A Guantanamo detainee whose death has been blamed on suicide apparently died of asphyxiation, a Yemeni official said Saturday.
The preliminary conclusion, which suggests the prisoner strangled himself, offers the first details about the death of Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi, who was found unresponsive inside a psychiatric ward.
The disclosure also raises questions about how a prisoner could have choked himself to death inside the closely watched ward.
"The Yemeni government is still awaiting the autopsy report and the investigation report, but for the time being we are sticking with the scenario the U.S. government has stated," Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the embassy in Washington, told The Associated Press. He said the apparent cause of death was revealed to Yemeni officials by the U.S. government.
U.S. calls death a suicide
U.S. officials have said publicly only that the death was an apparent suicide. A prison spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, said Friday he could not comment on details of the death and officials did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment on Saturday.
Attorney David Remes, who represents another detainee in Guantanamo's Behavioral Health Unit, said it is "unbelievable" that an inmate could strangle himself with wide-angle video cameras watching from the ceilings of their cells around the clock.
"The men in the psych ward are considered suicide risks," Remes said. "Where were his watchers while all this supposedly happened?"
It was the fifth apparent suicide at the detention center that opened at the Navy base in southeast Cuba in 2002.
ACLU calls for transparency
Jamil Dakwar, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group wants independent investigators to look into detainee deaths. "We have called for transparency and accountability, and now that Obama is in office, we are expecting more," he said.
The June 1 death is under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The agency has taken two years or longer to release findings in the four previous suicide cases, all reported hangings, due to what NCIS spokesman Ed Buice describes as the complexity of conducting a thorough investigation inside the top-security facility.
Saleh, 31, allegedly fought alongside the Taliban and had been held without charge at Guantanamo for seven years.
Accounts from his fellow inmates, provided through attorneys, describe Saleh as a sociable, influential man inside the prison who often negotiated with senior military officers for improved conditions. When he was moved to the psychiatric ward five months before his death, some concluded that he was being punished.
One detainee, Yasin Qasem Muhammad Ismail, said Saleh had angered the military by supporting an increase in a long-running hunger strike that swelled to include 45 inmates.
"When the protests occurred, they moved him to the psych ward even though there was nothing wrong," inmate Yasin Qasem Muhammad Ismail told Remes during a meeting inside the prison. "They viewed him as a troublemaker."
By the time of his death, Saleh was weakened by his own hunger strike. He weighed less than 100 pounds, down from 124 pounds when he arrived in February 2002, and he relied on crutches because of unknown problems with his legs, according to an account from Adnan Latif, another detainee in the psychiatric ward.
On the night he died, Saleh took medicine to help him sleep and did not respond when a soldier checked on him an hour later, according to Latif's account. Medics tried to revive him in his cell before taking him to a hospital. A while later, they returned and said Saleh had died.