Questioning a Guantanamo Prisoner's Death

As Zero Dark Thirty continues to stoke controversy over the use of torture techniques, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras looks at the issue not from the perspective of U.S. intelligence agents but that of a prisoner, in an Op-Doc for the New York Times. On September 8, Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, was found dead in his cell at Guantanamo Bay. He was 36 years old, had been a detainee for almost ten years, and like 157 others still imprisoned at Guantanamo, he had never been charged with a crime. In fact, the Department of Defense recommended his release in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

Poitras, who spent time in Yemen shooting her last feature doc, The Oath, returned to film Latif’s family accepting his body and the result is a powerful short documentary that illustrates how stories of torture victims can cross language barriers and speak volumes with little content. Poitras, a master of character and restraint in the political documentary genre, delves quietly into the question of how Latif died, a question that is as rhetorical as it is specific.

The U.S. military says that Latif’s death was caused by an overdose of prescription medicine complicated by acute pneumonia. But the toxicology report was withheld from Latif’s family and his body was delayed for three months before being returned to Yemen, by which time it was too decomposed to conduct an autopsy.  Could it have been suicide? Latif, who had been kept in solitary confinement, told his lawyers five years before his death he wanted to die. “It was the only way he felt that he could escape,” says David Remes, one of Latif’s lawyers, who Poitras accompanied to Yemen.

Four years ago, President Obama promised to close Guantanamo, but it remains home to 166 prisoners.

See the Dart Center's tip sheet on interviewing torture victims and their families.