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June 11th, 2006 - 3 Prisoners Commit Suicide at Guantánamo
By James Risen and Tim Golden
New York Times
June 11, 2006
Washington, June 10 - Three detainees being held at the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, committed suicide early on Saturday, the first deaths of detainees to be reported at the military prison since it opened in early 2002, United States military officials said.
The deaths come at a time of mounting international criticism of the Bush administration's handling of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo and other prisons around the world. President Bush, who was at Camp David on Saturday, expressed "serious concern" about the deaths, said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman.
The three detainees were not identified, but United States officials said two were from Saudi Arabia and the third was from Yemen. Military officials said that the three hanged themselves in their cells with nooses made of sheets and clothing and died before they could be revived by medical personnel.
Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the detention camp at Guantánamo, told reporters in a news conference that the deaths were discovered early on Saturday when a guard noticed something out of the ordinary in a cell and found that a prisoner had hanged himself. Admiral Harris said guards and a medical team rushed in to try to save the inmate's life but were unsuccessful. Then, guards found two other detainees in nearby cells had hanged themselves as well; all were pronounced dead by a physician.
Military officials on Saturday suggested that the three suicides were a form of a coordinated protest.
"They are smart, they are creative, they are committed," Admiral Harris said. "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."
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has opened an investigation into the deaths, and the State Department has notified the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to a statement issued on Saturday by the United States Southern Command, the military organization that oversees Guantánamo.
All three men left suicide notes in Arabic, officials said. One of the detainees was a mid- or high-level Qaeda operative, another had been captured in Afghanistan and the third was a member of a splinter group, Admiral Harris said, in an account by The Associated Press. He said all three had participated in hunger strikes at the detention center.
He said the acts were tied to a "mystical" belief at Guantánamo that three detainees must die at the camp for all the detainees to be released. There have been 41 suicide attempts by 25 detainees since the facility opened, officials said.
Lawyers for the detainees, human rights groups and legal associations have increasingly questioned whether many of the prisoners can even rightfully be called terrorists. They note that only 10 of the roughly 465 men held at Guantánamo have been charged before military tribunals, and that recently released documents indicate that many have never been accused even in administrative proceedings of belonging to Al Qaeda or attacking the United States.
Advocates for the detainees said they believed the suicides resulted from the deep despair felt by inmates who are being held indefinitely.
"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," said Bill Goodman, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York advocacy group that oversees lawyers representing many of the detainees. "We all had the sense that these men were getting more and more hopeless. There's been a general sense of desperation that's been growing."
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer at Dorsey & Whitney in New York who represents one detainee who has repeatedly attempted suicide, said, "These men have been told they will be held at Guantánamo forever. They've been told that while they're held there they do not have a single right."
Foreign governments and international organizations have stepped up their criticism of detainee treatment at Guantánamo. Just last month, a United Nations treaty panel reviewing the United States' compliance with the international prohibition on torture argued that Guantánamo should be shut down. Last week, the Council of Europe issued a separate investigative report that said the United States had created a "reprehensible network" of dealing with terror suspects, highlighted by secret prisons believed to be in Eastern Europe and other nations around the world.
Responding to the growing furor over the issue in Europe, Mr. Bush said in an interview with German television in May that he would like to close the Guantánamo prison, but that his administration had to await the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on whether the detainees should be tried by civilian courts or military commissions.
Meanwhile, the situation inside the detention center has grown more volatile in recent months, with reports that prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes, suicide attempts and violent attacks on guards.
Lawyers for the detainees have predicted for months that some would kill themselves. They have complained repeatedly about their access to the detainees, and have litigated in federal courts to try to get more information about the prisoners' medical and psychological health.
The lawyers have also strenuously protested the administration's efforts to have all litigation over the treatment of the detainees dismissed under the Detainee Treatment Act, a law signed by Mr. Bush on Dec. 30 that would strip the courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions from detainees.
Action on nearly all of those petitions has been suspended in recent months, pending a ruling by the Supreme Court this month on the case of a former driver for Osama bin Laden.
In public statements, Defense Department officials have often dismissed the detainees' suicide attempts as less than serious and as the actions of trained Qaeda terrorists to manipulate public opinion. The first hunger strikes by detainees at Guantánamo began soon after the camp opened in January 2002, and two of those prisoners were forcibly fed through tubes that year. Dozens of other suicide attempts followed.
Over one eight-day period in August 2003, 23 detainees tried to hang or strangle themselves, including 10 on a single day. But the Pentagon did not disclose the episode until January 2005, and lawyers for the detainees have complained about what they say has been a pattern in which the government has withheld information about suicide attempts or minimized their importance.
In late 2003, military officials at Guantánamo began to re-classify many of the suicide attempts as "manipulative, self-injurious behavior" that was intended to bring pressure for better conditions or for release. Officials at Guantánamo acknowledged that those designations were not necessarily made after any formal psychological evaluation.
But early last summer, as a new wave of protests broke out, officials at Guantánamo and at the Pentagon grew increasingly concerned, Defense Department officials said.
Doctors overseeing the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo sought new guidance from the Pentagon about the circumstances under which they could force-feed hunger strikers by tubes inserted through their noses and into their stomachs. While Defense Department officials took new measures to try to break a wave of hunger strikes that began last summer, they also undertook a review of procedures they would follow for the possible burial of detainees or the transfer of their remains in the event that any of them succeeded in committing suicide, military officials said.
Military officials began trying to discourage the detainees from killing themselves in part by having military and medical personnel cite passages in the Koran that condemn suicide. The detainees were systematically told that annual reviews of their status as "enemy combatants" had been completed, that they would remain at Guantánamo for at least another year, and that they should reconcile themselves to the situation, Defense Department officials said.
The military's review of the hunger-strike issue, which included senior Pentagon officials and officers of the United States Southern Command, which oversees Guantánamo, eventually led to a decision to begin strapping those detainees who refused to eat into metal "restraint chairs" while they were force-fed.
After the use of the chairs was disclosed by The New York Times in February, military officials insisted that they were acting only to save the lives of hunger-striking detainees who were precariously close to serious harm or death.
Interviews with military officials indicated that only a handful of the detainees who were then being force-fed had lost so much weight that they were classified by doctors there as "severely malnourished." The restraint chair was used on all of those who refused to eat, military officials said, regardless of their medical condition.
For months after the use of the restraint chairs became public, lawyers for the detainees and other critics of United States detention policy predicted that the tougher measures would push the prisoners to take more radical steps to end their lives.
What may have been the most serious such incident before Saturday's suicides came on May 18, when two detainees were found unconscious in their cells after ingesting a large quantity of anti-anxiety medication that various prisoners had apparently hoarded for the purpose. Another detainee said he had also tried to commit suicide but did not have enough medication; military officials said they did not believe his attempt had been serious.
Military officials said other detainees violently attacked guards in subsequent searches of their cells. A few of the detainees have since told their lawyers that the upheaval was provoked by guards who mistreated the prisoners' Korans as they tore through their cells.
Another brief hunger strike began barely two weeks later, the military authorities said, and eventually involved some 75 detainees. The chief spokesman for the military task force charged with guarding and interrogating the detainees, Cmdr. Robert Durand of the Navy, described that episode, like others before it, as an "attention getting" effort intended to increase public pressure for their release.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
External link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/us/11gitmo.html
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006; A01
Three detainees at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, hanged themselves in their cells yesterday morning, the first inmates to die at the remote island prison since it opened in early 2002, according to military officials.
Guards found the three men unresponsive and not breathing in their separate cells in Camp 1 shortly after midnight yesterday, according to Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who heads the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, and Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., who commands the Guantanamo Bay prison. The detainees had apparently used their clothing and sheets to fashion makeshift nooses in what military officials believe was a coordinated suicide pact. All left suicide notes written in Arabic, the officers said.
Military officials were not releasing the names of the detainees yesterday, but said two were Saudi Arabian nationals and one was a Yemeni national. Harris described them as having close ties to terrorist organizations in the Middle East and said their suicides were "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."
State Department officials were in discussions with the two nations' governments yesterday, and the military announced that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had opened a routine investigation to determine the causes and manners of death.
The deaths come amid ongoing criticism from around the world about the military's highest-profile detention center, where the United States keeps more than 450 detainees who were captured during hostilities in Afghanistan and surrounding areas and who allegedly are or have been enemy combatants. The United Nations anti-torture panel called last month for the United States to close the facility, while human rights groups have railed against the treatment of detainees there and argue there is no appropriate judicial process in which they could challenge their detention.
The incident yesterday morning occurred just weeks after two detainees tried to kill themselves by overdosing on antidepressant drugs they had hoarded in their cells. Shortly after those suicide attempts on May 18, detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison rioted, attacking guards with makeshift weapons.
Harris and Craddock told reporters during an afternoon teleconference that no riot or uprising accompanied yesterday's suicides. Harris said detainees have been spreading rumors around the prison's camps that it would take three suicides to garner international attention. The three men had been involved in hunger strikes over the past year, and Harris said the Yemeni detainee had been a long-term hunger striker. All three have been force-fed in the past to break their strikes, Harris said.
Defense Department officials have long expressed their pride in not having lost a single life among the approximately 759 detainees who have at one time been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. There have been 41 suicide attempts by about 25 individual detainees - many by hanging - but in each previous case, medical personnel were able to save them.
"This is a determined, intelligent, committed element," Craddock said. "They continue to do everything they can ... to become martyrs."
Christie Parell, a White House spokeswoman, said President Bush expressed "serious concern" about the incident. "He stressed it was important that the bodies be treated humanely and with cultural sensitivity."
William H. Goodman, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents nearly all the Guantanamo Bay detainees in suits filed in U.S. courts, said that he and other lawyers are working to learn the identities of the detainees who died so they can prepare to help their families. Goodman said the deaths are evidence of a failed system.
"These are the latest victims and the most serious so far in the ongoing effort of this administration to impose a lawless system that denies justice, fairness and due process to people throughout the world," Goodman said. "This is an act of desperation because they have no way to prove their innocence. A system without justice is a system without hope."
Terry Henry, a Department of Justice lawyer who has been arguing the government's position in numerous Guantanamo Bay habeas cases, sent an e-mail to defense lawyers yesterday saying that only one of the three men who committed suicide has been identified as possibly having an active habeas petition. Craddock and Harris said none of the detainees had court cases or military commissions pending. Henry indicated that military commission hearings scheduled for this week will be postponed, according to his e-mail to lawyers.
Defense lawyers have been arguing for years that the lack of contact between detainees and their families -- detainees generally are not allowed phone calls and have infrequent lawyer visits -- has exacerbated the problem of isolation.
David Remes, a lawyer who represents 17 Yemenis being held at Guantanamo Bay, said yesterday that the suicides were "a tragedy in the making."
"This is the only way they can leave Guantanamo, if you will," Remes said.
In addition to the suicide attempts, dozens of detainees have launched hunger strikes over the past few years. Military officials have adopted of a policy of force-feeding those detainees, but this has spurred allegations of abuse because a restraint chair is used and because of allegedly painful feeding methods. The Pentagon this month defended the practice and formalized its use. Harris said a strike by as many as 80 detainees in May has been reduced to about eight as of yesterday.
There are about 100 Yemeni detainees and 115 Saudi Arabian detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, though U.S. officials have been working to return many to the custody of their home countries to reduce the long-term population.
Military officials have argued that the detainee suicide attempts are designed to gain attention and to manipulate world opinion. It was unclear if the detainees were aware of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but such detainee incidents have previously been tied to major world events. Harris said he believes the detainees have not learned that Zarqawi was killed.
"Detainees are held at JTF-Guantanamo because they are dangerous and continue to pose a threat to the U.S. and our allies," Craddock said. "They have expressed a commitment to kill Americans and our friends if released. These are not common criminals, they are enemy combatants being detained because they have waged war against our nation and they continue to pose a threat."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company