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June 12th, 2006 - Prisoners’ Ruse Is Suspected at Guantánamo
Bush officials’ hard line provokes condemnation - US ally admits prison is hampering war on terror
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington and Hugh Muir
Monday June 12, 2006
The Bush administration stared down a new wave of international condemnation of Guantánamo yesterday, dismissing the suicides by three inmates of the prison camp as a "good PR move" on their part and an "act of asymmetrical warfare".
The deaths of two Saudis and a Yemeni, who used knotted bedsheets to hang themselves in their solitary cells, brought renewed calls from European governments and human rights organisations to bring the 460 inmates to trial, or close down the camp. But Bush administration officials rejected suggestions that the three had killed themselves in despair over their indefinite confinement.
"It does sound like this is part of a strategy - in that they don't value their own lives, and they certainly don't value ours; and they use suicide bombings as a tactic," Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told BBC's Newshour yesterday. "Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good PR move."
On Saturday, the camp's commander, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, said the suicides were an al-Qaida tactic. "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," he said.
The hard line from an administration official comes at a time of increasing international criticism at the handling of terror suspects at Guantánamo. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a staunch ally of the US in Iraq, said that Guantánamo was damaging America's image in the world, and undermining the global war on terror. "I think it would be to the benefit of our cause, and our fight for freedom and for democracy, if the facilities at Guantánamo were closed down," the Danish leader told CNN.
In Stockholm, Sweden's foreign minister, Jan Eliasson, voiced similar concerns about the lack of due process. "It shows the importance of letting the prisoners free or giving them a statutory trial."
In Saudi Arabia, officials at the semi-official human rights organisation accused the prison administration of torturing the men to death. "Even if the suicide story is true, I have no doubts that they were pushed to it by torture and the lack of attention paid to the health of the detainees," said Saleh al-Khathlan of the Saudi human rights group.
Lawyers for the detainees called the comments by administration officials deeply offensive. Gitanjali Gutierrez, a lawyer for the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents most of the detainees, said: "It's very clear that any human being who is kept in indefinite detention over four years, not given any kind of hearing, and whose life and fate is subject to such uncertainty, inevitably will contemplate suicide, and the fact that three of them finally succeeded comes as no surprise. This is not an act of warfare, it is a consequence of inhumane and immoral treatment of human beings by the United States."
In Britain, Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said of the US officials' remarks: "This is the sort of statement that SS officers in Nazi Germany would have been envious of." Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, deplored the "incredibly insensitive and callous" comments. "The deaths of these three people was not an act of war, it was an act of desperation."
President George Bush at the weekend expressed "serious concern" about the suicides. At Guantánamo, a military official yesterday said that the bodies of the three men would be dealt with in accordance with Muslim tradition, and that a fatwa had been obtained to allow autopsies. A Saudi interior ministry official told the Associated Press that procedures had begun to send home the bodies of two detainees, identified as Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani. The Yememi was named as Ali Abdullah Ahmed.
Utaybi had actually been cleared by the Pentagon for transfer out of Guantánamo in late 2005 - although it was uncertain whether he knew he would be leaving, Cully Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of detainee affairs told the Guardian. He said that Utaybi, who belonged to a militant Islamist missionary organisation, had been recommended for transfer to a third country.
Mr Stimson described Ali Abdullah Ahmed as a mid-to high-level al-Qaida operative with connections to Abu Zubaydah, the former chief of military operations in US custody. The third man, Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, had been captured on the battlefield in late 2001 during the prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif.
The suicides were the first deaths since the first detainees were brought to Guantánamo from the battlefields of Afghanistan four years ago. The authorities at the camp have at times gone to extreme measures to keep inmates alive, resorting to brutal force-feeding during hunger strikes. The deaths come three weeks after three prisoners tried to kill themselves. Earlier this month, the authorities confronted a hunger strike by more than 80 prisoners. Eight were still on hunger strike yesterday.
We treat them well and they try to kill us, says camp commander
Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of Guantánamo, defended the treatment of detainees in an article published in the Chicago Tribune on May 17
"Conditions have improved dramatically for detainees since they first arrived in 2002. More important, we aggressively look for ways to build on the 'safe and humane care and custody' mission ...
"We hold men who proudly admit membership at the leadership level in al-Qaida and the Taliban, many with direct personal contact and knowledge of the September 11 2001 attackers. We are keeping terrorist recruiters, facilitators, explosives trainers, bombers and bombmakers, Osama bin Laden bodyguards and financiers, from continuing their jihad against America ...
"We provide safe shelter and living areas with beds, mattresses, sheets and running-water toilets. We also provide adequate clothing, including shoes and uniforms, and the normal range of hygiene items, such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and shampoo. Even so, many detainees have taken advantage of this - crafting killing weapons from toothbrushes and garrottes from food wrappers, for example ...
"We provide outstanding medical care to every detainee, the same quality as what our service members receive ... That said, many detainees persist in mixing a blood-urine-faeces-semen cocktail and throwing this deadly concoction into the faces of the American men and women who guard them, feed them and care for them ...
"Despite articles written by defence attorneys and young translators arguing the contrary, these are, in fact, dangerous men in our custody. Make no mistake about it - we are keeping enemies of our nation off the battlefield. This is an enormous challenge. These terrorists are not represented by any nation or government. They do not adhere to the rules of war."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
New York Times
By David S. Cloud and Neil A. Lewis
June 12, 2006
Washington - Three detainees at the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tried to conceal themselves in their cells - behind laundry and through other means - to prevent guards from seeing them commit suicide, a senior military official said Sunday.
One of the prisoners hanged himself behind laundry drying from the ceiling of the cell, and had arranged his bed to make it look as if he was still sleeping, said the official, Lt. Cmdr. Robert T. Durand of the Navy. The other two detainees who committed suicide also took steps to prevent guards from seeing that they had put nooses around their necks, he added.
The deception by the prisoners raises questions about how long it took military guards to discover the bodies. Regulations at Guantánamo call for guards to check on each inmate every two minutes.
Military officials said one focus of an investigation into the suicides would be the need for procedural changes, like barring prisoners from doing laundry in their cells.
Gen. Bantz J. Craddock of the Army, who oversees Guantánamo as commander of the United States Southern Command, told reporters on Sunday that the investigation into the deaths "kind of boils down to two things: Are the procedures that you have in place adequate, and then were the procedures followed to the standards?"
The Pentagon identified the three detainees as two Saudis, Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al-Habardi, 30, and Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, 22, and a Yemeni, Ali Abdullah Ahmed, 33.
Reaction around the world seemed muted, though the Liberal Democratic leader in Britain, Sir Menzies Campbell, said he was thinking about touring Guantánamo and repeated his criticism of the policy of detaining suspects without sending them to trial.
Democrats in the United States said little, apparently concerned about appearing to be sympathizing with detainees who could turn out to have significant terrorist connections.
White House officials described the three men as committed terrorists, and military officials said that none had been among the handful of prisoners whose cases had been brought before military commissions for prosecution.
The Pentagon released a statement describing Mr. Ahmed, the Yemeni, as a "mid to high-level Al Qaeda operative" who was close to Abu al-Zubaydah, a senior figure for Al Qaeda who has since been captured. The statement also said that Mr. Habardi was a member of a terrorist group that recruits for Al Qaeda, and had been recommended for transfer to another country, presumably Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said that Mr. Zahrani had been "a frontline fighter for the Taliban" and had participated in the prison uprising in 2001 at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of Johnny Micheal Spann, a C.I.A. operative.
The suicides renew the question of what the Bush administration will do with the detention center at Guantánamo, which President Bush has told interviewers recently that he would like to close at some point in the future.
The timing appears postponed, however.
"You can't have a final disposition about Guantánamo until the Supreme Court has ruled on the Hamdan case," said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, referring to a pending decision on whether detainees at Guantánamo may be tried as war criminals before military commissions and whether they may challenge their detentions in federal courts.
Military officials said they had translated notes left by the prisoners, but the officials refused to describe the contents of the messages. All three men were in the same cellblock in 6-by-8-foot cells that were not adjoining but had wire-mesh walls, which might have enabled them to communicate, officials said.
Speaking by telephone from the Saudi holy city of Medina, Talal Abdallah al-Zahrani, 50, the father of Mr. Zahrani, said that when he heard from his son in a recent letter, he sounded in good spirits and appeared to be more optimistic than before about being released soon.
"Nothing suggested that he would commit suicide, nothing," Mr. Zahrani said.
He said that the account of his son's suicide was "100 percent concocted."
His son was 17 in 2001 when he was apprehended in Afghanistan, where he worked with Islamic charities, he said. He had memorized the Koran since his imprisonment and said he had been behaving, Mr. Zahrani added.
Mr. Zahrani said hundreds of people attended a wake for his son on Sunday night after he had received word of his death from Saudi authorities. His comments about the turnout of mourners underscored the possibility that the return of the bodies to Saudi Arabia and Yemen - should the government allow it - could turn into anti-American events.
Jennifer Daskal, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Sunday that the three suicides "are an indication of the incredible despair that the prisoners are experiencing" after many of them have been "completely cut off from the world."
Her comments were echoed by other critics as well.
General Craddock speculated that the suicides may have been timed to affect the Supreme Court decision on the Hamdan case.
"This may be an attempt to influence the judicial proceedings in that perspective," he told reporters, according to a transcript of his comments during a brief visit to Guantánamo on Sunday.
The investigation into how the three prisoners were able to hang themselves and whether changes in procedures are necessary will be conducted by the commander of the prison, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris.
"There will be an after-action report that will look at whether there was failure of S.O.P.'s or adequate S.O.P.'s that were not followed," said Lieutenant Commander Durand, using the military acronym for standard operating procedures.
The inquiry will probably look at whether procedures requiring guards to observe prisoners at least every two minutes were followed the night of the suicides. Until now, prison officials have voiced confidence that the safeguards were adequate, pointing to the fact that despite dozens of attempted suicides in the last four years, none had been successful.
Guards will now collect bed linens every morning to prevent prisoners from secretly making nooses, Lieutenant Commander Durand said. In addition to possibly revoking permission for detainees to do their own laundry, prison officials are looking at withholding toiletries and other items that might be used in suicide attempts, he added.
"We've got to determine and find the balance between the comfort items that we would like to provide and the point at which comfort items in the possession of a few determined detainees will be turned into something that could contribute to taking their lives," General Craddock said.
There have been recent signs of growing unrest among the prisoners, including an episode in May in which at least two prisoners attempted suicide and another was said to have faked a suicide to lure guards into an ambush.
Several Guantánamo officers said some prisoners had spread the idea of suicide, claiming to have had visions that the prison would not be closed until after three prisoners had died, a possible explanation for the decision by the three men to kill themselves at the same time.
James Yee, a former Islamic chaplain at Guantánamo, said the suicides signaled "an important failure there."
Mr. Yee, who served at Guantánamo when the first of 41 previous suicide attempts occurred said, "The military guards on the block are supposed to check each detainee visually every two minutes or so."
The suicide attempt that came closest to being successful, involving a Saudi schoolteacher who was arrested in Pakistan, where he had attended a militant training camp, was foiled by those procedures, he said.
"At least one guard would have to walk up and down the corridor," he said. "That saved the Saudi detainee. who was in a coma for months." Although the Saudi detainee was not expected to survive, he recovered and has since been sent home.
Mr. Yee, a West Point graduate, was arrested on suspicion of espionage but the charges were dropped. He left the Army after being found guilty of minor infractions and amid overwhelming evidence that the suspicions of espionage were groundless.
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer representing Jumah Dossari, a Guantánamo inmate who has attempted suicide numerous times, said he had been told that guards were expected to keep close watch on prisoners, observing them every 30 seconds. But he said the procedures were difficult to follow in practice.
While visiting his client last November, he said he found Mr. Dossari in a bathroom trying to hang himself and slit his wrists. Even though a video camera had been installed in the bathroom, Mr. Colangelo-Bryan said guards did not respond until he called them.
Though the Bush administration has been under pressure - from the United Nations, European countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross - about the Guantánamo detention center, White House officials did not indicate that they viewed the suicides as a major political problem. The State Department alerted American embassies in Europe and the Middle East, and asked them to contact government officials. But White House officials said Mr. Bush did not make calls to world leaders.
"We haven't heard much response," one senior official said.
The United Nations was also notified of the suicides, the White House said. The U.N.'s Human Rights Commission declined to visit the detention center last year after the Bush administration refused to allow commission members to interview or talk with detainees.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article,Hassan M. Fattah from France, and Alan Cowell from London.
External link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/12/us/12gitmo.html
Monday 12 June 2006 2:00 PM GMT
One of the Guantanamo detainees who committed suicide had been cleared for transfer to another country, the US Defence Department has revealed.
The department on Sunday identified the three as Saudi Arabians Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani and Yemeni Ali Abdullah Ahmed. The US military accused al-Utaybi of being a member of an alleged "militant missionary group", the Jama'at al-Tablighi. The 30-year-old, born in al-Qarara, Saudi Arabia, had been recommended for transfer to another country for continued detention, though the Defence Department did not specify where.
Meanwhile, relatives of two Saudi detainees who died at Guantanamo Bay said the men could not have committed suicide as the US military reported, because they are strict Muslims, newspapers said on Monday.
Islam prohibits suicide and sets out harsh punishments in the afterlife for those who take their own lives. The men's families said they had probably been killed.
Saudi Arabia said it was working on the repatriation of their bodies. The kingdom did not say how the men died but the US military said the three detainees had hanged themselves.
"I am confident my son did not commit suicide," Talal al-Zahrani, Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani's father, told the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. "The story of the US administration is a lie.
‘He was killed'
Yassar Al-Zahrani's brother, Ahmed, also said it was unthinkable that Yasser would kill himself. "It's impossible for Yassar to commit suicide," he told the al-Watan newspaper. "He was killed," said another brother, Abdullah.
Fares al-Otaibi, Manei's brother, also suspected foul play. "We are 100% suspicious about his death," he told the newspaper.
The three were the first prisoners the US military has reported as dying at the base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States has held "terrorism" suspects since 2002.
The deaths renewed criticism of the base, which many human rights groups say should be closed. Nearly all the prisoners at Guantanamo are being held without charge and some have been held for more than four years. None of the three who recently died had been formally charged.
Katib al-Shimary, a lawyer for Saudi detainees at Guantanamo, said he held the US authorities responsible for the deaths. "We lost confidence in US jails ... after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo," he told local newspapers.
Riyadh declined to say whether it would ask for an investigation into the deaths but pledged more efforts to bring back all Saudis detained at Guantanamo, estimated at up to 103.