Suicides in Guantanamo: A Swiss Autopsy Reveals Troubling Facts

Prof. Patrice Mangin. Photo: Humberto Salgado
3 March 07 - In June 2006 three detainees were found dead in their cells in Guantanamo. An American autopsy concluded “suicide by hanging”. But the families have asked the Institute for Legal Medicine in Lausanne for a second opinion. An interview with the professor Patrice Mangin.

Carole Vann - « Suicide by hanging ». That is what the US authorities concluded following the deaths of a Yemeni and two Saudi Arabians in their cell in Guantanamo on the 10th June 2006. But their families have always questioned the results of the autopsies carried out by the medical military team. Along with Alkarama for Human Rights, they have asked the Institute for Legal Medicine at the University of Lausanne to conduct a second autopsy. The Swiss medical team, with no permission to go to Saudia Arabia, has only been able to examine the body of the Yemeni. Today, Professor Patrice Mangin, the head of the team, delivered his report in Geneva. Interview.

You carried out the second autopsy eleven days after the death of the detainees. In what sort of state did you find the body of Ahmed Ali Abdullah?

To our great surprise, the body was remarkably well preserved. It had been transported from the United States to Yemen in a state of the art aluminium container which kept the body frozen.

What have you been able to detect ?

There were traces of pressure around the neck. Some bruising on the back of the right hand could have been due to a puncture of the vein. There were lesions on the teeth and mouth. One thing which was unexplainable was that the finger and toe nails were cut short. What is more, some of the organs in the pharynx, larynx and the throat were missing. These are often the most important parts to examine when there has been a hanging… We have also been able to be sure who the body was by analysing the blood. We have not found any substance in the body.

What are your conclusions?

There was asphyxiation which could be due to suicide but also to other reasons. We have too little information to make any definitive conclusions. How were the bodies discovered? What was their position? The method of hanging? Their state before death? What was the medical response when they were found? And above all, what was the state of the missing organs? We have written to the American authorities, but so far we have not had any reply.

How do you interpret the silence?

It is surprising. On the one hand they have taken so much care to send us the body in an extraordinarily well preserved state, which would have involved some serious work. On the other hand, some key information is missing.

And the two bodies sent back to Saudia Arabia?

A Saudi doctor has carried out an autopsy on them and has had the same problems. The organs around the neck are missing. And there has been no reply from the Americans.

Could this mean that there has been some sort of sleight of hand in order to make people believe it was suicide?

I would not go that far. It is perhaps legitimate to take out these organs in order to conserve them as evidence. But it is really regrettable that we can not have access to the American medical reports.

Are you excluding the possibility of execution by hanging or strangulation?

No. In the case of executions by hanging, traces of lesions around the neck are more pronounced than in a suicide. Once again, in order to really know we need to have the missing organs.

And the short nails?

Under medical law, the finger nails can be cut in order to detect any traces of the DNA of the attacker. But the toe nails? They did the same thing on the two Saudis. It is truely bizarre.

Your thoughts?

As an expert, I only deal in facts. But it does raise some questions. According to the testimony of former prisoners in Guantanamo, they would never be left alone for more than five minutes without a warder checking on their cell. In this case, the timing does not add up. It takes at least three minutes to die from hanging. So someone would only have had two minutes to set it up… and three deaths from hanging the same day?

How much has the autopsy cost you?

Excluding travel, the medical costs are about five thousand Swiss francs [$4,000].

Translated from French by Claire Doole

Why is suicide not plausible?

Carole Vann

Members of the human rights NGO, Alkarama travel the world in order to talk with former detainees from Guantanamo and other secret prisons. All of the witnesses say that suicide is impossible in Guantanamo due, above all, to the constant patrols by the guards, but also to the 24 hour video surveillance. And there is nothing to fix ropes to in the cells. Moreover, a week before the deaths, there were some violent clashes between the detainees and the guards. The prison authorities considered the three victims as the leaders. The families are preparing to start judicial proceedings against the United States.

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