Autopsies Conclude Detainee Deaths Were Suicides

Medical experts with the U.S. military have completed autopsies on three prisoners who died this weekend at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The men, who reportedly committed suicide early Saturday morning by hanging themselves, are the first reported deaths at Guantanamo.

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Medical experts with the U.S. military have completed autopsies on three prisoners who committed suicide this past Saturday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They are the first reported deaths at the U.S. detention center there. The military describes the suicides as a form of warfare and not an act of desperation.

NPR's Jackie Northam has been following the developments and she has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Military officials at Guantanamo say the three detainees who committed suicide were ardent Jihadists who were willing to kill Americans and others. One was from Yemen, Ali Abdullah Ahmed. The Pentagon says he was a mid- to high-level al-Qaida operative. Two others were from Saudi Arabia. Yasser Talal al-Zahrani is described as a frontline fighter for the Taliban. The third is Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi. Guantanamo Bay spokesman Commander Robert Duran said today that al-Utaybi also had links to a terrorist group.

Commander ROBERT DURAN (U.S. Military Spokesman, Guantanamo Bay): He was a member of Jama'at Al Tablighi, which is a militant missionary and recruitment group for al-Qaida and other Jihadist terrorist groups.

NORTHAM: The Pentagon had recommended that al-Utaybi be transferred from Guantanamo to another country for continued detention. Commander Duran says it's unclear whether al-Utaybi knew of the Pentagon's decision before he took his own life. There have been more than 40 suicide attempts at Guantanamo since detainees started arriving in January 2002. Because of that, the Pentagon has made contingency plans in the event a prisoner dies. Duran says the military wants to follow the religious customs of Islam.

Commander DURAN: If the decision is made to inter the remains in Guantanamo, we are prepared to do that. We have the procedures in place. We understand and have the Islamic chaplain here to oversee the burial process, if that happens in Guantanamo.

NORTHAM: Duran says the State Department will decide whether the remains will be repatriated or stay in Guantanamo. Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman, says negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Yemen are underway.

Mr. SEAN McCORMACK (U.S. State Department): Well, we're working with them. They're some practical questions here regarding some of the logistics as well as the disposition of the remains.

NORTHAM: McCormack says that State Department officials, known as a rapid reaction unit, have been reaching out to many governments since the suicides occurred in a proactive effort to quell another round of condemnation over Guantanamo.

Efforts to calm the British government may have backfired when Colleen Graffy, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, made this controversial statement about the suicides during and interview with the BBC on Sunday.

Ms. COLLEEN GRAFFY (U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy): And they use suicide bombings as a tactic to further their Jihadi cause. Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is good PR move to draw attention.

NORTHAM: Spokesman McCormick today was adamant that the State Department does not consider the suicides to be a publicity stunt by the Guantanamo detainees. Graffy's statement came after the U.S. military called the suicides an act of warfare, not desperation.

That characterization has drawn fire from defense lawyers for the detainees and human rights groups. Leonard Rubenstein, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, says the military needs to take the detainees' mental health seriously.

Dr. LEONARD RUBENSTEIN (Physicians for Human Rights): The suicides highlight what we've known for a long time, that the conditions of confinement, the fact of indefinite detention and the interrogation techniques used would inevitably lead to harm. So where we are today is a situation where we can expect more suicides.

NORTHAM: And undoubtedly more calls to close Guantanamo. Today member countries of the European Union urged the Bush Administration to shut the detention camp.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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