Guantanamo's First Suicides Pressure US
By Julian E. Barnes and Carol J. Williams
The Los Angeles Times
Sunday 11 June 2006
Three prisoners, all held without charges, are found hanging in their cells. Human rights advocates urge an immediate shutdown.
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - Three Middle Eastern detainees being held without charges at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay hanged themselves, military officials said Saturday, becoming the first captives to take their own lives at the prison and prompting new calls for an immediate shutdown.
The Defense Department said Saturday that the men - two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen - were found in their cells and had left suicide notes. By taking their own lives, the prisoners confounded strenuous measures by military officials to prevent suicides. And the deaths come as the Bush administration battles growing international criticism of its detention procedures and faces a potentially fateful Supreme Court decision this month.
The military did not name the prisoners and released few details about the men, but said at least two were believed to have been members of international terrorist organizations and the third part of a Taliban uprising.
All three had been on hunger strikes and all had been force-fed, a process that frequently involves the use of nasal tubes and restraints.
"These are men who had gone on a hunger strike together," said Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the prison network. "The methods of hanging themselves were similar. I believe this was a coordinated attempt."
He called the three "committed jihadists" who died in acts of "asymmetrical warfare" - the term commonly used by U.S. military officials to describe tactics used by insurgents who face a militarily superior U.S. force in combat.
Army Gen. John Craddock, leader of U.S. Southern Command, said the men were not among detainees seeking U.S. court reviews of their cases and had not appeared before military trial panels. Although the three were not accused of any crimes, Craddock insisted they were enemy combatants and terrorists.
"This is a determined, intelligent and committed element," he said. "They will continue to do everything they can ... to become martyrs in the jihad."
But as many detainees pass their four-year mark in captivity without formal charges, human rights activists and defense attorneys said the prisoners have grown despondent over being detained without charges and without imminent prospects of a court hearing.
"People have been indefinitely detained for five years without any prospect of ever going home, or ever seeing their families, or ever being charged, or having any resolution," said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International in Washington. "There is no question serious psychological trauma comes from that."
Previously, military officials said there had been 41 suicide attempts at Guantanamo this year, including three last month by detainees who tried to take their lives by overdosing on hoarded medication. The Pentagon noted that a single detainee was responsible for at least a dozen of the suicide attempts.
But there have been many other attempts by Guantanamo detainees to hang or otherwise harm themselves since prisoners were sent there beginning in 2002 - 23 attempted a mass hanging in 2003.
Last year, as many as 131 prisoners engaged in hunger strikes, and a similar protest this year involved 89 detainees, prison officials said. There are currently eight detainees on a hunger strike, Harris said.
Only 10 of the approximately 460 men in custody at Guantanamo have been charged with crimes for their alleged involvement in terrorist activity.
Meanwhile, recurring allegations of interrogation abuses and the trial system have spurred global condemnation. The United Nations Committee Against Torture called on the Bush administration last month to shut down the prison, and the European Parliament this year urged that the prison be closed and detainees be given trials without delay.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for shutting down the prison, and top officials in Britain, Germany and elsewhere have expressed concern to U.S. counterparts and called for drastic changes.
Katherine Newell Bierman, a counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, said the suicide attempts are likely to continue if the U.S. does not move to give the detainees a fair trial.
"It is only going to get worse," she said. "They need to close it, and they need to close it responsibly. You need to prosecute the people who may have committed crimes, and the rest of them need to be sent home and need an apology."
President Bush, spending the day at Camp David, was told of the suicides at 7:45 a.m. by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Later, he was briefed about the incident by Stephen Hadley, his national security advisor, and Joshua Bolton, his chief of staff. Bush expressed serious concern and pressed to ensure the military was conducting an investigation, said Christie Parell, a White House spokeswoman.
"He stressed the importance of treating the bodies in a humane and culturally sensitive manner," she said.
Bush administration officials contacted U.N. officials and embassies of European and Mideast countries, as well as congressional leadership and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Parell said.
A prison guard found the first man hanging from a noose fashioned out of his clothing early Saturday morning. The guard called in an emergency medical team. Other guards then found the two other men, also hanging, officials said.
"They worked hard to revive these men who were determined to take their lives," Harris said.
All three left suicide notes in Arabic, but military officials refused to release any details of the notes.
Craddock said an investigation was underway, including an autopsy, and said the remains were being treated "with the utmost respect."
Islamic law generally mandates burial within 24 hours after death. But Harris said the military had obtained a fatwa - a religious ruling from an Islamic cleric - to allow them to investigate. "We have a fatwa from a reputable imam that was provided to us that discusses the specifics of Muslim burial rights and any acceptable reasons to delay," Harris said.
In an interview last month, Harris said that in the event of any deaths at the prison, a pathologist would have to be flown in from the U.S. to handle an autopsy at the morgue.
The military provided few biographical details about the dead prisoners.
Harris said one man was part of a Taliban uprising at the Qala-I-Jangi prison in Afghanistan, where CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed in 2001, becoming the first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan. Another was a member of Jamaet al Tableeg, an Islamic group the military considers a terrorist organization. The other was a "mid- to high-level" Al Qaeda operator, he said.
"These were dangerous men, they are not here by accident or happenstance," Harris said.
The Yemeni detainee had been on a hunger strike that began in 2005 and ended last month. The other two had been on hunger strikes in 2005 and rejoined the strike in 2006.
None was on medication, and military officials said they had tried to do mental evaluations of all three after they ended their hunger strikes. Two had allowed the reviews.
"There was no indication of a high risk of suicide for any of these detainees," Craddock said.
The three detainees were housed in Camp 1, a sprawl of wire-mesh cages where prisoners can communicate easily with others but are not accorded time for communal recreation or meals. Harris said a persistent rumor in the camp was that if three detainees managed to kill themselves at once, the others would be released.
On Saturday, military officials moved to prevent further suicides. Guards were put on alert, and Harris said he ordered bedsheets be distributed each evening and removed each morning.
The suicides also prompted the Pentagon to cancel a hearing at Guantanamo this week at which an Ethiopian detainee, Binyam Mohammad, was to appear with civilian attorneys seeking to show their client was tortured under U.S. instruction during the 18 months he was put in the hands of Moroccan interrogators.
The Pentagon, under pressure, has been working to reduce the prison population. Annual reviews earlier this year deemed 141 eligible for release or transfer, and about two dozen of those have been sent off the island. The State Department is negotiating with the governments of countries with the largest numbers of Guantanamo prisoners - Afghanistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia - to accept responsibility for trying or jailing those prisoners.
As international criticism has increased, Bush again faced questions Friday when he met with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen at Camp David. Rasmussen, agreeing with other leaders in Europe, has said Guantanamo undercuts Western ideals and compromises anti-terrorism efforts.
Bush said he assured the Danish leader in a private conversation that U.S. officials would like Guantanamo "to be empty," but said that some of the detainees remain dangerous and that the administration is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the administration's system for putting detainees on trial.
The Supreme Court may rule as soon as this month in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a native of Yemen and a former driver for Osama bin Laden who is challenging the Bush administration's right to deny him access to U.S. courts.
The administration wants to try Hamdan, like other detainees, in a special system at Guantanamo designed for terrorism detainees and patterned after World War II-era military tribunals. But critics and defense attorneys consider the "military commission" system substandard to American courts or to the court martial system.
The Supreme Court case highlights inconsistencies within the Bush administration over policies it adopted more than four years ago.
After the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, the president and his advisors discussed how to deal with detainees, deciding that the Geneva Convention would not apply to those considered terrorists. Bush issued an order in November 2001 outlining rules for the special trial system, under which appeals would end at his desk.
In the Supreme Court case, the Pentagon and administration are defending the administration's decisions, arguing that the system designed by Bush should be allowed to continue. Yet even as Bush has begun calling for the eventual shutdown of Guantanamo, the prison there is undergoing a $30-million expansion to house 100 medium-security captives.
Barnes reported from Washington and Williams from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was established by treaty with Cuba in 1903 as a result of the Spanish-American War. It was expanded during World War II. Here are some facts about the camp:
* The first prisoners detained as part of U.S. anti-terrorist activities arrived at Guantanamo in January 2002 and the last in October 2004.
* About 460 prisoners are held at Guantanamo, and 287 others have been released or transferred to other governments.
* Ten prisoners have been charged before U.S. military war crimes tribunals with conspiring with Al Qaeda, though none are charged with direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
* Prisoners live in five compounds known collectively as Camp Delta.
Sources: Associated Press; Times reports.