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Details emerge about detainees who committed suicide

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—The three men who killed themselves at the terror prison here included a mid- to high-level al-Qaida operative, a Saudi who sided with the Taliban against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and a supporter of a banned terrorist group that helped arrange travel for al-Qaida loyalists, the military said Sunday.

The details about the three dead men represent the first description by the government justifying their capture and imprisonment at the controversial prison camp.

None of them, officials said, had lawyers and a Miami Herald examination of documents made public by the Defense Department suggests none of the men participated in any hearing during which they could challenge their detention.

One of the men, Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen, was described by the military on Sunday night as a "close associate" of Abu Zubaydah, an Osama bin Laden deputy now in U.S. custody, in a secret location.

Ahmed was called hostile and disruptive, according to details released by the Pentagon. As a hard-core hunger striker from 2005 until last month, he would have received repeated forced feedings through a tube tethered through his nose and into his stomach.

The military had recommended that one of the two Saudi nationals, Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi of Qarara, be released and sent back to his home nation for further detention. Utaybi was the support of the banned group.

The other Saudi is Yassar Talal al-Zahrani of Yenbo, who was depicted as an "actual front-line fighter for the Taliban" in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

The quality of the evidence that the government has on the three has never been tested in court.

Rather, the Pentagon's brief descriptions are what has qualified them for indefinite detention as so-called "enemy combatants," a war-on-terror category created by the Bush administration. It is not a designation covered by the Geneva Conventions, international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war.

The military issued the descriptions Sunday night amid renewed calls to close the prison down and as a U.S. Navy Muslim chaplain arrived at the base to prepare the dead for a traditional Islamic burial, perhaps in their homelands.

Defense attorneys and critics of the prison project blamed despair among the 460 or so captives for the first deaths at this offshore detention center, which opened in January 2002.

But the Pentagon's Southern Command chief visited the prison camps Sunday, and would have none of it.

"I wouldn't want to speak for the detainees. I think that's speculation and that's dangerous," said Army Gen. Bantz Craddock.

He then noted that, with the Supreme Court to decide shortly whether President Bush's war court is constitutional, "this may be an attempt to influence the judicial proceedings in that perspective."

Meanwhile, the deaths at the controversial prison have prompted calls from around the globe to shutter the prison. One of Bush's staunchest allies, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said closing Guantanamo would "benefit our cause ... against terrorism."

Commanders in Cuba said the three prisoners—two Saudis and a Yemeni—were found hanging early Saturday, and efforts to revive them failed. Public affairs officers declined to provide an exact timeline of the events, saying it was part of an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Investigators are looking into whether the procedures in place could have prevented the suicides; whether camp guards followed them; and what changes may be needed to prevent further fatalities, Craddock said.

Saturday's suicides capped nearly a month of on-again, off-again turmoil at the Pentagon's premier offshore detention center, which is indefinitely holding captives from about three dozen nations as "enemy combatants."

Hours after the Bush administration released 15 Saudi captives to their homeland on May 18, two detainees were found unconscious in their cells from overdoses of other captives' anti-anxiety drugs. Then, 10 captives fought soldiers inside a medium-security barracks in what commanders called a well-planned ambush.

Then Saturday, the Pentagon froze indefinitely the future of its Military Commissions, the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War II where 10 of the captive here so far face war crimes charges.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on the constitutionality of the Pentagon's format for trying captives as alleged al-Qaida co-conspirators.

U.S. diplomats were talking to counterparts in the Saudi kingdom and Yemen to determine whether the men would be sent home or buried at this Navy base where they had been held as "enemy combatants" for more than four years.

Repatriation was likely, military sources said.

Craddock declined to offer a timetable for either the investigation or the burials.

"The investigation will be done when it's done; I don't know. You never know what avenues and branches and sequels you have to work," the general said.

The Muslim cleric, Navy Lt. AbuHena Mohammed Saiful-Islam, served for 99 days at the start of the prison project in early 2002, inaugurating the morning call to prayer, overseeing the preparation of culturally appropriate food and providing the first wave of captives with language appropriate religious reading.

He returned Sunday with Craddock, and said he would prepare the dead for burial either here or elsewhere after the military completes its autopsies. A Bangladeshi-American who was recruited to the U.S. military's chaplain corps, Saiful-Islam said Islamic tradition requires burial within a day.

But, he said, delay is allowed under exceptional circumstances, such as these.

"After washing the body we have to wrap it with a white piece of cloth, two preferably, and put it in a coffin," said the soft-spoken prayer-leader, explaining that he had earlier taken part in the procedures of burying the dead, but ordinary Muslims, not detainees. "Then we leave the body in front of us, facing Mecca, we offer a funeral prayer. Once that is done, then we lay them to rest."

Asked whether he would be permitted to lead detainees, fellow Muslims, in prayer, he replied: "It's not my call. I'm here to make sure procedures are done."

Standing outside the prison, Craddock vowed a post-Sept. 11-style examination of the types of things that "a few determined detainees" might turn into weapons.

"Look, it's much like, I think, the 911 tragedy in that we took things that were routine, an everyday common airliner, and it was turned into a weapon," he said. "You can take a bed sheet, you can take a blanket you can turn those into means to take one's life, it's been done before. Comfort items in the possession of the few determined detainees will be turned into something that will contribute to taking their lives."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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