declined to review it and helped seal his fate.

Adnan ended his last hunger strike shortly thereafter. Over the next few months he regained 95 percent of his body weight, the Defense Department has claimed, and was heavier than when he first arrived at the prison more than a decade ago.

Remes met with him for the last time in May.

“The last time I saw Adnan he was lucid and in very good spirits,” he said.

A Mysterious Death

Sometime on September 8, Adnan was found dead in his cell at Camp 5, a disciplinary wing of Guantanamo. Adnan was sent there for allegedly hurling a mixture of bodily fluids and feces at a guard. He is the ninth prisoner reported to have died at Guantanamo.

Adnan was found “motionless and unresponsive by the guard force,” Joint Task Force-Guantanamo spokesman Capt. Robert Durand told Truthout. “Following standard operating procedures, the guards called for medical help and provided first aid. The corpsmen provided emergency medical treatment and quickly transported the detainee to [the] Naval Hospital Guantanamo. After extensive lifesaving measures had been performed, the detainee was pronounced dead by a physician.”

Remes called Adnan’s family on September 11 and broke the news.

“Adnan has died,” Remes told Adnan’s brother, Muhammed, through an interpreter.

There was silence at first. Deep down, Muhammed knew he would one day receive a phone call like this.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was supposed to contact Adnan’s family but, for unknown reasons, they never did. Remes feared the family would learn about their son’s passing through news reports so he decided to contact them on his own.

When Adnan’s mother found out, “She lost consciousness,” Adnan’s father, Farhan told Truthout.

“Everyone is in great distress,” he said. “Especially Adnan’s mother and his child. There is a feeling of great sadness and tragedy.”

Adnan’s tragic story did not end with his death, however.

Muhammed said the family was told by Yemen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that his brother’s remains would be sent home within two weeks after his death. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to Muhammed, obtained that information from the Yemen Embassy in Washington, DC.

But according to a Yemeni official, the Yemen government refused to accept Adnan’s body until they receive a full accounting of the cause of his death.

The official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak with the media, said Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was briefed about Adnan’s death and decided against accepting the remains.

“We have asked for a copy of the investigation report and the autopsy report and the requested documents have not been provided to us,” the official told Truthout.

The Yemeni government official’s comments about Adnan were obtained during an interview late last month when President Hadi visited the United States. His statements about Adnan were made in the context of discussions Hadi had with top US officials in the White House about the remaining Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo and Afghanistan.

“President Hadi was in Washington, DC, and met with President Obama’s cabinet ministers,” the official said. “The remaining Yemeni detainees was one of the talking points. President Hadi has made Guantanamo and Bagram [prison in Afghanistan] a high priority for Yemen. We are emphasizing talks and opening up a dialogue to ensure the timely release and transfer and rehabilitation of those remaining detainees to Yemeni custody and we are working closely with the US government. These discussions took place with high-level officials in the Obama administration.”

The official added that US and Yemen officials are scheduled to speak about Adnan’s case again at the end of the week.

Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, would only comment on issues surrounding Adnan’s death and his remains. He told Truthout the US is “collaborating closely with the Republic of Yemen government on this case” and, “We respect their wishes that we maintain the remains until a time when they are prepared to receive them.

“Mr. Latif’s remains are being handled with the utmost care and respect by medical professionals and are being maintained in an appropriate facility designed to best facilitate preservation,” Breasseale said. “His remains are no longer at JTF-Guantanamo Bay.”

Breasseale added that Adnan’s remains are currently being held in a secure undisclosed facility, which Truthout has learned is Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

The bureaucratic infighting between the US and Yemen means Adnan’s family cannot mourn his death.

“We will not mourn our son under Islamic law until we receive his body,” Farhan said. “As you can imagine, this is a nightmare for us.”

Compelling Questions

So how did Adnan die?

Initial media reports suggested Adnan took his own life, a not implausible theory considering his history of suicide attempts.

In the eight previous deaths that occurred at Guantanamo, six of which were said to be suicides, Joint Task Force-Guantanamo has always cited a manner of death in their official statements even though an investigation and autopsy had not yet been conducted on those prisoners. But there was no such determination made when the government announced Adnan’s death.

“In Mr. Latif’s case, the detainee was found motionless and unresponsive,” Joint Task Force Guantanamo spokesman Capt. Robert Durand told Truthout. “The detainee had a history of self-harm acts, but generally refrained from activities which would potentially cause his death. He was monitored by the behavioral health unit, and his recent actions, activities and statements to therapists indicated that he did not appear to want to end his life. Following his assault on the guard, he was medically cleared for transfer to Camp 5. Absent an obvious indication of self-harm, or a known medical condition, it would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of death.”

But in a statement to the Associated Press two days after Guantanamo officials announced the death of a prisoner without naming him, Durand said, “There is no apparent cause, natural or self-inflicted.”

Durand explained to Truthout at the time he made that statement he was responding to a reporter’s query: “Would you call it an apparent suicide or natural causes?”

Now, however, “It would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of death at this time.”

There was nothing to “immediately suggest ‘apparent suicide,'” Durand said, and the death is being investigated by “multiple entities.”

Those include the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and US Southern Command, Joint Task Force-Guantanamo’s higher command.

The timeframe for when those probes will be complete, however, is unknown.

But here’s what is known.

Adnan was housed in isolation in a section of Camp 5, where prisoners are checked on by the guard force every three minutes, 24 hours a day.

A former Guantanamo guard who still serves in the military and requested anonymity, told Truthout the guards need to “see skin” when they walk the block to check on the detainees.

“The guards are checking to make sure the detainees are alive. They need to see them breathing,” he said. “They do their rounds and they have a block log where they write in what they observed. It’s a sheet that you fill out on every shift recording the detainees’ movement every 30 minutes or so. You write something like, ‘walked cell block and all secure.’ The log is then given to the block NCO (non-commissioned officer) who enters the information into the Detainee Information Management System (DIMS). That is then sent over the SIPRNET system. The only way, in my opinion, they wouldn’t have been able to catch his death is if the guards weren’t following the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure). That is – if they weren’t walking the cell blocks.”

In addition, the prisoners, especially those housed in Camp 5, are subjected to round-the-clock video surveillance. The cells are wired for sound and a dome-like camera is affixed to the ceiling of the cells.

Durand, the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo spokesman, noted there are also certain Guantanamo prisoners who are deemed to be “Detainees of Interest (DOI)” and those prisoners are subject to monitoring every 60 seconds, or “continuous checks.”

The number of prisoners determined to be Detainees of Interest is classified, Durand said, but given Adnan’s past behavior he certainly appears to fit the description. “A detainee may be designated as a detainee of interest if they represent a threat to themselves, other detainees, the guard force or good order and discipline in the camps.”

Adnan told Remes he was under constant surveillance and the guards scrutinized his every move. The only privacy Adnan had, he claimed, was when his back was facing the cell door window.

So if the Guantanamo guard force had been properly monitoring Adnan via video surveillance and walking the cell blocks to check on him – at minimum, every three minutes – is it possible that he fell “unresponsive and motionless” within that time frame but was still alive when he was transported to the Naval hospital?

Durand won’t say. Presumably that will be determined by the multiple investigations.

The Autopsy

Adnan’s autopsy was conducted and observed by a medical examiner, an observer/recorder, a technician and a mortician from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner from Dover Air Force Base, Durand said. Following the autopsy, which usually takes about two hours, a mortician prepared Adnan’s body for burial.

Then, Durand said, “A Muslim military chaplain, the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo Cultural Advisor and Islamic volunteers from the staff were on hand to ensure the appropriate handling of the body.”

“The traditional Islamic burial rites were performed, including the rituals of washing and shrouding the body and offering prayers for the deceased,” he added.

Meanwhile, back in Yemen, the rituals of grief for the family remain in limbo.

Officials say the results of the autopsy could take several weeks, pending lab results, toxicology and other analyses. In any case, the autopsy results, when completed, are classified, Breasseale said.

The Yemeni government official told Truthout that US officials appear to have ruled out suicide as the manner of his death.

“There were many different theories being discussed,” he said. “They still can’t figure out how he died.”

That’s not entirely unusual, said Dr. Cyril Wecht, a world-renowned forensic pathologist who has performed more than 15,000 autopsies and consulted on 35,000 postmortem examinations, many of which were high-profile cases.

“You can’t make a ruling on manner of death until you make a ruling on cause of death,” Wecht said in an interview with Truthout.

“The failure to release a cause of death is likely due to the fact that they have not found anything of a traumatic nature on the body and they haven’t found anything on the microscopic slides yet either,” he said. “There aren’t many things to discover microscopically when you don’t have any evidence in the gross autopsy: He probably does not have heart disease, a tumor and so on. So it is a sudden, unexplained death of a young man.”

Remes said he does not recall Adnan ever mentioning any of the pre-existing medical conditions Wecht described.

As for the head injury Adnan suffered in the car accident, Wecht said, “You cannot look at someone when they are dead and look at their brain and say what the extent of their neurological damage was and to what degree motor coordination, cognitive functions, sensory perception would have been compromised.”

So, even in death, Adnan is unable to undercut the US government’s challenge to his claims about the injury he endured in 1994.

However, “to some extent you can, depending upon how severe and well-defined changes are in the brain and where they are located; you can do some retrospective correlations,” Wecht said.

“Another thing to keep in mind that can be a real problem is that some people who have brain injuries go on to have convulsions from time to time. And if you have a convulsion, sometimes you can die. Sometimes epileptics do die. Doesn’t happen very often, but it can happen and you don’t find a single thing in the autopsy. That’s something else to keep in mind as a possible explanation for his death.”

Remes said he does not recall Adnan ever mentioning convulsions or seizures. Still, if Adnan had suffered a seizure or convulsion severe enough to kill him, wouldn’t it have been noticed by the guards monitoring him around-the-clock before he became unresponsive?

That leads Wecht to speculate that Adnan’s death may have been the result of drugs – specifically, drugs that cause brain depression like opioids, benzodiazepines, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety sedatives – the kinds of drugs that seem to have been a routine part of life at Guantanamo for the recalcitrant detainee.

“You said he was monitored. There is apparently nothing of a physical nature on his body. He doesn’t have heart disease or a tumor. But there has to be a cause of death. Usually the thing that leads to a death like this are drugs.” Wecht said. “That’s been my experience.”

If Adnan were given drugs a day or two – or hours – before his death, some traces would likely show up in the toxicology tests. But beyond that timeframe, any drugs that Adnan may have been administered would have already been excreted from his body, Wecht said.

Neither Durand nor Breasseale would say if Adnan had been administered drugs in the hours prior to his death. However, Truthout and investigative blogger Marcy Wheeler have jointly filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking Adnan’s medical records, which should answer that question.

Wecht suspects the government already has a pretty good idea what happened to Adnan “considering he was a prisoner at Guantanamo and monitored regularly.”

There is also the possibility that the cause of his death will never be determined, as is the case in one-tenth of one percent of autopsies, he said.

Whatever the government’s conclusions are, Adnan’s family members have drawn their own.

“He died from torture,” Muhammed said. “He talked in letters to his attorney about how the end is near because of torture and always said how cruel they are to him.”

He should be with us right now, Farhan said. “He was a sick man trying to receive treatment.”

A sick man trying to receive treatment. Adnan’s father repeated this over and over, unable to fathom how this incomprehensible twist of fate had befallen his first-born, his favorite son.

The family holds America accountable for Adnan’s death and they intend to seek justice.

“You have to tell the Obama officials that they are responsible for my brother’s death and the law needs to be applied to them now,” Muhammed said. “Why did the American government have rules that stops detainees from getting justice for the courts? That is what I want President Obama to tell us. Because of this my brother is dead.”

Adnan would have turned 37 in December. Several years ago, as a much younger man, he wrote a Last Will and Testament in which he left all of his possessions to Ezzi Deen. But the US government refused to process it.

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