Chronicle of a death foretold

Guantanamo Bay prisoner Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died without having ever been charged with a crime.

Detention Center At Guantanamo Bay Remains Despite Attempts At Closure
Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who spent 11 years at Guantanamo Bay, was found dead in his cell [GALLO/GETTY]

I am happy to express from this darkness and draw a true picture of the condition in which I exist. I am moving towards a dark cave and a dark life in the shadow of a dark prison. This is a prison that does not know humanity, and does not know anything except the language of power, oppression and humiliation for whoever enters it. It does not differentiate between a criminal and the innocent.”
-Guantanamo inmate Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif in a letter to his lawyer, dated December 26th, 2010

Two weeks ago, the Pentagon quietly released a statement that another Guantanamo detainee had died in custody, the ninth since the prison was opened in 2001. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a 32-year-old man from Yemen who had spent eleven years incarcerated, was found dead in his cell on September 8.

The cause of his death has been recorded as unknown and may never truly be known, but Latif had long suffered from feelings of extreme depression during his time in jail, having made several suicide attempts in the previous years.

Latif had long complained of abuse by prison staff and of his deteriorating physical and mental condition during his imprisonment. Two years earlier, he had written that guards “entered my cell on a regular basis. They throw me and drag me on the floor… they strangle me and press hard behind my ears until I lose consciousness”. In 2009 he slit his wrists in an attempt to end his life, writing about the incident later to his lawyer to say that his circumstances in Guantanamo “make death more desirable than living”.

Latif was initially captured by Pakistani bounty hunters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when a mixture of confusion and desire for vengeance resulted in the effective labelling of any military age Arab males found in Afghanistan and Pakistan as potential terrorists.

“They throw me and drag me on the floor… they strangle me and press hard behind my ears until I lose consciousness.”

– Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif

He had been receiving medical care in Amman, Jordan for chronic injuries he had received from a car crash in Yemen that had fractured his skull and caused permanent damage to his hearing. Lured to Pakistan by the promise of cheap healthcare, once the war started he ended up caught in the dragnet of opportunistic bounty hunters who detained him, proclaimed him a terrorist and handed him over to the US military in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Later it would come out that such bounty hunters had been unscrupulous, detaining individuals and labelling them as terrorists baselessly in order to collect large cash incentives from the US military for their handover. No evidence was ever found connecting him to terrorism or violent militancy of any kind, and later medical examinations taken of him upon intake into military custody would corroborate his story regarding the nature of the head injuries he had come to Pakistan to treat. Indeed, when he was apprehended he was found not to be in possession of weapons or extremist literature of any kind – what he had with him were copies of his medical records.

While during all his years in custody Latif has never been charged with nor convicted of any crime related to terrorism or any other offence, his death now is made even more tragic due to the fact that he had been recommended for release from Guantanamo by the Department of Defence since as early as 2004, and again in 2007, which said at the time that it had determined that he “is not known to have participated in any combatant/terrorist training”. In 2009 a special task force commissioned by the Obama administration also ruled that Latif should be released, a decision which its internal mandates specified could only be reached by the unanimous consensus of all US intelligence agencies. However despite being cleared for release he remained in military custody as a decision had been made not to repatriate any prisoners to Yemen due to ongoing political instability in the country, effectively leaving him and others like him in a state of indefinite detention.

Adnan Latif, a 32-year-old from Yemen, had been held at Guantanamo without charge since January 2002 [AP]

Despite this, Latif fought his own long legal battle through the civilian court system, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court in order to prove his innocence and win his release. Finally after years of legal challenges in 2010 an order for Latif’s immediate release was given by US District Judge Henry Kennedy, who called the allegations against him “unconvincing” and in a 32-page order ruled that the government had failed to provide evidence that Latif had been part of al-Qaeda or any other militant group and ordering it to “take all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps to facilitate Latif’s release forthwith”.

Despite this, the Department of Justice successfully appealed the judges’ decision, and in a 2-1 ruling that Latif’s release order was rescinded; effectively on the grounds that the allegations against him must be taken as accurate if they are claimed to be so by the government. The dissenting opinion lambasted the ruling as rigging “the game in the governments favour”, with the ultimate result being to once more snatch away the prospect of freedom from Adnan Latif. Latif had placed his faith in the fairness and impartiality of the US legal system and it failed him utterly, inventing new grounds to keep him incarcerated and in the words of the dissenting judge, “moving the goalposts” in order to ensure that no matter what evidence existed regarding his innocence he would remain behind bars.

Throughout this time, almost a decade of his young life, Adnan Latif remained in Guantanamo Bay. He was interrogated hundreds of times and by his own account suffered frequent physical abuse and degradation at the hands of his captors. In a poem, he described the prison guards who were his warders as “artists of torture, pain, fatigue, insults and humiliation”. He joined other prisoners in a hunger strike in protest of their continued imprisonment, being forcibly tied to a special restraining chair and force-fed liquids through his nose twice a day for years. Despite describing the pain of the feeding as being like “having a dagger shoved down your throat”, Latif continued to remain on strike and continued his strike up to the time of his death. In the words of his lawyer David Remes, “This is a man who would not accept his situation… He would not accept his mistreatment. He would not go gently into that good night.”

 Witness – Four Days in Guantanamo

As the years dragged on and the prospect of him ever being released began to grow more remote, Latif’s mental and physical condition continued to markedly deteriorate. During his incarceration, he wrote an abundance of letters and poetry which offer a window into the utter despair and hopeless into which his life had come; seemingly forever confined to a prison his writings described as “a piece of hell that kills everything, the spirit, the body and kicks away all the symptoms of health from them”.

Locked for nearly 10 years in an island prison thousands of miles away from his home, away from his loved ones and from everything which one would find familiar and comforting in life, Latif sank deeper into depression and hopelessness as the futility of the legal efforts towards winning his freedom became clear. In one of his last letters to his lawyer he tells him: “Do whatever you wish to do, the issue [of my defence] is over”, and includes with it a message of farewell written both to him personally as well to the world at large: “With all my pains, I say goodbye to you and the cry of death should be enough for you. A world power failed to safeguard peace and human rights and from saving me. I will do whatever I am able to do to rid myself of the imposed death on me at any moment of this prison… the soul that insists to end it all and leave this life which is no longer anymore a life.” 

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died on September 8, 2012. He was described by those who knew him at Guantanamo as a slightly built man with a sensitive demeanour who was tormented by the circumstances of his life and the inescapable nightmare he found himself trapped in.

The booking photograph taken of him by military officials in prison show a young man whose pain is not sublimated but clearly written on his face; a visceral expression of sadness and torment.

He died without ever having been charged with a crime, and while we may never know the exact circumstances of his death, whether he took his own life, whether he died as the result of physical abuse by his captors – as many other detainees are believed to have – or whether his body simply collapsed after years of stress, his attorney offered his own perspective: “He was so fragile, he was so tormented that it would not surprise me if he had committed suicide… However you look at it, it was Guantanamo that killed him.”

His own words paint the picture of a man who had lost faith in a society which had treated him with unrelenting malice and cruelty: “I have seen death so many times… Everything is over, life is going to hell in my situation… America, what has happened to you?”

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain