The Man Who Wasn't There: The Suicide in Custody of Hajji Nassim

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In addition, I lamented that it was “unlikely that the evident truth about Obama’s Guantánamo — that the only way out is by dying — will shift public option either at home or abroad,” and also noted that, “whatever Inayatullah’s alleged crimes, it was inappropriate that, because of President Obama’s embrace of his predecessor’s detention policies, he died neither as a convicted criminal serving a prison sentence for activities related to terrorism, nor as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions.”

As is now known, however, the unlamented death of a man held in such a disturbingly aberrant manner only scratched the surface of the horrors surrounding his death.

As his attorney, Paul Rashkind, a federal defender in Miami, told the Associated Press on Thursday, he had tried to kill himself twice at Guantánamo, and was severely mentally ill, with what the AP described as “a long-term mental illness that predated his time in custody.” Rashkind said, “This was a young man who suffered significant psychosis, a paralyzing psychosis beginning many years ago, long before he got to Gitmo.”

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Rashkind explained that his client’s psychological problems were “so severe” that he had “arranged to bring a civilian psychiatrist to the base to work with him” — although this had not happened by the time of his death. “I have no doubt it was a suicide,” Rashkind also said, adding, “This is really a sad mental health case … starting from childhood.”

In his discussion with the AP, Rashkind also explained that he was “not permitted to provide details” about either of his client’s two previous suicide attempts, “except to say both were serious,” although he did explicitly state, “He was close to death the first time.” The Miami Herald also noted that “[l]egal sources familiar with the case” had explained that he “had spent long stretches in the psychiatric ward at Guantánamo,” although Rashkind was at pains to point out that the authorities in Guantánamo “treated him pretty humanely, I’d have to say,”

Disturbingly, however, Rashkind also claimed that, as well as failing to recognise that his client’s mental health issues had made suicide a strong possibility, the US authorities had seized the wrong man.

His real name, according to Rashkind, was Hajji Nassim, and as the Miami Herald put it, “he had never been known as Inayatullah anywhere but in Guantánamo, had never had a role in al-Qaeda and ran a cellphone shop in Iran near the Afghan border.” In addition, as the AP described it, he had “finished school up to the fifth grade [and] was married,” and “there was no evidence to support the allegations against him.”

As Rashkind described it, “I will tell you as far as I’m concerned he never did a violent act, he never planned a violent act. He was not a terrorist. His mental health issues made it difficult to address why he was there.”

Adding that he was “still trying to contact family members in Iran and Pakistan to notify them of the death,” Rashkind told the AP that he was not at liberty to discuss the case openly because “some evidence is classified and because of US government secrecy rules.” He did, however, explain that he visited Nassim “every three months, along with a Pashtun translator,” and that he had last spoken to him by phone just two weeks before his death to discuss his ongoing habeas corpus petition.

After telling the AP that he had also planned to visit him again in June, after a hearing in the District Court in Washington D.C. regarding his habeas petition, Rashkind also said, “I can tell you he was fine at that time. In his conversations he seemed like he was doing well and he was looking forward to our visit that was coming up.”

Speaking to the Miami Herald, Rashkind called the case “an outlier” in Guantánamo’s history, “partly because Nassim was brought there so late in the camps’ history and partly because of his mental health issues.” According to Rashkind, he had, literally, fallen between the cracks, and was “never designated for trial, indefinite detention or release.”

His closing words echo what, to me, is the particular sadness and injustice I feel whenever anyone dies in Guantánamo, that cruel aberration created by the Bush administration, whose continued existence — and Obama’s failure to close it — mocks any attempt America might make to present itself to the world as a force for good, and an upholder of justice.

“I don’t think he belonged there at all,” Rashkind said, adding, “To me, this is a human tragedy.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.


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