WASHINGTON—Three suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba hanged themselves with clothing and bed sheets Saturday becoming the first detainees to die at the camp since hundreds were rounded up in America's War on Terror.
The suicides of two Saudi citizens and a Yemeni man are likely to increase international pressure on the Bush administration to close the controversial camp, opened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The deaths come just weeks after a brawl and four attempted suicides at the center, where some have been held without charges for as many as four-and-a-half years.
The three dead men were all being held at Camp 1, the highest maximum security prison at the center, and were participants in a wave of hunger strikes staged to protest conditions at the camp. Military officials said the Yemeni detainee had just ended his long hunger strike.
All three left suicide notes written in Arabic, but military officials refused to divulge their contents, noting that the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service has opened an investigation to determine the cause and manner of death.
The United States is holding about 465 enemy combatants at the remote Navy base in southeast Cuba. Just 10 of them have been charged as alleged war criminals before President Bush's Military Commissions. Bush has rebuffed calls from across the globe to close the camp, saying he's waiting for the Supreme Court to determine whether his military commissions are constitutional.
Last night, President Bush expressed "serious concern" over the deaths and asked his cabinet to take diplomatic steps to assure critics that the matter is being fully investigated, a White House spokeswoman said.
But the commander of prison operations at the camp called the suicides, "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."
"We have men here in Guantanamo who are committed jihadists, al-Qaida and Taliban," said Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., in a telephone conference call. "They're continuing to fight against us here. These are dangerous men who will do anything they can to gain support for their cause."
He said the men were in the same cell block but not adjacent to each other, but that the suicides appeared to have been coordinated, noting that the "methods of hanging were similar."
Rumors may have lead them to believe that if three detainees died, the United States would shut down the camp.
"This `three detainees must die' myth is a superstition that runs rampant," Harris said.
Lawyers for some of the detainees, many of whom have embarked on months-long hunger strikes, said many captives have lost their will to live because they have been given indefinite detentions and little access to the courts. The lawyers said their clients have been told they will be held in Guantanamo "forever."
"Nobody should be even slightly surprised by this," said Josh Colangelo Bryan, who represents a detainee who attempted suicide in October 2005. He said one of his clients told him, `I would simply die than live here forever without rights.'"
According to Harris, an "alert' guard noticed one of the men had hung himself in his cell, shortly after midnight. The prisoner was "unresponsive and not breathing'.' He said the guard tried to help the man and guards checked on the other detainees, finding the two others.
Medical teams tried to revive the men, Harris said, but were unsuccessful and the three were pronounced dead by a physician.
The names of the dead were not released, but the State Department was notified and in discussions with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Harris said the three men have not been charged and do not have attorneys, but are classified as "enemy combatants."
"They were enemy combatants, taken off the battlefield to Guantanamo," Harris said.
He classified one of the men as a "mid- to high-level operative in al Qaeda" and said another was part of an uprising in Afghanistan.
"These are dangerous men, not here by accident or happenstance," Harris said.
The camp has come under increasing international criticism and military officials said the remains of the men were "being treated with the utmost respect," and that a cultural advisor was helping officials ensure that the bodies were being "handled in a culturally and religiously appropriate manner."
Harris said the camp has a "fatwa" from a "reputable Imam" that allows it to defer burial if the cause of death is in doubt. According to Islamic tradition, burial should be within 24 hours.
Until today's deaths, there had been no reported deaths among detainees since the Pentagon set up the offshore detention and interrogation center in January 2002.
The closest call was in January 2004 when guards spotted a Saudi captive hanging in his cell, and cut him down. He suffered brain damage and lapsed into a coma for months, but ultimately regained consciousness. He has since been sent back to Saudi Arabia.
In May, military officials said at least 23 detainees had attempted suicide 41 times, including four foreign captives who tried to kill themselves last month_three with drug overdoses, another by hanging. None of the four were seriously hurt.
Today's deaths are likely to rekindle a debate over the future of the camp, which the Bush administration routinely defends as critical to the war on terrorism. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, two of Bush's closest European allies, have called for the Guantanamo camp to be closed, as did the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
Critics have accused the camp of using interrogation techniques that could rise to the level of "torture" and of leaving captives behind bars with little access to lawyers or the outside world. Harris said the three detainees had not recently been undergoing any interrogations.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has also called on the United States to close the prison, brought up the issue Friday during a meeting with Bush at Camp David, Maryland.
Bush said he wants to see the prison vacant—just not yet.
"We would like to end the Guantanamo—we'd like it to be empty. And we're now in the process of working with countries to repatriate people," Bush said.
But he added: "There are some that, if put out on the streets, would create grave harm to American citizens and other citizens of the world. And, therefore, I believe they ought to be tried in courts here in the United States."
Bush said his administration is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule whether he overstepped his authority in ordering the detainees to be tried by U.S. military tribunals.
Harris said the camp is undergoing a review to ensure there is not a repeat. Among the changes: detainees' bedsheets will be removed in the morning when they wake up. "it obviously removes from the detainees something they are used to living with, but I feel it's required to prevent a reoccurrence," he said.
Just last month, Harris offered the greatest detail of how the military would respond to a detainee death.
Both a pathologist and a Muslim chaplain would be brought in, Harris told The Miami Herald. An autopsy would be done to determine how the captive died, and the chaplain would prepare the dead for Islamic burial.
A delay was anticipated in burial to give the pathologist time. It was not determined in advance whether a dead detainee would be buried at the remote Navy base in southeast Cuba, or be sent home.
During a media visit last month, the Navy captain in charge of the prison camps hospital said he understood that, in the event of a detainee death, the onus would be on the military to "hopefully justify to the world that it was natural causes."
(Miami Herald Staff Writer Oscar Corral contributed to this report from Miami.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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