Sunday, June 11, 2006

Guantanamo's First Suicides Pressure U.S.

Three prisoners, all held without charges, are found hanging in their cells. Human rights advocates urge an immediate shutdown.

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.

This is an exert from a piece that appeared in today's L.A TIMES


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