Washington — Three detainees being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, hanged themselves early Saturday, the first deaths of detainees to be reported at the military prison since it opened in early 2002, U.S. military officials said.
The deaths come at a time of mounting international criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo and other prisons around the world. President Bush, who was at Camp David on Saturday, “expressed serious concern” about the deaths, the White House said.
“These are the latest victims and the most serious so far in the ongoing effort of this administration to impose a lawless system that denies justice, fairness and due process to people throughout the world,” said Bill Goodman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based advocacy group that oversees lawyers representing many of the detainees. “This is an act of desperation because they have no way to prove their innocence. A system without justice is a system without hope.”
The detainees had apparently used their clothing and sheets to fashion makeshift nooses in what military officials believe was a coordinated suicide pact. All left suicide notes written in Arabic, the officers said.
“They are smart, they are creative, they are committed,” said Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander at Guantanamo. “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.”
The three detainees were not identified, but U.S. officials said two were from Saudi Arabia and the third was from Yemen. In a sign of concern over the diplomatic fallout, the administration conducted an extraordinary round of global outreach within hours. Among those contacted were the United Nations, European Union member states, and Middle Eastern embassies, said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has opened an investigation into the deaths, and the State Department has notified the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to a statement issued Saturday by the U.S. Southern Command, the military organization that oversees Guantanamo. A cultural adviser has been assigned to make sure that the remains of the three are handled appropriately, the statement said.
Harris told reporters in a news conference that the deaths were discovered early on Saturday when a guard noticed something out of the ordinary in one of the cells, investigated and found that a prisoner had hanged himself. He said guards and a medical team rushed in to try to save the inmate’s life, but were unsuccessful. Guards then found that two other detainees in nearby cells had hanged themselves as well. All three were pronounced dead by a physician.
Concern about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo has deepened recently. Last month, a U.N. panel said that holding detainees indefinitely violated the world’s ban on torture and the United States should close the detention center. Just last week, the Council of Europe issued a separate investigative report that said the United States had created a “reprehensible network” of dealing with terror suspects, highlighted by secret prisons believed to be in Eastern Europe and other nations around the world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are among those who also recently have urged the United States to close the prison.
Responding to the growing furor over the issue in Europe, Bush said in an interview with German television in May that he would like to close the Guantanamo prison, but said his administration must first await the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on whether the detainees should be tried by civilian courts or military commissions.
Meanwhile, the situation inside the detention center has grown more volatile in recent weeks, with reports that prisoners have engaged in violent attacks on guards, hunger strikes and unsuccessful suicide attempts.
Lawyers for the detainees have predicted for months that some of them would eventually kill themselves. They have complained repeatedly about their limited access to the detainees, and have litigated in the federal courts to try to get more information about the prisoners’ medical and psychological health.
Human rights advocates and attorneys representing detainees at the prison said they believe the suicides are the result of the deep despair felt by inmates who are being held indefinitely.
“These men have been told they will be held at Guantanamo forever,” added Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer in New York who represents one detainee who has repeatedly attempted suicide. “They’ve been told that while they’re held there they do not have a single right.”
In public statements, Defense Department officials have often dismissed the detainees’ suicide attempts as less than serious — and as the actions of trained al Qaeda terrorists to manipulate public opinion. The first hunger strikes by detainees at Guantanamo began soon after the camp opened in January 2002, and two of those prisoners were forcibly fed through tubes that year. Dozens of other suicide attempts followed.
In late 2003, military officials at Guantanamo began to reclassify many of the suicide attempts as “manipulative, self-injurious behavior” that was designed to bring pressure for better conditions or for release. Officials at Guantanamo acknowledged that those designations were not necessarily made after any formal psychological evaluation.
But early last summer, as a new wave of protests broke out, officials at Guantanamo and at the Pentagon grew increasingly concerned, Defense Department officials said.
Doctors overseeing the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo sought new guidance from the Pentagon about the circumstances under which they could force-feed hunger strikers by tubes inserted through their noses and into their stomachs.
The military’s review of the hunger-strike issue, which included senior Pentagon officials and officers of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo, eventually led to a decision to begin strapping those detainees who refused to eat into metal “restraint chairs” while they were force-fed.
After the use of the chairs was disclosed in February, military officials insisted that they were acting only to save the lives of hunger-striking detainees who were precariously close to serious harm or death.
But, according to Defense Department records and military officials, only a handful of the detainees who were then being force-fed had lost so much weight that they were classified by doctors there as “seriously malnourished.” The restraint chair was used on virtually all of those who refused to eat, military officials acknowledged, regardless of their medical condition.
For months after the use of the restraint chairs became public, lawyers for the detainees and other critics of U.S. detention policy predicted that the tougher measures would only push the prisoners to take more radical steps to end their lives.
David Remes, a lawyer who represents 17 Yemenis being held at Guantanamo Bay, said Saturday that the suicides were “a tragedy in the making. … This is the only way they can leave Guantanamo, if you will.”
Guantanamo at a glance
What: The prison compound opened in January 2002 within the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to house foreigners believed to be linked to al Qaeda or the ousted Taliban in Afghanistan.
Where: The United States entered into an open-ended lease with Cuba in1903 for the Guantanamo Bay enclave on the eastern part of the island to serve as a naval base.
Why Cuba: The White House had sought to conduct interrogations and hold the detainees in a facility beyond the legal protections of U.S. courts.
Legal status: The White House had maintained that the detainees were outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts because they were outside of U.S. territory. And it argued that detainees were not entitled to the Geneva Conventions’ protections for prisoners of war because terrorist groups such as al Qaeda were not government entities or signatories to the agreement. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the Constitution gave the prisoners a right to challenge their detentions in court. The high court is expected to rule this month whether President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering the detainees to be tried by U.S. military tribunals.
Detainee population: Currently it is about 460; a total of 759 detainees have been held at the prison, with about 300 released or transferred.
Duration of confinement: Some for up to 41/2 years.
Tribunals: So far, only 10 detainees have been charged with crimes. In April, the chief military prosecutor said the United States plans to file charges against about two dozen more detainees and will seek the death penalty in an unspecified number of cases.
Source: Chronicle news services