By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 12 June 2006
They are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.
-- Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., Commander, Joint Task Force, Guantánamo
Three men being held in the United States military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, killed themselves by hanging in their cells on Saturday. The Team Bush spin machine immediately swept into high gear.
Military officials characterized their deaths as a coordinated protest. The commander of the prison, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., called it "asymmetrical warfare."
Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, said taking their lives "certainly is a good PR move."
Meanwhile, George W. Bush expressed "serious concern" about the deaths. "He stressed the importance of treating the bodies in a humane and culturally sensitive manner," said Christie Parell, a White House spokeswoman.
How nice that Bush wants their bodies treated humanely, after treating them like animals for four years while they were alive. Bush has defied the Geneva Conventions' command that all prisoners be treated humanely. He decided that "unlawful combatants" are not entitled to humane treatment because they are not prisoners of war.
Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions requires that no prisoners, even "unlawful combatants," may be subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment. Incidentally, the Pentagon has decided to omit the mandates of Article 3 Common from its new detainee policies.
Bush resisted the McCain anti-torture amendment to a spending bill at the end of last year, sending Dick Cheney to prevail upon John McCain to exempt the CIA from its prohibition on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. When McCain refused to alter his amendment, Bush signed the bill, quietly adding one of his "signing statements," saying that he feels free to ignore the prohibition if he wants to.
Bush & Co. are fighting in the Supreme Court to deny the Guantánamo prisoners access to US courts to challenge their confinement. The Court will announce its decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld by the end of this month.
This hardly sounds like a man who believes in humane treatment for live human beings.
The three men who committed suicide, Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al-Habradi,Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, were being held indefinitely at Guantánamo. None had been charged with any crime. All had participated in hunger strikes and been force-fed, a procedure the United Nations Human Rights Commission called "torture."
"A stench of despair hangs over Guantánamo. Everyone is shutting down and quitting," said Mark Denbeaux, a lawyer for two of the prisoners there. His client, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, "is trying to kill himself" in a hunger strike. "He told us he would rather die than stay in Guantánamo," Denbeaux added.
While the Bush administration is attempting to characterize the three suicides as political acts of martyrdom, Shafiq Rasul, a former Guantánamo prisoner who himself participated in a hunger strike while there, disagrees. "Killing yourself is not something that is looked at lightly in Islam, but if you're told day after day by the Americans that you're never going to go home or you're put into isolation, these acts are committed simply out of desperation and loss of hope," he said. "This was not done as an act of martyrdom, warfare or anything else."
"The total, intractable unwillingness of the Bush administration to provide any meaningful justice for these men is what is at the heart of these tragedies," according to Bill Goodman, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the Guantánamo prisoners.
Last year, at least 131 Guantánamo inmates engaged in hunger strikes, and 89 have participated this year. US military guards, with assistance from physicians, are tying them into restraint chairs and forcing large plastic tubes down their noses and into their stomachs to keep them alive. Lawyers for the prisoners have reported the pain is excruciating.
The suicides came three weeks after two other prisoners tried to kill themselves by overdosing on antidepressant drugs.
Bush is well aware that more dead US prisoners would be embarrassing for his administration, especially in light of the documented torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the execution of civilians in Haditha.
More than a year ago, the National Lawyers Guild and the American Association of Jurists called for the US government to shut down its "concentration camp" at Guantánamo. The UN Human Rights Commission, the UN Committee against Torture, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the Council of Europe, have also advocated the closure of Guantánamo prison.
Bush says he would like to close the prison, but is awaiting the Supreme Court's decision. At the same time, however, his administration is spending $30 million to construct permanent cells at Guantánamo.
Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, President-elect of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. She writes a weekly column for Truthout.