NEW YORK - Furious at the Bush administration's callous response to the deaths of three Guantanamo Bay prisoners, rights advocacy groups in the West are calling for immediate and independent investigations into the incident.
"The (Bush) administration should stop trying to minimize the desperate actions of detainees with language that does not reflect the seriousness of the matter at hand," said Jumana Musa of Amnesty International's U.S. bureau.
Last Friday, U.S. military officials said three detainees died in their cells as a result of suicide, which they described later as "acts of warfare waged against us," and "a good PR (public relations) move."
Detainees sit in a holding area during their processing into the temporary detention facility inside Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in this January 11, 2002 file photograph. Three suicides by Guantanamo prisoners was more proof the U.S. camp should be closed, critics said on Monday, and the Bush administration went into damage control over an official's comment that the deaths were a 'good PR move.' REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense/Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/Handout
"Colorful euphemisms such as 'manipulative self-injurious behavior' and 'hanging gestures'--both used by the (Bush) administration to refer to suicide attempts in the past--only belittle the gravity of the situation that the detainees are facing," Musa added.
Amnesty International and many other leading rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch, have long demanded the closure of Guantanamo prison and the trial of terrorism suspects by civilian courts.
Though fully endorsed by several international bodies, including the United Nations and the European Union, such calls have failed to effect any change in the Bush administration's policy, which is based on the rationale that terror suspects are "enemy combatants" and that therefore they could be held indefinitely.
According to U.S. officials, among those who committed suicide were two Saudi nationals and one from Yemen. In the past, all of them had reportedly taken part in hunger strikes as a protest against their indefinite detention.
While some prisoners have been released from Guantanamo Bay, several hundred suspects continue to languish behind bars without any charges or trial. Rights groups believe many of them picked up by the U.S. military in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks have nothing to do with terrorism.
"By rounding up men from all over the world and confining them in an isolated penal colony without charge or trial, the United States has violated several international laws and treaties," said Musa, adding that official statements describing these men as "enemy combatants" does not justify the lack of due process.
In response to growing calls for a fair trial and unconditional release, President George. W. Bush recently stated that he would like to "end Guantanamo," but did not indicate when and how.
The question of "when and how" is currently awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has to decide whether the military commissions established by the administration to try some Guantanamo prisoners are lawful or not.
But before the Court makes its judgment later this month, rights groups want to see an independent probe into the circumstances under which the prisoners apparently decided to take their lives.
"The shroud of secrecy surrounding Guantanamo must be lifted. This has undercut America's moral authority," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the oldest rights advocacy group in the United States.
Describing the Guantanamo military commissions as a sham, the ACLU chief demanded independent monitoring of the prison "on an ongoing basis" and medical treatment for detainees, especially those who have chosen to engage in hunger strikes.
"The military commissions are not legal, not fair, and not representative of the American system of justice," said Romero, calling for immediate release of all those detained without charges.
"The core underlying injustices of Guantanamo need to be remedied before other lives are lost," he said. "The conditions are the antithesis of the America we hold in our hearts and minds."
According to Human Rights Watch, Guantanamo Bay currently holds about 500 detainees, a vast majority of whom come from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Recently, the New York-based group accused the U.S. military of holding three dozen or more detainees in long-term incommunicado at undisclosed prisons in other countries, which is considered a violation of international law.
Last month, a UN panel that monitors compliance with the international anti-torture treaty told the U.S. government to close Guantanamo and avoid using secret prisons in the "war on terror."
In an 11-page report, the UN committee also said the U.S. should cease using any interrogation techniques that constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, in all places of detention.
In response, U.S. officials told the committee that most of the "regrettable incidents or allegations" of detainees mistreatment had occurred several years ago and that laws, training, and monitoring have since been improved."
Contrary to official claims, those released from Guantanamo have said they were repeatedly subjected to physical and mental torture of various kinds, including sexual humiliation.
Rights groups say the suicides of three prisoners at Guantanamo could not be seen in isolation from the psychological deterioration that results from prolonged detention without charge, trial, or any indication of such a possibility.
"These suicides should serve as wake-up call to President Bush and his administration that Guantanamo is not just a public relations problem," said Amnesty International's Musa, "but instead an indictment of its deteriorating human rights record."
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