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Pentagon: Guantanamo Detainees are Being Treated Properly - 2003-02-05

There has been a sudden surge in suicide attempts by al-Qaida terrorist detainees held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Defense officials say there have been three new suicide attempts at Guantanamo, raising to 14 the total number of such incidents since the first al-Qaida suspects were flown to the Navy base in Cuba a little over a year ago.

A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to provide any information on the identities, nationalities or conditions of the three. But she told VOA the latest cases are not as serious as a January 16th incident in which a Guantanamo prisoner was found hanging in his cell and only prevented from killing himself by guards who intervened.

That prisoner is said to be in stable but serious condition. His home country has been notified of the incident.

The Pentagon has come under criticism from some human rights groups over the treatment of the detainees, who now number some 625 in all. But defense officials continue to reject charges of any abuses, saying the detainees are being treated in accordance with international conventions. In addition they say every effort is being made to prevent suicide attempts as well as other efforts by prisoners to intentionally injure themselves. They say mental health teams are working with the detainees.

Human rights experts say the isolation of the detainees could be directly linked to the number of suicide attempts. One Amnesty International official was recently quoted as saying the attempts show what she termed "the human costs of the indefinite legal limbo into which they have been thrown."

But asked when some of the detainees might be tried by special U.S. military commissions, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says there is no rush.

"There is not a rush to try. The purpose is not to punish people as it is in a court of law. It is to gain information and try to prevent an additional terrorist act," he said. "These people are being treated properly and the process is going along, intelligence is being gathered and it's to the benefit of our country."

Mr. Rumsfeld says the detainees were captured in wartime circumstances. He says they are being questioned about terrorist activities and he says he is certain the information that has been gained has saved lives by disrupting possible attacks.

Earlier this week, the Human Rights Watch organization questioned whether the U.S. presentation to the United Nations this week of evidence of Iraq's terror links would include intelligence gained through the torture of detainees.

A State Department spokesman dismissed as "ridiculous" the suggestion that torture is ever used by the United States.