New Suicide at Guantanamo Bay

A Saudi prisoner at the U.S. Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has apparently committed suicide. Three other suicides at the prison for terrorism suspects are still under investigation from last year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

There's been another apparent suicide at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Military officials say that a Saudi prisoner was found unconscious in his cell yesterday. After efforts to revive him failed, a physician pronounced him dead. Less than a year ago, three other detainees committed suicide and their deaths are still being investigated.

NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam has been following this story and she joins us now.

Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What other details are available about this most recent death?

NORTHAM: Well, at the moment, precious few. The military is always very cautious about releasing details of this sort. Guantanamo Bay is so controversial that officials have to be very careful before going public with any information. We can confirm that a prisoner is a Saudi Arabian national. He's one of about 80 Saudis being held at Guantanamo and that an investigation into his death is now underway.

We're expecting to hear later today about how old the Saudi was, how he died, whether he hanged himself like the other three prisoners did last summer, or whether it was something else, and if it was suicide, whether it was his first attempt or was he one of more than 40 detainees at Guantanamo who have tried to kill themselves in the past few years.

MONTAGNE: And those of three prisoners who succeeded in killing themselves last year, they hanged themselves. What does the military do to try to prevent suicides?

NORTHAM: Well, the procedures constantly change or adapt at Guantanamo to prevent prisoners from hurting themselves or the guards. Over the years the military has increased the number of times that guards walk in front of the cell so they can keep an eye on the detainees and procedures have changed so guards can enter a cell more quickly if they do see suicide taking place. And after the three hangings last year, guards began removing bed sheets during the day.

The military also force-feeds any hunger strikers who reach a critical stage in order to keep them alive. So all these methods are in place. But it's interesting. The military views these suicide attempts as essentially acts of warfare by what they call committed jihadists. In fact, the commander of Guantanamo called the three suicides last year an act of asymmetrical warfare, or a suicide was a tactic used by terror suspects to gain sympathy and attention by the media.

MONTAGNE: And that's their view. Of course defense lawyers and human rights advocates have a different take.

NORTHAM: Absolutely. They say many of the detainees are driven to despair and that suicide offers a way to end the mental trauma they say many of them are experiencing. Virtually all of the nearly 400 prisoners at Guantanamo have been held there for than five years, yet only a handful have been charged. So there really hasn't been any due process for the others.

And military officials admit that most of the detainees aren't even interrogated anymore. So defense lawyers say the prisoners just languish in the cells and there's no sense of what's in their future. They can't see their families, that type of thing, so suicide does offer a way out for some these detainees.

MONTAGNE: And Jackie, this latest suicide comes just days before the military is due to try detainees for war crimes. Will it have any impact on those proceedings?

NORTHAM: Not likely. The arraignments are still due to go ahead, but one thing that could affect one of the hearings is that Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who's been charged with murdering a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, fired his team of American - both military and civilian - defense lawyers yesterday.

Khadr is allowed to defend himself, but he's only 20 years old. He's been at Guantanamo since he was 16. So we'll see what happens with that case.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. National security correspondent Jackie Northam.

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