SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – One of the Guantanamo detainees who committed suicide had been cleared for transfer to another country, a second allegedly was involved in an Afghanistan prison uprising in which a CIA agent died, and a third had ties to Al Qaeda.
The Defense Department on Sunday identified the three as Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi, Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani and Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen.
The U.S. military said the bodies of the two Saudis and one Yemeni were found in their cells on Saturday, hanging from sheets and clothing. Officials said all three left suicide notes, the contents of which have not been made public.
Their deaths touched off new scrutiny and criticism of the prison, with human rights groups and foreign officials demanding the facility be closed.
An influential U.S. senator called for the government to move faster in determining the fate of hundreds of Guantanamo detainees who have been imprisoned for up to 4 1/2 years.
President Bush, who was spending the weekend at Camp David, expressed "serious concern" about the incident, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
His immediate concerns were making sure that an investigation was being conducted and that the bodies were "treated humanely and with cultural sensitivity," Snow said.
About 460 people are being held on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban at the isolated U.S. military base in southeastern Cuba.
The military maintains the detainees pose a danger to the United States and its allies. But only 10 detainees have been charged, and many claim they were not involved in Al Qaeda or were low-level Taliban members who never intended to harm the United States.
None of the three who committed suicide had been formally charged. Al-Utaybi and Al-Zahrani were identified earlier by Saudi authorities.
U.S. authorities allege Ahmed, 28, was a mid- to high-level Al Qaeda operative with ties to key Al Qaeda facilitators and senior membership. He had been noncompliant and hostile to guards throughout his time in Guantanamo and participated in a hunger strike from late 2005 to May 2006, the Defense Department said. Ahmed was born in Shebwa, Yemen.
Al-Zahrani, 21, was accused of being a front-line fighter for the Taliban who facilitated weapons purchases for Taliban offensives against U.S. and coalition forces. Born in Yenbo, Saudi Arabia, he was allegedly involved in a 2001 prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, that resulted in the death of CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann.
The U.S. military accused al-Utaybi, 30, of being a member of a militant missionary group, Jama'at Al Tablighi. He was born in Al-Qarara, Saudi Arabia, according to a Defense Department list of Guantanamo detainees.
Al-Utaybi had been recommended for transfer to another country for continued detention, though the Defense Department did not specify where. Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the Guantanamo detention center, said he did not know whether al-Utaybi had been informed about the transfer recommendation before he killed himself.
Though the military termed the deaths apparent suicides, the Navy was investigating to establish the official cause of death. Military medical experts completed autopsies on the men on Sunday afternoon, Durand said. He did not know when the autopsy report would be issued.
The detainees tried to prevent guards from seeing them commit suicide, The New York Times reported Monday, raising questions about long it took military guards to discover them. The newspaper quoted Durand as saying one of the prisoners hanged himself behind laundry drying from the ceiling of his cell and had arranged to make his bed look as if he were still in it. He said the two other detainees took similar steps.
Navy Lt. Abuhena M. Saiful-Islam, an imam, was brought to the base to ensure that the bodies were handled according to Islamic rites, and Guantanamo officials were prepared to perform an Islamic burial at the base if needed, Durand said.
While U.S. officials argued the suicides were political acts aimed at hurting the United States' standing in the world, defense lawyers, human rights activists and former detainees said prisoners are desperate after years in captivity and some view suicide as the only way out — even though Islam forbids it.
"A stench of despair hangs over Guantanamo," said Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who along with his son, Joshua, represents two Tunisians at Guantanamo. "Everyone is shutting down and quitting."
International demands to close the prison grew over the weekend.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who supported President Bush in the Iraq war, said the detention center's procedures violate "the very principle of the rule of law" and weaken the fight against terrorism.
Swedish Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson said the deaths underlined the need to close the camp and bring detainees to trial or free them. Eliasson said the 25-nation European Union believes the facility should be closed.
The suicides hit a sore point with Saudis, who are angry that more than 130 of their countrymen are at Guantanamo. The country's semiofficial human rights organization demanded an independent investigation, questioning whether torture drove the men to suicide.
"There are no independent monitors at the detention camp so it is easy to pin the crime on the prisoners, considering it is possible they were tortured," said Mufleh al-Qahtani, the group's deputy director.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would like to see the detainees' cases judged more quickly.
"Where we have evidence they ought to be tried, and if convicted they ought to be sentenced," he said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Specter said that without charges, many of the prisoners are "just out there in limbo."
U.S. authorities said they were considering suspending hearings by military tribunals pending a Supreme Court ruling on whether Bush overstepped his authority in setting up the tribunals.
Until the deaths, officials reported 41 unsuccessful suicide attempts by 25 detainees since the U.S. began taking prisoners to the base in January 2002. Defense lawyers contend the number of suicide attempts is higher.