The parents of two detainees who committed suicide while held at Guantanamo Bay have filed a wrongful death suit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as more than 100 military officers and personnel, alleging that Gitmo's brutal conditions and torture led their sons to kill themselves.
The 79-page complaint (pdf), filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was brought by the fathers of Yesser al-Zahrani and Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed al-Salami, two of the three Guantanamo prisoners who hung themselves in their cells on June 10, 2006. Alongside allegations that physical and mental torture left the detainees psychologically damaged, it claims that crucial missteps by guards and medical officers after the men were found hung led to their deaths
The family of the third inmate who committed suicide that day, Mani al-Utaybi, has not joined the suit.
The suit asks for unspecified damages from its long list of defendants, who are being sued in their personal capacity rather than as government representatives. The group stretches from Rumsfeld down the military ladder to Gitmo's doctors and other support staff. Meetali Jain from the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, who is representing the plaintiffs with Pardiss Kebraei and Shayana Kadilal from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, declined to comment on behalf of herself and her co-counsel.
"Rumsfeld and other defendants in the chain of command intended, knew or should have known of the forms and methods of physical and psychological torture and abuse inflicted on" al-Salami and al-Zahrani, the complaint states. "Defendants failed to take all necessary measures to investigate and prevent these abuses, and to punish personnel under their commands for committing these abuses."
In a separate case, the Supreme Court is currently considering the question of whether top government officials can be sued for the actions of lower level personnel. The justices heard oral arguments in Iqbal v. Ashcroft on Dec. 10. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled earlier that while top officials do carry some immunity, lawyers could try to gather evidence that would implicate them in wrongful behavior.
Detailed and often gruesome, the new complaint includes a brief history of the Gitmo detention center, including a catalogue of alleged abuses suffered by detainees. Relying heavily on an internal investigation released by the Navy, the suit alleges that after guards found al-Zahrani's unconscious body, they took him to a health clinic with no doctors on call, where he spent between 20 and 30 minutes. When emergency staff arrived, it claims, he still had material wrapped around his neck. He was then transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Al-Salami died in the medical clinic, before he could be taken to the hospital. Guards had been forced to wait before they could remove him from his cell, the complaint states, because the only backboard was already being used to move al-Zahrani.
Al-Zahrani, who was 22 when he died, and al-Salami, who was 37, were among the allegedly hundreds of inmates who staged hunger strikes to protest their detention, and were eventually force-fed through tubes, according to the complaint.
According to reports that surfaced after their deaths, al-Zahrani's lawyers believed he was about to be released from Guantanamo, and the Defense Department had decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute al-Salami. Neither knew that their legal status was potentially about to improve.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.