GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—The State Department attempted to distance itself Monday from one of its own officials, who called the suicides by three detainees at the U.S. terror prison "a good PR move to draw attention."
Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, whose job involves improving U.S. public relations, especially in the Muslim world, made the comment Sunday in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview.
She called the suicides "a tactic to further the jihadi cause," the BBC reported.
"I would not characterize it as a PR stunt," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday in reply to a reporter's question at the daily news briefing. "We have serious concern any time anybody takes their own life."
Even before the suicides, the European Union and individual countries, including Britain, had called on the United States to close the prison. About 460 prisoners are in custody at Guantanamo as "enemy combatants," a category that the Bush administration created and isn't covered by international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war.
Civilian defense lawyers have described Guantanamo captives held for more than four years as increasingly desperate. They say the detainees have few ways, other than to harm themselves, to protest their indefinite confinement.
Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen and Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia hanged themselves at the remote island prison early Saturday.
The Pentagon said in a news release Monday that Ahmed was "a mid- to high-level al-Qaida operative," Utaybi was a member of the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jama'at Tabligh and other Islamist terrorist groups, and Zahrani was a Taliban fighter.
The prison camp's spokesman said a team of military pathologists had completed autopsies of the three men on Sunday.
"The bodies are now in the morgue at the naval hospital in Guantanamo, and they are being handled with great reverence and respect and observance of the Islamic rules with regard to the handling of the deceased," said the spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand.
A Muslim chaplain, Navy Lt. Abuhena Saiful Islam, said the bodies would be washed, wrapped in white shrouds and placed in coffins facing the direction of Mecca. Prayers would be said.
U.S. diplomats were negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Yemen on whether the bodies would be sent to their homelands for burial. Military sources said repatriation was likely.
It wasn't known whether the three men were among the 25 percent of detainees being regularly interrogated at this remote, offshore Navy base.
The military said none of the three men who killed themselves had lawyers, and none had been charged with war crimes.
Also, none had "ongoing psychological illness" or was taking prescription drugs, said the Pentagon's top medical professional, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
The deaths added fuel to international calls that the Bush administration close the offshore detention and interrogation center.
Attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the detainees, argued that the interrogation methods and the indeterminate detentions were causing the men to try to kill themselves.
They presented reporters with a timeline of efforts they made to see that the detainees received some sort of physical or psychiatric medical care.
The Bush administration rejected most of the efforts, attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez said.
"The deaths over the weekend came as absolutely no surprises to the attorneys," she said, adding that the center has been working since February 2002 "to get the military to concern itself with mental health and living conditions."
"The notion that (the detainees) had the ability to protest, to raise concerns, is unfounded," she said. Lawyers had met with 130 of the detainees as of January and the "vast majority have no access to any outside counsel."
"They are entering their fifth year of imprisonment, held in isolation," she said. "The amount of psychiatric stress cannot be underestimated." She called the uncertainty over their fates "unacceptable" under U.S. law and basic civil rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union called for an independent investigation of the detainees' suicides and conditions at the prison.
"The shroud of secrecy surrounding Guantanamo Bay must be lifted, with independent access to and monitoring of the facilities on an ongoing basis," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. "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."
Leonard Rubenstein, the director of Physicians for Human Rights, said his group had asked the government to allow for independent medical evaluations—"the kind we conduct in all kinds of other countries"—but the request was ignored.
Josh Colangelo-Bryan, an attorney for detainee Jumah Al Dossari, who has repeatedly attempted suicide, said Dossari was often despondent and held in isolation for extended times.
Dossari had described being interrogated while wrapped in an Israeli flag and questioned as a female interrogator wiped menstrual blood on his face, he said.
At one point, Colangelo-Bryan said his client asked him, "What do I do to keep myself from going crazy here?"
(Rosenberg of The Miami Herald reported from Guantanamo; Clark, also of The Herald, reported from Washington.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060612 GUANTANAMO
Need to map