Guantanamo detainee who died was to be held indefinitely

Miami HeraldFebruary 3, 2011 

A 48-year-old ex-Taliban commander dropped dead of an apparent heart attack after exercising on an elliptical machine inside Guantánamo's most populous prison camp, the military said Thursday.

The dead man, Awal Gul, had been in U.S. custody since Christmas 2001 and at the prison camps in southeast Cuba for more than eight years. He was designated by the Obama administration as one of 48 "indefinite detainees,'' meaning the U.S. would neither repatriate him nor put him on trial.

Gul was working out Tuesday night in a collective cellblock at the cement penitentiary-style building called Camp 6, said Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, a prison camps spokeswoman.

"He went to go take a shower and apparently collapsed in the shower,'' Reese said. "Detainees on the cellblock then assisted him in getting to the guard station.''

From there he was taken to a prison camp clinic, then to the Navy base hospital, some miles away, but could not be saved despite what the commander called "extensive life saving measures.''

Gul is the seventh war-on-terror detainee to die during the nine years the Pentagon has confined some 800 men and boys to the prisons at Guantánamo.

The New York based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented detainess in lawsuits seeking their release, reacted angrily to the death, blaming President Barack Obama for a policy that allows their continued detention there without charges.

"Awal Gul’s death illustrates too well what Guantánamo has become — a prison where Muslim men are held indefinitely until they die because the president lacks political courage to release or charge them in any forum," the group said in a statement.

Gul had never been charged with a crime during his more-than-eight-year detention. American officials said they suspected him of being a base commander for the Taliban. His lawyer, Matthew Dodge, said both sides argued Gul's "habeas corpus'' petition before U.S. District Judge Rosemary Colyer in Washington D.C. in March, but she has not yet ruled on whether his detention lawful.

Dodge said in spite of what Colyer might have ruled, his client might not have been released. He said that an Obama administration task foce had designated his client as an "indefinite detainee,'' despite documents that, Dodge said, proved Gul had quit the Taliban a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"He resigned because he was disgusted by the Taliban's growing penchant for corruption and abuse,'' said Dodge, an Atlanta-based federal public defender who helped Gul sue for his return to Afghanistan in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

"It is shame that the government will finally fly him home not in handcuffs and a hood, but in a casket,'' the lawyer added.

The military said it would repatriate Gul's remains once an autopsy was complete. Meantime, the U.S. military airlifted a Muslim cleric to the remote U.S. navy base to ensure Gul was receiving his traditional Islamic rites.

FBI reports included in his federal unlawful detention suit described Gul as a former Taliban commander who told a San Diego-based FBI agent in June 2008 that he was "tired from war and thirsty for peace.''

It also said he was a father to 18, 11 of them daughters.

An announcement by the Southern Command in Miami called Gul "an admitted Taliban recruiter and commander of a military base in Jalalabad,'' who at one point allegedly operated an al Qaeda guesthouse.

Gul also admitted to meeting with Osama Bin Laden and providing him with operational assistance on several occasions, Southcom said.

In a transcript of a 2004 military hearing, acknowledged that he had indeed trained on Stinger missiles, one reason for his detention. But he said that he had trained in the 80s, when the United States supplied the missiles to Afghan forces resisting the Soviet invasion.

Moreover, he said, he saw Bin Laden on three occasions, the first time in 1990 in a gathering for "rich Saudis'' who had come to build a hospital and school but was unaware that the al Qaeda founder was anti-American.

The U.S. notified the Afghan government as well as Gul's family by the time the Pentagon made the death public Thursday.

Pending final autopsy results, Reese said, his death appeared to be ``a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.''

Gul's death came just days after a commander disclosed that the military had consolidated the vast majority of Guantánamo's 173 captives -- not quite 130 -- in the communal Camp 6.

Gul was considered a cooperative captive. He had only been recently moved into the hardened prison building from an open-air compound, which was also equipped with ellipticals -- the stationary exercise machine used to simulate stair-climbing or running.

The Southern Command statement added that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was looking at the death, a routine requirement.

The military says the previous six deaths at Guantánamo included five suicides in the camps -- one in a psychiatric ward -- and another Afghan man, who died of colon cancer.

A Guantánamo defense lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei, said soon after the death was disclosed that she was concerned that the military would not conduct a "timely and meaningful investigation of this man's death.''

"There hasn't been for any of the other six who've died at Guantánamo,'' said Kebriaei, a staff attorney at the New York Center for Constitutional Rights.

After three captives were reportedly found hanging simultaneously in the same cellblock in June 2006, she added, ``the NCIS took two years to release the findings of its investigation, and only after being compelled'' through Freedom of Information Act litigation.

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