- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Three detainees at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, hanged themselves with nooses made of sheets and clothes, the commander of the detention center said yesterday. They were the first reported deaths among the hundreds of men held at the base for years without charge.

The suicides, which military officials said were coordinated, triggered further condemnation of the isolated detention center, which holds some 460 men on suspicion of links to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Only 10 have been charged with crimes, and there has been growing international pressure on the United States to close the prison.

Two men from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen were found dead shortly after midnight yesterday in separate cells, said the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which has jurisdiction over the prison. Attempts were made to revive them, but they failed.

“They hung themselves with fabricated nooses made out of clothes and bedsheets,” Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris told reporters in a conference call from the U.S. base in southeastern Cuba.

The suicides were “not an act of desperation” but “an act of asymmetric warfare,” he said.

To help prevent more suicides, guards will now give bedsheets to detainees only when they go to bed and remove them after they wake up in the morning, Adm. Harris said.

Gen. John Craddock, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said in the conference call that the three had left suicide notes, but he refused to disclose the contents.

One of the detainees was a mid- or high-level al Qaeda operative, Adm. Harris said, while another had been captured in Afghanistan and participated in a riot at a prison there. The third belonged to a splinter group. Their names were not released.

“They’re determined, intelligent, committed elements, and they continue to do everything they can … to become martyrs in the jihad,” Gen. Craddock said.

He said all three had engaged in a hunger strike to protest their indefinite incarceration and had been force-fed before quitting the protest action. Military commanders said two were participating in the hunger strike as recently as last month, and described one of them as a long-term hunger striker who had begun the protest late last year and ended it in May.

Some detainees have been on a hunger strike since August. The number of inmates refusing food dropped to 18 by last weekend from a high of 131.

President Bush, who was spending the weekend at Camp David, expressed “serious concern” about the incident, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

His immediate concerns were making sure that an investigation was being conducted and that the bodies were “treated humanely and with cultural sensitivity,” Mr. Snow said.

In a sign of concern over the diplomatic fallout, the administration conducted an extraordinary round of global outreach within hours. Among those contacted were the United Nations, European Union member states and Middle Eastern embassies, Mr. Snow said.

Amnesty International said the apparent suicides “are the tragic results of years of arbitrary and indefinite detention” and called the prison “an indictment” of the Bush administration’s human rights record.

Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a telephone interview from New York that those held at Guantanamo “have this incredible level of despair that they will never get justice.”

“And now they’re gone. And they died without ever having seen a court,” she said.

Pentagon officials said the three men were in Camp 1, the highest-security prison at Guantanamo, and none had tried to commit suicide before.

That camp was also where two detainees tried to commit suicide in mid-May, when a riot broke out. The two men, who took overdoses of an anti-anxiety medication they hoarded, were found and received medical treatment and were recovering.

Guantanamo Bay has become a sore subject between Mr. Bush and U.S. allies who otherwise are staunch supporters of his policies.

A U.N. panel said May 19 that holding detainees indefinitely at Guantanamo violated the world’s ban on torture and the United States should close the detention center.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are among those who also recently have urged the United States to close the prison.

On Friday, the prison came up during a meeting with Mr. Rasmussen at Camp David.

“We would like to end the Guantanamo — we’d like it to be empty,” Mr. 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.”

A total of 759 detainees have been held in Guantanamo — about 300 of them have been released or transferred.

Until now, Guantanamo officials have said there have been 41 suicide attempts by 25 detainees and no deaths since the U.S. began taking prisoners to the base in January 2002. Defense lawyers contend the number of suicide attempts is higher.

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