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Military, Critics Split over Guantanamo Suicides

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Military, Critics Split over Guantanamo Suicides

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Military, Critics Split over Guantanamo Suicides

Military, Critics Split over Guantanamo Suicides

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The military says three detainees who hanged themselves at Guantanamo Bay Saturday coordinated their deaths as an act of "asymmetric warfare." But the suicides stoke fresh debate over conditions at the camp.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay killed themselves at a significant moment. The U.S. Supreme Court is close to ruling on whether military tribunals at Guantanamo are constitutional - and we'll have more on that case in a moment. We will start with the suicides. The first reported deaths at the military detention center in Cuba. Two of the men were Saudis, one came from Yemen, and the military contends that they worked together, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

It was just after midnight, Saturday, when a prison guard at Guantanamo Bay discovered one of the detainees had hanged himself in his cell. An emergency medical team was called in and tried to revive the prisoner, without success. Shortly after, guards discovered two more prisoners in the same area of the detention camp, had also hanged themselves. The military quickly arranged a teleconference. The commander of Guantanamo, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, provided some details of what had happened.

Rear Admiral HARRY HARRIS (U.S. Navy, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba): They hung themselves with fabricated nooses made out of clothing material and bed sheets.

NORTHAM: Harris said all three men also left suicide notes in Arabic, but would not provide any details what those notes contained because they are now part of the investigation. Harris and other military officials defended the operation at Guantanamo and the treatment of the roughly 460 prisoners held there. Harris called the three men committed jihadists, and suggested their suicides were a coordinated protest.

Rear Admiral HARRIS: They have an extensive communications network and this was clearly a planned event, and not a spontaneous event.

NORTHAM: And Harris said the suicides were an act of what he called asymmetric warfare and not desperation. Depangeli Gutierrez[ph], an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been instrumental in organizing lawyers for the detainees says she's deeply offended that the military would describe the suicides as warfare. Gutierrez says, for four years, the military has minimized the impact of the open-ended detentions at Guantanamo. Only ten detainees have been charged. The rest, Gutierrez says, have not been given due process and have no idea what their future holds.

Ms. DEPANGELI GUTIERREZ (Attorney): It's very simple. When you lock a human being up indefinitely, when you deny them access to religious counseling, access to their family, and you leave their fate in complete uncertainty; that this is what happens. And we've had warning signs of this for years.

NORTHAM: There have been more than 40 suicide attempts since detainees first started arriving at Guantanamo, in early 2002. Most of those attempts involved prisoners trying to hang themselves. But last month, two detainees swallowed large amounts of anti-anxiety drugs, which they had been hoarding. And dozens of detainees have gone on hunger strike, which the military describes as a protest. General John Craddock, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, indicated in a conference call that new measures would be put in place to help prevent more suicide attempts.

General JOHN CRADDOCK (Commander of U.S. Southern Command): This detainee population is intelligent; they're determined, they're creative. We also, now, have to look at what may be the routine, what may be common, in terms of what maybe the next techniques that could be used by this determined element. So, we're going to re-analyze the operations and how we do business, to determine what may be the next step.

NORTHAM: The suicides brought home, what many military officials at Guantanamo say they always feared - that one of the detainees would die, creating a martyr for radicals and increased anger over the Guantanamo operations. Over the months, there has been a clamor to shut the detention camp. Most recently, countries such as Britain, Germany, and Denmark urge the Bush Administration to close it. Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, speaking on CNN's Late Edition, said that the U.S. can't allow suspected terrorists to go loose. But at the same time, Reed said, Guantanamo needs to be shut down as soon as possible.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): We recognize, or should recognize, that as long as Guantanamo exists, it's a source of international attention and concern, and that these types of incidents, these suicides, will provoke further condemnation around the world.

NORTHAM: Meanwhile, pre-trial tribunal hearings scheduled for this week for one of the few detainees charged at Guantanamo were cancelled, due to the suicides. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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