Suicides another blow to camp's image

Three captives hanged themselves with nooses fashioned from clothing and bedsheets Saturday - the first detainees to die at this 4-year-old offshore detention center in America's war against terrorism.

The reported suicides of two Saudi Arabian captives and another from Yemen are likely to increase international pressure on the Bush administration to close the controversial prison camps, which were set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

President Bush expressed "serious concern" over the deaths and moved quickly on the diplomatic front while his administration investigates, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

The deaths come three weeks after a brawl and two attempted suicides at the center, where some detainees have been held without charges for up to 4 1/2 years.

The three were all detainees in 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 a long hunger strike. All three left suicide notes written in Arabic, but military officials refused to divulge the 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, 10 of whom have been charged as alleged war criminals before President Bush's military commissions.

The Pentagon postponed the military tribunal of Binyam Muhammad, an Ethiopian detainee. It was originally scheduled for this week; no new date had been set. Muhammad is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to attack civilians.

Bush has rebuffed calls from across the globe to close the camp, saying he is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule this month on whether his military commissions are constitutional.

'AN ACT OF WARFARE' The commander of prison operations at the camp Saturday called the suicides "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us. We have men here in Guantánamo who are committed jihadists, al Qaeda and Taliban, " said Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., in a telephone conference call from Guantánamo Bay. "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 he also said the suicides appeared to have been coordinated, noting that the "methods of hanging were similar."

Rampant rumors in the camp may have led the men to believe the three deaths would prompt the United States to shut down the camp, he said.

"This 'three detainees must die' myth is a superstition that runs rampant at the camp, " 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, given indefinite detentions and little access to the courts. They said their clients have been told they will be held in Guantánamo "forever."

"Nobody should be even slightly surprised by this, " said Josh Colangelo-Bryan, who represents a detainee who attempted suicide in October. He said one of his clients told him, "I would simply die [rather] than live here forever without rights."

Former Army Capt. James "Youssef" Yee, a Muslim chaplain, said Saturday he suspected despair was at the root of the suicides by men who had likely been held for nearly five years.

"It was only a matter of time, really, " Yee said by telephone from near his last post, Fort Lewis, Wash. "They reached a place of helplessness and hopelessness to commit suicide and bring change for the other prisoners."

Once word of the deaths reached an international audience, he said, the United States would find itself in "a very touchy situation" that could touch off "outrage around the Muslim world" - perhaps ameliorated by a display of Islamic sensitivity to the death and funeral rites.

Toward the end of his 2002-2003 tour at Guantánamo, Yee was arrested on suspicion of mishandling classified documents at the base but was never convicted of the charges. He left the military with an honorable discharge.

But while at the base, he wrote in his memoirs, he and other Muslim military members prepared plain wooden coffins for any detainee who should die, in keeping with Islamic burial rites, and wrote verses on the side, in keeping with tradition.

THE GRIM DISCOVERY According to Harris, an "alert" guard noticed one of the men had hanged himself in his cell, shortly after midnight, and was "unresponsive and not breathing." He said the guard tried to help the man, and guards checked on the other detainees, finding two others had also hanged themselves.

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 was in discussions with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. As Saudis and a Yemeni, the men who died were from among the majority of nationals at the prison camps.

Harris said the three men had not been charged and did not have attorneys, but were classified as "enemy combatants."

"They were enemy combatants, taken off the battlefield to Guantánamo, " he said. He classified one of the men as a "mid- to high-level operative in al Qaeda" and said another was part of the war in Afghanistan.

"These are dangerous men, not here by accident or happenstance, " Harris said.

POLICY ON BURIALS The camp has come under increasing international criticism, and military officials said the remains of the men were "being treated with the utmost respect." 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, or religious edict, from a "reputable iman" that allows it to defer burial if the cause of death is in doubt. Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be buried within 24 hours.

Until Saturday's deaths, there had been no reported deaths among detainees since the Pentagon set up the 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 captives who tried to kill themselves last month - three with drug overdoses, another by hanging. None of the four was seriously hurt.

Saturday'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 Guantánamo 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 leaving captives behind bars with little access to lawyers or the outside world. Harris said the three detainees had not recently undergone 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, Md.

Bush said he wants to see the prison vacant - just not yet. "We would like to end the Guantánamo - 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 U.S. Supreme Court to rule on 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, the latest commander of operations 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 Navy base or be sent home. Army Gen. John Craddock, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said during Saturday's briefing at Southcom's Miami headquarters it "would be possible" that the men would be buried in Guantánamo.

It was unclear which military cleric would be handling the dead, although there was a report a Navy chaplain was en route from Camp Pendleton, Calif. The chaplain is a Bangladeshi-American imam, or prayer leader, who had been the prisoners' first Muslim chaplain during the Camp X-Ray days.

During a media visit last month, the Navy captain in charge of the prison camp hospital said he understood that in the event of a detainee's death, the onus would be on the military to "hopefully justify to the world that it was natural causes."

Clark reported from Washington, Rosenberg reported from Guantanamo Bay and Great Exuma, Bahamas, and Miami Herald staff writer Oscar Corral contributed to this report from Miami.

LEGAL MOVES A few highlights of legal developments surrounding the U.S.-held prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. For more , go to Nov. 13. 2001: President Bush signs an executive order authorizing the secretary of defense to hold non-U.S. citizens in indefinite detention. Dec. 27, 2001: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirms the Pentagon will move terrorism suspects from Afghanistan to the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, "the least worst place" to hold them. Jan. 11, 2002: The U.S. military sends 20 prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo. Feb. 7, 2002: Bush directive defines Taliban and al Qaeda captives as "unlawful combatants, " not prisoners of war. June 28, 2004: The Supreme Court rules 6-3 that Guantánamo detainees can challenge their captivity in federal courts. July 30, 2004: Pentagon establishes military panels of officers to review each detainee's "enemy combatant" status on a case-by-case basis. July 15, 2005: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously upholds Bush's war powers to create a military commission to try Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 35, of Yemen. March 28, 2006: Supreme Court hears oral arguments as it grapples with whether the Pentagon's plan to try Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, violates international law and the U.S. Constitution. SOURCES: Department of Defense; The Miami Herald; Human Rights First; U.S. federal court filings, Center for Constitutional Rights, National Institute of Military Justice. Click on Today's Extras to read a recent Q&A with the commander of the Navy Base