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Suicides at Guantanamo Raise Human Rights Concerns


The United States is under increasing pressure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, after three terrorist suspects committed suicide. The deaths raise new questions about allegations of physical abuse and denial of legal rights at the camp.

The deaths by suicide of two Saudi detainees and one Yemeni last week followed numerous allegations of misconduct at the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Human rights groups have repeatedly accused the military of physical abuse and refusing to grant detainees their right to trial. Now officials from the European Union and United Nations say the camp's reputation has been damaged beyond repair, and say it should be closed.

President Bush has said he would like to empty the camp and either transfer or prosecute the remaining 460 detainees, mainly al-Qaida and Taleban suspects captured after the U.S. led-invasion of Afghanistan. Many prisoners have been sent home, and scores of others are eligible for release or transfer.

Manfred Nowak, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, says the three deaths add a particular urgency to the matter. He says U.S. officials should work with their foreign partners to create a plan for closing Guantanamo as soon as possible.

"Every day longer creates certain risks," said Manfred Nowak. "People are there in absolute insecurity. They do not know how [much longer] they will have to stay and that leads to desperation, that leads to hunger strikes, that leads to suicide attempts, and as we have seen last weekend, two people that actually did commit suicide."

An attorney for eight Yemeni detainees held at Guantanamo, Kristin Wilhelm, says she believes that those feelings of desperation and desolation are common among some detainees. She said one of her clients had refused to eat in protest after military officials failed to fulfill promises to grant medical care and improve other conditions. She says the detainee was eventually placed in a restraint chair and force-fed by military personnel - a practice that her Atlanta-based law firm tried to challenge on legal grounds.

"Our client is no longer on a hunger strike because of the pain and use of the restraint chair," said Kristin Wilhelm. "But while he was on the hunger strike, he was prepared to die at Guantanamo. He said he didn't think he was ever going to leave."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said President Bush expressed concern about the detainees deaths and is looking forward to the time when the Guantanamo Bay facility can be closed.

"We have no desire to be the world's jailers," said Sean McCormick. "We would look forward to the day at some point when Guantanamo Bay would close down. But the fact of the matter is that it right now houses some very dangerous people who are a threat not only to American citizens but other people around the world."

Scores of detainees have gone on hunger strikes in recent weeks, which military officials said were intended to coincide with the expected arrival of defense attorneys and journalists to the camp. But Wilhelm rejected claims that the hunger strikes and the suicides were merely calls for attention.

"To contend that it's a political statement to the rest of the world is kind of far-fetched," she said. "I think what it more is an attempt to negotiate with their captors, to negotiate better conditions in there, because they don't see an end in sight."

Chicago-based attorney Thomas Sullivan also expressed concern about conditions at the Guantanamo cam where his firm is representing nine men from Saudi Arabia. Last month he met with some of the clients, including one who has lost more than 20 kilograms since being detained and now weighs about 50 kilos. He said he did not ask the man if he had been involved in a hunger strike, but said the conditions, including poor quality food and lack of exercise, may be to blame.

"A lot of them are kept in what amounts to cages, little 6x9 [foot, or 2x3 meter] cells that have nothing in them except a toilet, a wash basin and a slab on which to sleep," said Thomas Sullivan. "And wire mesh that prevents them from seeing and almost communicating with the people in the cell next to them."

U.N.'s Manfred Nowak says the camp may actually be breeding more potential terrorists.

"In Guantanamo Bay, quite a number of people are kept who might be guilty of having committed crimes, including the crime of terrorism," he said. "There might be quite a number of people who perhaps didn't commit a crime, but now might be willing to commit a crime in the future."

Nowak says the possibility of closing the camp raises a host of legal and security concerns, including how to prosecute the most dangerous suspects. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this month on the constitutionality of using military tribunals to try enemy combatants. Defense attorneys, however, say tribunals have not been opened for many detainees who are still waiting to see if they are eligible for release or if their cases eventually will be tried in court.

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