WASHINGTON – Three months after a get-tough general took command of the Guantanamo Bay prison (search) for terror suspects, prisoners began a flurry of suicide attempts, according to military records.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller (search) took over as commander at Guantanamo in November 2002 after interrogators criticized his predecessor for being too solicitous for the detainees' welfare.
Between January and March 2003, 14 prisoners at Guantanamo tried to kill themselves, according to Pentagon figures. That's more than 40 percent of the 34 suicide attempts by 21 inmates since the prison was opened in January 2002.
Miller is now in charge of all military-run U.S. prisons in Iraq, a job he took after news broke of beatings and sexual humiliations last fall at the Abu Ghraib (search) prison near Baghdad.
Miller had visited Abu Ghraib in August and September and recommended interrogation techniques that military lawyers said had to be modified to comply with the Geneva Conventions on treating prisoners of war.
Human rights groups say the suicide attempts at Guantanamo Bay may be evidence that conditions there amounted to torture.
The Bush administration calls the men "enemy combatants," similar to traditional prisoners of war but not subject to the guarantees of the Geneva Conventions against torture and other abuses. The administration contends their treatment nevertheless is in compliance with the conventions.
"Our concern is that the totality of the conditions at Guantanamo -- starting with the prolonged detention without trial, combined with the frequent interrogation that may have included problematic methods -- may have contributed to an atmosphere that pushed people to attempt suicide," said Alistair Hodgett of the human rights group Amnesty International.
Miller and other military officials deny that.
"All detainees are treated humanely," Guantanamo military spokesman Maj. David S. Kolarik said in written response to questions from The Associated Press.
He said all prisoners are treated "in accordance with the principles" of the Geneva Conventions "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity."
No Iraqi prisoners have killed themselves since the U.S. invasion, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for Miller in Baghdad. Nor do military records contain accounts of prisoner suicide attempts in Iraq, he said.
In internal memos, Bush administration lawyers have acknowledged repeatedly that "pushing someone to the brink of suicide" would be torture.
An internal memo from then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee in 2002 and a March 2003 report from Pentagon experts said mental torture is any procedure "calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality."
"We think that pushing someone to the brink of suicide, particularly where the person comes from a culture with strong taboos against suicide, and it is evidenced by acts of self-mutilation, would be a sufficient disruption of the personality to constitute a `profound disruption,"' Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge, wrote to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.
Islamic law prohibits suicide. The later memo to Rumsfeld contains almost identical language, but without the reference to a cultural taboo on suicide.
Amnesty International is among several humanitarian groups to have raised the possibility that conditions for terror suspects at Guantanamo and other U.S. prisons may amount to torture.
In a rare public statement about conditions at Guantanamo, the Red Cross expressed qualms last fall about the suicide attempts. Representatives of the international humanitarian organization said they had found a "worrisome deterioration" in prisoners' mental health.
The military will not give details about interrogation methods and some other aspects of prisoner treatment at Guantanamo. Military officials say doing so would help al-Qaida terrorists learn how to resist questioning by U.S. interrogators.
In response to the rash of suicide attempts in early 2003, the military set up a psychiatric ward to treat Guantanamo prisoners. The ward had 20 or more patients last year. "Approximately seven" are there now, Kolarik said, "with illnesses ranging from psychosis to depression."
Kolarik said up to 15 percent of detainees arrived at Guantanamo with some degree of mental illness.
Some prisoners at Abu Ghraib last fall were seriously mentally ill, said Maj. David Auch, an Army Reserve physician who served at the prison then. Auch, a family practice doctor in Watertown, S.D., said one to two dozen of the 3,500 or so prisoners then had psychological problems serious enough to require "watching and protection for themselves."
Auch said he never saw any evidence of suicide attempts, although one inmate would bang his head against the door and walls of his cell.
"They had him in a helmet to protect his head because he kept pounding it on the wall," Auch said. "Sometimes they flexicuffed him because he tried to scratch his face, tried to grab anything he could to mutilate himself."
Suicide experts say to determine whether conditions at Guantanamo caused the suicide attempts is impossible without more information about what detainees have experienced.
"It's not clear that simply being imprisoned or tortured would necessarily lead to a suicide," said Ronald W. Maris, former director of the Suicide Center at the University of South Carolina (search). "On the other hand, if you become hopeless and see no way out other than to die, you're more likely to attempt suicide."