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Fatal Desperation at Guantanamo

While the government characterizes the suicides of three detainees as a 'PR move,' overwhelming evidence points to the true cause of their deaths -- acute despair.
 
 
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After 40 official and numerous unrecorded suicide attempts in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, three detainees were finally successful in taking their lives. Detainees Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, 22, ( imprisoned when he was 17), Mana Shaman Allabardi Al Otaibi, 30, and Ahmed Abdullah, 33, hung themselves with clothing and bed sheets late Friday night, allegedly concealing their bodies from guards with laundry hung from the ceiling to dry and arranging their beds to appear as though they were still sleeping.

For the lawyers who represent some of the 465 people currently held in the naval base, the news came as no surprise. Officially, there have been over 40 suicide attempts since the detention facility opened. But as anyone with access to the detainees knows this deflated number is as fictitious as the claims of evidence against those being held without official charge. In a May 2005 interview, former military linguist Erik Saar said that suicide attempts occurred weekly when he was stationed at Guantanamo. He noted,

The detainees felt that their situation was hopeless. Many of them thought that they were eventually going to be executed. Those who were hardened, who we did start to see some intelligence from, were more likely to remain true to their cause and not attempt to kill themselves. They believed that this was an inevitable outcome of their decision to fight jihad. But the Pentagon thought it was just something the detainees were doing to get attention. They labeled some of those suicide attempts "self-injurious manipulative behavior."

Though innumerable lawyers and military figures stationed at Guantanamo have attested to the physical and psychological neglect the detainees continue to endure, officials have responded to the suicides with Herculean efforts to paint the deaths as a form of offensive attack.

The current commander of the detention camp, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, told the press that the three "have no regard for human life. Neither ours nor their own … I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us." Harris also told the press of a "superstitious myth" among detainees called the "vision of three," wherein some detainees allegedly dreamt that if three prisoners committed suicide, the camp would be shut down.

In a similar bid at dehumanizing the men, Colleen Graffy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, characterized the suicides as a "good PR (public relations) move to draw attention." She told the BBC that the three men did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them.

All three men left suicide notes. The Pentagon has not yet released the content of the notes, but was quick to inform the press of the trio's alleged terrorist connections. Despite the fact that no charges were ever brought against them, Ahmed Abdullah was deemed "a mid- to high-level al Qaida operative" and Yasser Talal Al Zahrani a Taliban fighter.

The contradictions in the Pentagon's spin are immediately evident. Shaman Allabardi Al Otaibi, 30, whom the Pentagon accused of being a recruiter for al Qaida, was actually on a list of detainees slated to be released. Lawyer Mark Denbeaux said that Al Otaibi was not informed of his impending release because a release country had yet to be decided on.

Denbeaux told reporters, "His despair was great enough, and in his ignorance he went and killed himself." Denbeaux recently returned from a trip to Guantanamo where he met with one of his clients. He writes,

One of our clients was forcibly extracted during our interview day because he was attempting suicide and required force-feeding. He said that he would rather die than stay in Guantanamo … Our client Mohammad Rahman actually has serious health conditions that they will not address. When he was 32 he had a pacemaker installed, and he had a heart valve replaced. The valve seems to be leaking again. We have tried to obtain his medical records to no avail, and to obtain real medical assistance for his heart and other his serious health problems. They provide nothing -- but they will interrupt our client interview to "protect his health and life" by force-feeding him. This was the worst three days of my life. There is a great deal more. Now we hear the government's strident characterizations of these suicides.

Widespread hunger strikes at the camp suggest that the suicides are not a bid for attention, but rather a desperate belief that death is the only way out of a nightmarish imprisonment. This past September, 131 detainees were believed to be participating in a hunger strike. Many more participants, however, were slowly starving themselves to death but went unreported. That's because many detainees were accepting one out of every nine meals that they are served in order to escape the technical definition of "hunger strike" -- and subsequently avoiding the violent nasal force-feeding administered to those who skip nine meals in a row.

In a written statement to his lawyer, detainee Shaker Aamer explained why he was participating in the hunger strike:

I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for four years. Rather than humiliate myself … I would rather hurry up a process that is going to happen anyway … I would just like to die quietly by myself … I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no "help," no "intensive assisted feeding" This is my legal right.

In a recently declassified suicide note from a failed attempt in October 2005, Jumah Al Dossari wrote,

I hope you will always remember that you met and sat with a "human being" called "Jumah" who suffered too much and was abused in his belief, self, in his dignity and also in his humanity. He was imprisoned, tortured and deprived from his homeland, his family and his young daughter who is in the most need for him for four years … with no reason or crime committed. Remember that there are hundreds of detainees in Guantanamo -- Cuba -- they are in the same situation of suffering and misfortune. They were captured, tortured and detained with no offense or reason. Their lives might end like mine.

While all these documents and accounts have been made available to the public through organizations like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, Bush administration officials have short memories and attention spans. Despite the fact that no detainees have been afforded a fair trial, or been allowed to legally contest their status as "enemy combatants," Colleen Graffy claims that "detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, so had other means of making protests," and wondered "why the men had not protested about their situation."

Protest would do them little good, since, upon the release of detainee names in May, the Bush administration secured a legal ban barring lawsuits by Guantanamo prisoners. While the prisoners' identities are now known, there is legally nothing lawyers can do to help them. Attorney Zachary Katznelson wrote, "The men who committed suicide found themselves in just this legal black hole. They had no legal recourse, just the prospect of a life in prison, in isolation, with no family, no friends, nothing. They took their lives."

Rear Adm. Harris has put into motion a plan to thwart future suicide attempts: Detainees' bed sheets will be removed when they wake up. Harris says, "It obviously removes from the detainees something they are used to living with, but I feel it's required to prevent a recurrence." Since the three suicides were conducted in the middle of the night, it isn't clear how confiscating sheets in the morning will prevent similar attempts.

Thankfully, there are some voices of reason. Along with the many lawyers who have spoken out, the European Union has renewed its call for the camp to be closed. Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn told Reuters, "It's hard to understand why when three people kill themselves, that is an attack on America. Something has to change in the American mentality."

It may have been a "superstitious myth" that the suicide of three detainees would close the camp down, but those with respect for human rights and the right to legal relief hope that Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, Mana Shaman Allabardi Al Otaibi and Ahmed Abdullah did not die in vain.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a former assistant editor of AlterNet.