Published June 12, 2006
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A "stench of despair" hangs over the Guantanamo Bay prison where three detainees committed suicide this weekend, a defense lawyer who recently visited the U.S. jail in Cuba said as calls increased Sunday to close the facility.
The U.S. Defense Department identified the three on Sunday as Saudi Arabians Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal Al-Zahrani — and Ali Abdullah Ahmed. Ahmed's nationality was not provided in a statement released to The Associated Press. But U.S. military officials earlier said two Saudis and one Yemeni had taken their lives.
Saudi officials had earlier identified the two Saudis.
No other detainees had tried to commit suicide since U.S. military guards found two Saudis and one Yemeni prisoner hanging by nooses made from sheets and clothing early Saturday, Army Lt. Col. Lora Tucker told The Associated Press on Sunday.
While U.S. officials argue the suicides were political acts aimed at hurting American standing in the world, human rights activists and former detainees say prisoners are desperate after years in captivity and view suicide as the only way out even though Islam forbids it.
A European official urged that the widely criticized prison be closed, and two senior U.S. senators expressed concern that most of the prisoners have not been charged with any crimes. A Saudi Arabian human rights group called for an outside investigation of the deaths.
U.S. military guards were trying to prevent more suicides, such as removing sheets from cells when detainees are not sleeping. But rights groups and defense lawyers said they feared the suicides — the first detainee deaths at Guantanamo Bay — were just the beginning.
"A stench of despair hangs over Guantanamo. Everyone is shutting down and quitting," said Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who along with his son, Joshua, represents two Tunisians at Guantanamo.
He said he was frightened by the depression he saw in one of the men when he visited the jail on June 2. The client, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, "is trying to kill himself" by participating in a hunger strike, Denbeaux said.
"He is normally a gentle, quiet, shy person," Denbeaux said late Saturday. "He sat there in a subdued state that was almost inert. He was colossally depressed."
Denbeaux said he had intended to cheer Rahman up by showing him a newspaper article quoting President Bush as saying he wanted to close the jail. But the lawyer said guards confiscated the article because detainees are barred from seeing news of current events.
"We wanted to say, 'We have some hope for you,"' Denbeaux said. "They wouldn't let us give him some hope."
That afternoon, Rahman was force-fed, the lawyer said. Force feeding involves strapping a hunger striker into a "restraint chair" and feeding him through a tube inserted into the nose.
About 460 people, some of them in custody for 4 1/2 years, are being held at the Guantanamo camp on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Many claim they are innocent or were low-level Taliban members who never intended to harm the United States.
International demands to close the prison grew.
Danish Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen, who supported 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.
Only 10 detainees have been charged with crimes and face military tribunals ordered by Bush. A hearing scheduled this week for one was suspended after the suicides. Authorities were considering suspending all this month's hearings pending a Supreme Court on whether Bush overstepped his authority in setting up the tribunals.
Gen. John Craddock, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said the suicides were part of Islamic militants' holy war against the United States and its allies.
"They're determined, intelligent, committed elements and they continue to do everything they can ... to become martyrs in the jihad," Craddock told reporters Saturday.
A British citizen released from Guantanamo disputed that view.
"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," said Shafiq Rasul, 29, who waged a hunger strike while a prisoner in Guantanamo.
"This was not done as an act of martyrdom, warfare or anything else."
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee 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," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said on CNN's "Late Edition."
He said that without charges, many of the prisoners are "just out there in limbo, and that creates a very difficult situation."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed President Bush's comments Friday that the Guantanamo camp holds some very dangerous terrorists, but said on CNN that more needs to be done to figure out which detainees aren't a threat.
"There has to be a good procedure that balances the need to keep these people off the street with the need to find out who in fact is a terrorist," he said.
The suicides hit a sore point with Saudis, who are angry that more than 130 of their countrymen are at Guantanamo. Saudi Arabia'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.
The number of Guantanamo hunger strikers stood at eight Sunday, with five of them being force fed, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Durand, spokesman for the detention center, told AP. The number of hunger strikers this year peaked at 89 in May.
Until now, Guantanamo officials have said there have been 41 suicide attempts by 25 detainees and no deaths since the U.S. began taking prisoners to the base in January 2002. Defense lawyers contend the number of suicide attempts is higher.