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U.S. Criticized over Guantanamo Suicides
Published on Monday, June 12, 2006 by the Toronto Star / Canada
U.S. Criticized over Guantanamo Suicides
by Andrew Selsky
 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A "stench of despair" hangs over the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and the deaths of three detainees who killed themselves there on the weekend may only be the beginning, said a defence lawyer who recently visited the U.S. jail in Cuba.

While U.S. officials argue the suicides were political acts aimed at hurting Washington's 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.

Meanwhile, a semi-official Saudi Arabian Human Rights Group called for an outside investigation of the deaths, 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.

Saudi Arabia's government identified the two dead Saudi detainees on Sunday as Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al Habradi and Yasser Talal Abdullah Yahya al Zahrani. The identity of the Yemeni was not disclosed.

Kateb al Shimri, a lawyer representing the relatives of Saudi Guantanamo detainees, dismissed U.S. explanations that the men committed suicide.

"The families don't believe it, and of course I don't believe it either," he said.

"A crime was committed here and the U.S. authorities are responsible," he said, echoing the general sentiment in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

U.S. military guards were trying to prevent more suicides, such as removing sheets from cells when detainees are not sleeping, officials said. But rights groups and defence 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 George W. 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-Qaida and the Taliban. Many claim they are innocent or were low-level Taliban members who never intended to harm the United States.

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 U.S. Supreme Court ruling 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 number of Guantanamo hunger strikers stood at eight Sunday, with five of them being force fed, Lt.-Cmdr. Robert Durand, spokesman for the detention centre, told The 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. Defence lawyers contend the number of suicide attempts is higher.

© Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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