Three Guantanamo Detainees Commit Suicide

Gen. John Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, speaks at a news conference Saturday. i i

Gen. John Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, speaks at a news conference Saturday. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Gen. John Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, speaks at a news conference Saturday.

Gen. John Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, speaks at a news conference Saturday.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Three detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp took their own lives early Saturday. Two were from Saudi Arabia, a third from Yemen. All three hanged themselves, and left suicide notes written in Arabic.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott. This afternoon, the Defense Department announced the suicides of three detainees at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There have been many attempted suicides at the detention center, but these are the first deaths. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam has been following the Guantanamo story and joins me in the studio. Jackie, what have you been able to learn about these deaths?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Well, two of the men were from Saudi Arabia. The third man was from Yemen, and early this morning guards found them in their cells. They were - the military officials say that they were unresponsive and were not breathing, and there were attempts to revive the men, but after awhile, they were pronounced dead.

Now, the military says that the men hanged themselves, and they made nooses fashioned out of clothes and bed sheets. The military also says that the men left suicide notes. They're written in Arabic, but the Pentagon does not want to say what's in those notes because it's part of the ongoing investigation now, that's gonna follow these death.

The men will be autopsied, and the State Department is looking into repatriating them back to their home countries.

ELLIOTT: Now a spokesman has said President Bush is expressing serious concern about the suicides. What are U.S. officials saying about this?

NORTHAM: Really, at this point - we did have President Bush's statement, yes - but really right now everything is coming from the Pentagon at this point, and they're saying that the suicides were planned and were coordinated, and it was not spontaneous. It was not a spontaneous action. They say that the men were all in the same security block. They described them all as dangerous members of terrorists organizations. But interestingly enough, they described this as an act of warfare, not of desperation.

ELLIOTT: Jackie, we've heard so many cases of attempted suicide at Guantanamo. What measures were in place to prevent this from happening?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. There have been 41 suicide attempts over the past four and a half years, and that's by 23 detainees. A few years ago, there was a rash of suicide attempts, and at that point the military changed its procedures to prevent this from happening, so you get guards crossing in front of cellblocks much more often so they could keep an eye on them.

If they did see something happening, they changed procedures so they could get in there much faster. The military now says that they will look at their procedures and most likely make changes again.

You know, even though they have had these tactics in place and that there has still been continuing suicide attempts - there have been hangings, or attempts, like the men today. A month ago some of the detainees, two of the detainees, horded prescription drugs, and they're in a coma.

But the other one is hunger strikes, and this is actually seen by the military as more of a sign of protest. They ebb and they flow, basically, and in fact, these three men who died today had been on a hunger strike before.

But the military does not allow that to continue. If it looks like they're going to die, at that point on a hunger strike, they'll force feed them. Very controversial. But the former commander of Guantanamo, I spoke to him a couple of months ago, and he made it very clear that this was necessary because they could not let one detainee die at Guantanamo Bay because they would be seen as a martyr. Now, Debbie, we have three.

ELLIOTT: Why have there been so many suicide attempts?

NORTHAM: The Pentagon says that it's a tactic by al-Qaida, you know, to garner support by the media and sympathy by the public in general. But, you know, the general school of thought here is that it's just these men - these open-ended detentions - have been given no due process. Only 10 of the prisoners have been charged so far. They're languishing in these jails, and there's really no hope for the future at this point.

ELLIOTT: What happens now?

NORTHAM: Well, it's going to be investigated by the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, but also one can only think that this is just gonna increase the clamor to close Guantanamo. You know, certainly we've had, just recently, Britain, Germany, Denmark urging the Bush administration to close this place. One can only suspect that we're gonna be hearing a lot more about this after these suicides today.

ELLIOTT: NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam. Thank you so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Debbie.

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