LONDON The Obama administration has failed to properly investigate evidence suggesting suicides by two Saudis and a Yemeni held at Guantanamo Bay in 2006 were "homicides", a UK-based legal charity said on Tuesday.
The U.S. military has said the three detainees hanged themselves with clothes and bed sheets in their cells on the night of June 9, 2006. They were the first prisoners to die at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba since Washington began sending suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives there in 2002.
Human rights groups at the time called for an independent public inquiry into the deaths of Salah Ahmed al-Salami, 37, of Yemen, Mani Shaman al-Utaibi, 30, of Saudi Arabia, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, 22, also of Saudi Arabia.
The men's families also questioned the possibility that the three, all devout Muslims, had taken their own lives, saying that would be a serious violation of the Islamic faith.
The charity, Reprieve, which represents 33 Guantanamo inmates, said a January 18 article in Harper's Magazine based on accounts by former camp guards contained evidence the three may have been abused by their captors shortly before they died.
"President Obama's Justice Department has refused to fully investigate the incident," Reprieve said, citing what it called evidence in the investigative article that the administration had quashed an examination of the "three potential homicides".
"According to new evidence from then-Sergeant Joe Hickman, a whistleblower formerly stationed in Guantanamo, the three dead prisoners likely suffered particularly abusive interrogations in a remote corner of the base in the hours before they died," it said, referring to one of the guards.
"The deaths were passed off as suicides by the Bush administration", Reprieve added, referring to former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Sharon Critoph, North America researcher at Amnesty International, told Reuters, "This new evidence casts serious doubts as to what really happened. Now is the time for the truly independent inquiry we have always called for."
U.S. authorities strongly denied the allegations.
"We did a thorough investigation and it has been reviewed numerous times. They committed suicide," a Pentagon spokesman said.
"NO EVIDENCE OF WRONGDOING"
Justice Dept. spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said in a statement, "The Department took this matter very seriously. A number of Department attorneys and agents extensively and thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing."
Additionally, she said the department has disputed certain facts in the Harper's story, including about certain meetings and involvement by Justice Dept. officials in the investigation.
The Guantanamo facility has been condemned internationally because detainees were denied due process for years and for harsh interrogations conducted there.
Two years after the three men's deaths the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) issued a report supporting the military's finding of suicide.
Harper's said it had spoken to four members of a Military Intelligence unit working as guards including Hickman who gave an account of that evening at odds with the NCIS report and who said they had been told by a senior officer not to speak out.
"Hickman and men under his supervision have disclosed evidence in interviews with Harper's Magazine that strongly suggests that the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths."
"The guards' accounts also reveal the existence of a previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred."
"Black sites" are detention centres where terrorism suspects were interrogated with harsh techniques in unidentified countries in the "war on terrorism" launched by Bush after the September 11 attacks. The United States has said it is decommissioning these centres.
(Reporting by William Maclean; Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Louise Ireland)