Calls to shutter Gitmo increase
WASHINGTON: The suicides of three Arab prisoners at Guantanamo Bay ignited new calls yesterday for the United States to shut down the detention camp and find a better way to deal with captured terrorist suspects. Advocates for the prisoners blamed the Bush administration for the deaths, which they said would inflame the global Muslim community. Two Saudis and a Yemeni hanged themselves with clothes and bed sheets in maximum security cells on Saturday - the first captives to die at Guantanamo since the United States began sending suspected Al-Qaeda and Taleban captives there in 2002.
In Kuwait, Waleed Al-Tabtabaei, a former member of the National Assembly, called the deaths "a big question mark over America's human rights record" and said the United States should release the prisoners or give them fair trials. "Things should not stay as is at this prison. This would be a black spot in the history of humanity, especially from a country that claims to be modern and that claims to uphold human rights and democracy," said Tabtabaei.
The news of the suicides raised scepticism in Saudi Arabia - and allegations that the Americans either tortured the men to death or drove them to kill themselves. A lawyer for Saudi nationals imprisoned at the prison said yesterday he held US authorities responsible for the deaths of the two Saudi prisoners, and a defence lawyer who recently visited the base said a "stench of despair" hangs over the prison. Also, a top Republican senator slammed the policy of prolonged detentions of the terror suspects without trial, adding some inmates have been detained based on "the flimsiest sort of hearsay."
Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry identified the two Saudis as Manei Al-Otaibi and Yasser Al-Zahrani but gave no further details. Pentagon documents show Zahrani was 21, meaning he was sent to Guantanamo as a teenager. Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, asked for the return of the bodies, and said it was stepping up efforts to repatriate more than 100 Saudis held at the prison on a US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Each Saudi has to be brought home where he can face up to charges he is accused of based on our laws and regulations," said an Interior Ministry spokesman.
"The families don't believe it, and of course I don't believe it either. The detainees' death reveals the mistreatment at Guantanamo and the extent human rights are breached," said Katib Al-Shimmari, lawyer for Saudi detainees at Guantanamo. "I hold the US authorities responsible for their deaths," Shimmari told Saudi-owned satellite television Al Arabiya, echoing the general sentiment in the Saudi capital Riyadh after news of the suicides became public. Shimmari said he also planned to sue the US government for compensation on behalf of the relatives of the deceased. The Interior Ministry spokesman declined to say if Riyadh would ask for a probe. A Yemeni rights group called for an impartial probe. "(We) reiterate the need for an international investigation into this incident as US claims cannot be accepted without an independent and unbiased probe," the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms said on its website.
Others in Saudi were more outspoken. Some publicly blamed the US for the deaths and were quick to denounce the suicide claim as a fabrication. Some went as far as accusing US prison authorities of complicity in the inmates' deaths. The first to point the finger was the state-sponsored Saudi Human Rights Group. In a statement to the local Al Riyadh newspaper yesterday, it suggested torture was the real cause of death and said the organisation will carry out its own investigation into the alleged suicides. "There are no independent monitors at the detention camp so it is easy to pin the crime on the prisoners, given that it's possible they were tortured," said Mufleh Al-Qahtani, the group's deputy director. His colleague, Saleh Al-Khathlan, the director of monitoring at the rights group explicitly accused Guantanamo prison authorities of torturing the detainees.
"Even if the suicide story is true, I have no doubts that they were pushed to it by torture and the lack of attention paid to the health of the detainees," Khathlan said. The families of the dozens of Saudis detained in Guantanamo also question the US story. "They were killed, they were murdered. This was no suicide," said Lulua Al-Dakheel, whose son, 22-year-old Fahed Al-Fouzan has been incarcerated in Guantanamo for almost five years. Dakheel first heard of the suicides late Saturday, but it took until yesterday for her to be informed that her son was not among the victims. "Every day I live in fear that the phone is going to ring and they're going to tell me that my son is dead," Dakheel said as she wept. "There are no guarantees that my son won't be next. These people can't be trusted. They (Americans) treat their dogs better than they treat our sons."
Suicide is a grave sin in Islam - one of the main reasons many in the conservative Islamic kingdom doubt the American version of events. According to lawyer Shimmari, both Saudi nationals found dead in their cells were devout Muslims. "They both mastered the reading of the Holy Quran. One of them was a poetry lover, the other, a devout Muslim. They couldn't have committed suicide," Shimmari said.
Guantanamo holds about 460 foreigners captured during the US-led war to oust Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan after the Sept 11 attacks. The US administration calls them dangerous men who would launch deadly attacks on America and its allies if released. But President George W Bush said Friday he would like to empty Guantanamo and is working to repatriate many of the detainees. A top Republican senator criticised the policy of prolonged detentions of hundreds of terror suspects without trial at the facility run by the US Navy. "Those people have to be tried," said Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "There are tribunals established, and they ought to be tried. Where we have evidence they ought to be tried, and if convicted they ought to be sentenced," said Specter, who said some inmates have been detained based on "the flimsiest sort of hearsay."
Sen Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said the United States must find another way to keep the Guantanamo prisoners off the streets. "There are some ruthless and fanatical terrorists that are in our custody and we just can't turn them loose," Reed told CNN's Late Edition. But he said: "We should recognise that as long as Guantanamo exists, it is a source of international attention and concern."
Britain, Germany and other US allies have joined a chorus of rights groups that have urged Washington to close the camp. "If it is perfectly legal and there is nothing going wrong there, why don't they have it in America?" Britain's Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman said on BBC television. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the indefinite detention of prisoners without legal proceedings contradicts the rule of law. "I think it would be to the benefit of our cause and our fight for freedom and against terrorism if the facilities at Guantanamo were closed down," he told CNN's Late Edition.
Cageprisoners.com, a website that draws attention to the cases of detained Muslims, posted a news release blaming the Bush administration for the deaths. "They have constructively killed them by creating an atmosphere which for all intents and purposes had already taken their lives," it said. "Their blood is on the hands of the Bush regime and their deaths will fuel the anger of the global Muslim community." The US Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on the legitimacy of special military tribunals set up to try those charged with war crimes, and to clarify what rights the prisoners have in US courts. Pre-trial hearings had been scheduled at Guantanamo this week for one of the 10 men charged so far before the tribunals, but the hearings were cancelled due to the suicides.
The deaths, which also came amid a prisoner hunger strike, were the first successful suicide bids after repeated attempts by inmates in the camp. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the camp's commander, described the suicides as an act of warfare. "They are smart, they are creative, they are committed," he said of the prisoners. "They have no regard to life, neither ours nor their own. And I believe this was not an act of desperation, rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us."
Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who represents two Tunisians at Guantanamo, said he was frightened by the level of depression he saw in his client Mohammed Abdul Rahman, whom he visited on June 2 at the detention centre, which sits on arid hills above the Caribbean Sea. Rahman, Denbeaux said, "is trying to kill himself" by participating in a hunger strike. "He is normally a gentle, quiet, shy person," Denbeaux said late Saturday. "He sat there in a subdued state that was almost inert. He was colossally depressed." Denbeaux said he had intended to cheer Rahman up by showing him a newspaper article quoting Bush as saying he wanted to close the detention centre.
Before Denbeaux met with Rahman, military guards confiscated the newspaper article because detainees are barred from seeing news of current events, Denbeaux said. "We wanted to say, 'We have some hope for you,"' Denbeaux, 62, said. "They wouldn't let us give him some hope." That afternoon, Rahman was force-fed, the lawyer recounted. Force-feeding involves strapping a hunger striker into a "restraint chair" and feeding him through a tube inserted into the nose. "A stench of despair hangs over Guantanamo. Everyone is shutting down and quitting," Denbeaux said.
Yesterday, Saudis joined a growing list of international rights groups and leaders like Britain's Tony Blair that have called for its closure. "The truth is with God. Maybe they committed suicide, maybe mistreatment during interrogation led to their deaths. In a place that is so shrouded in secrecy, the truth is always difficult to come by and suspicion is natural," said Saad Al-Shabanat, a Saudi religion teacher whose brother was released from Guantanamo two years ago. "The only thing we know for sure is that these detainees have been humiliated and abused. Considering the US track record with prisons (in Iraq and Afghanistan), it's no surprise the people are sceptical" about the announced cause of death, he added. - Agencies