Death at Guantanamo

U.S. backs away from remark by State official calling suicides a `good PR move' by detainees

June 13, 2006|By CAROL J. WILLIAMS | CAROL J. WILLIAMS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- U.S. military pathologists examined and tested clinical data yesterday obtained from autopsies of three prisoners who hanged themselves here Saturday, while human rights advocates warned of the potential for more suicides by prisoners with little hope of release or legal recourse.

Officials of the military prison and interrogation network were reviewing detention procedures to determine what changes might be necessary to avert further suicide attempts and to modify guard routines to prevent prisoners from knowing when they might be observed, said Cmdr. Robert T. Durand, spokesman for the prison and interrogation compound.

Rear Adm. Harry Harris' characterization of the suicides as acts of "asymmetrical warfare" and a State Department official's assertion that the first deaths among Guantanamo inmates were "a good PR move" brought renewed outrage in the Muslim world as well as among European allies.

Durand said the admiral in charge of the detention operations here stood by his view that the deaths "were not acts of despair but coordinated efforts by three committed combatants."

A medical examiner from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology completed the clinical portion of autopsies on the three bodies Sunday afternoon but analytical work continued, Durand said. He did not know when results of the autopsies would be made public or the cause of death officially established. He said those announcements would be made by the Pentagon once the Washington-based institute had concluded its analysis.

The bodies remained at the Naval Hospital morgue pending negotiations between the State Department and the home countries of the dead, two of whom were Saudi citizens and the third from Yemen. A U.S. Navy Muslim chaplain was preparing the bodies for prayer rituals and eventual burial. Saudi officials have already expressed their desire to have the remains of 21-year-old Yassar Talal al-Zahrani and 30-year-old Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi returned to their homeland.

The deaths and the official commentary on the dead men's motives inspired broad criticism. The fatalities also brought appeals for independent investigation of the detention process here as well as insistence that the prison be closed.

"The shroud of secrecy surrounding Guantanamo must be lifted, with independent access to and monitoring of the facilities on an ongoing basis," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This monitoring should include the medical treatment of detainees, especially those who have chosen to engage in hunger striking as a way to draw attention to their conditions of confinement."

Only 10 of the 460 prisoners have been charged with criminal acts, and the fate of those trials awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the tribunal's legitimacy, expected by the end of June.

"The core underlying injustices of the Guantanamo Bay facility need to be remedied before other lives are lost," Romero said. "The conditions are the antithesis of the America we hold in our hearts and our minds."

In Washington, lawyers representing dozens of detainees here denounced U.S. government claims that the suicides were a public relations ploy or a strategic holy-war tactic, contending they were the direct result of inhumane conditions.

"To characterize their suicides as acts of war is offensive and shows a disrespect for human life and humanity that is rampant at Guantanamo," said Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights that has sought to get U.S. court jurisdiction over prisoner challenges of their incarceration.

The rebukes were aimed at Harris' comments and those by Colleen Graffy, a senior official in the State Department's office for public diplomacy that is charged with improving the U.S. image in the world. Graffy told the BBC that the suicides were "a good PR move to draw attention."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack seemed to step back from those statements. "We would not say that it was a PR stunt," he said. "We have serious concern any time anybody takes their own life."

Gutierrez said the suicides were predictable, given the high number of attempts in the past. "The amount of psychological stress placed on detainees cannot be underestimated; they are numb, depressed, desperate," she said. "The deaths were entirely predictable and the U.S. bears complete and utter responsibility for these deaths."

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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