Freed Guantanamo captives tell of suicidal despair

The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune
Carlotta Gall with Neil A. Lewis/NYT The New York Times
Tuesday, June 17, 2003

KABUL – Afghans and Pakistanis who were detained for many months by the American military in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba before being released without charges are describing the conditions as so desperate that some had tried to kill themselves.

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According to accounts in the last three months from some of the 32 Afghans and three Pakistanis in the weeks since their release, it was above all the uncertainty of their fate, combined with confinement in very small cells, sometimes only with Arabic speakers, that caused inmates to attempt suicide. One Pakistani interviewed this month said he had tried to kill himself four times.

An Afghan prisoner who spent 14 months in Guantanamo described in April what he called the uncertainty and fear.

“Some were saying this is a prison for 150 years,” said Suleiman Shah, 30, a former Taliban fighter from Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan.

None of those interviewed complained of physical mistreatment. But the men said that for the first few months they were kept in small wire-mesh cells, about 2 meters by 2.5 meters (6.5 feet by 8 feet), in blocks of 10 or 20. The cells were covered by a wooden roof, but otherwise were open at the sides to the elements.

“We slept, ate, prayed and went to the toilet in that small space,” Shah said. Each man had two blankets and a prayer mat and slept and ate on the ground, he said.

The prisoners were only taken out once a week for a one-minute shower. “After four and a half months we complained and people stopped eating, so they said we could shower for five minutes and exercise once a week,” Shah said. After that, he said, prisoners got to exercise for 10 minutes a week, walking around the inside of a 10 yard long cage.

In interviews at their homes, weeks after being released, he and the freed Pakistani detainee talked of what they said was the overwhelming feeling of injustice among the approximately 680 men detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay.

“I was trying to kill myself,” said Shah Mohammed, 20, a Pakistani who was captured in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, handed over to American soldiers and flown to Guantanamo in January 2002. “I tried four times. Because I was disgusted with my life.

“It is against Islam to commit suicide,” he continued, “but it was very difficult to live there. A lot of people did it. They treated me as guilty, but I was innocent.”

In the 18 months since the detention camp opened, there have been 28 suicide attempts by 18 individuals, with most of those attempts made this year, said Captain Warren Neary, a spokesman at the detention camp. None of the prisoners have succeeded in killing themselves, but one man has suffered severe brain damage, according to his lawyer.

The prisoners come from 40 countries, and include more than 50 Pakistanis, about 150 Saudis and three teenagers under the age 16, the majority of them captured in Afghanistan, said Najeef ibn Mohammed Ahmed Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, who is representing nearly 100 of the detainees.

Nauimi represents many of the Saudis, and American lawyers represent about 14 prisoners from Kuwait. There are also 83 Yemenis, he said, and a sprinkling of others, including some Canadians, Britons, Algerians, Australians and one Swede.

Since January 2002, at least 32 Afghan prisoners and three Pakistanis have been released from Guantanamo Bay. Five Saudis were recently handed over to the Saudi Arabian authorities. Yasser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi, was moved from the camp to a military brig in Norfolk, Virginia, in April 2002. Neary said 41 people had been released in all, but could not give a more exact description.

At the same time the military is also preparing to place a handful of the prisoners, about 10, before a military tribunal soon, officials say.

Human rights organizations have raised concerns about the conditions at Guantanamo Bay and the unclear legal status of the detainees. The American military has refused to consider them prisoners of war, even though the majority of them were captured on the battlefield, and does not allow them access to lawyers. No charges have yet been brought against any of the detainees, some of whom have been held there for 18 months.

Concerned about their prolonged detention without trial or clear legal status, the head of the International Red Cross, which visits the detainees, urged the Bush administration last month to start legal proceedings for the hundreds of detainees and institute a number of changes in conditions at the camp.

Commander Brian Grady, the staff psychiatrist at the prison’s medical facility, said in a recent interview that most of the prisoners suffering from depression brought their symptoms with them when they arrived in Cuba.

“I don’t know what the effects of this particular confinement are,” he said. “I’d be hesitant to comment.”

Officials at Guantanamo have generally dismissed the notion that the confinement and uncertainty about the future are specifically to blame. “I would not particularly say these circumstances are a factor,” Grady said.

But Jamie Fellner, the director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, said that was highly implausible. “These conditions of confinement by themselves over a prolonged period are enormously psychologically stressful,” she said. “Added to that is the uncertainty as to the future.”

Fellner added that her group had not found any credible reports of physical abuse and had investigated several accounts of beatings that turned out to be unfounded.

Hospital officials said that about 5 percent of the inmates are suffering from depression and are being treated with anti-depressants.

Mohammed, who spent 18 months in Cuba before his release, said that “when they first took us there they would not let us talk, or stand or walk around the cell. At the beginning it was very hard to bear, there was no call to prayer, and there was no shade. In the afternoon the sun came in from the side.”

Under the current routine, the majority of the prisoners remain in their cells except for two 15-minute periods a week, in which they walk around the cage and take a shower. In addition, the call to prayer is played over the prison’s loudspeakers five times a day, according to Captain Youseff Yee, the Muslim chaplain who oversees the religious needs of the Guantanamo prisoners.

Conditions improved after the first few months, and prisoners were moved to newly built cells with running water and a bed, Shah said.

Interrogation was sporadic and varied in length and intensity. Sometimes they were questioned after 10 days, or 20 days, and then not for several months, prisoners said.

“All of the people were worried about how long we would be there for,” Shah said. “People were becoming mad because they were saying: ‘When will they release us? They should take us to the high court.’ Many stopped eating.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 18, 2003.
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