Death Comes To Guantanamo

Three suicides at the detention camp intensify the controversy over U.S. treatment of the prisoners held there

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If the Bush Administration had a wish list for its war on terrorism, the eradication of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi would surely have been toward the top. But somewhere on that list would also be no deaths in Gitmo. In its 4 1/2 years as a detention center for some 750 men the U.S. has held as terrorist suspects, Camp Delta on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay has been the scene of at least 41 suicide attempts, according to U.S. officials. None were successful until Saturday, when the U.S. Southern Command reported that three men had hanged themselves. After a few sweet days during which the White House could savor the accomplishment of the al-Zarqawi killing, the word from Gitmo introduced a bitter taste.

The three men, two Saudis and a Yemeni, whose names were not immediately released, hanged themselves "with fabricated nooses made out of clothes and bedsheets," Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris told reporters in a conference call from the U.S. base. The first death was discovered shortly after midnight on Friday, the other two soon after. All three men left suicide notes written in Arabic. Harris said he believed the acts were coordinated, in part because of the similar method of the deaths and because in the past the three had gone on hunger strikes--acts of defiance that at times involved up to 130 of the detainees.

President George W. Bush expressed "serious concern" about the deaths and directed that the remains be "treated humanely and with cultural sensitivity" in accordance with Muslim traditions, Press Secretary Tony Snow said. "He wants to make sure that this thing is done right from all points of view."

Governments hostile to the U.S.and friendly ones toohave condemned the Administration's detention of the prisoners, few of whom have even been charged with specific crimes. The incarcerations have reverberated violently throughout the Muslim world. A year ago, unsubstantiated news accounts that Korans had been flushed down toilets sparked riots and several deaths. More outrage followed the news last month of a melee between Gitmo detainees and guards. Camp authorities said the fighting erupted when guards attempted to stop an inmate from apparently committing suicide, but some detainees (speaking through their lawyers) reported that the incident was sparked by a search for contraband in Korans. Those searches, GTMO authorities say, are only carried out by interpreters, detainees or other Muslims, never by guards themselves. Two prisoners tried to commit suicide on May 18 by swallowing antianxiety medication they had managed to hoard.

If there's one thing the Administration and the detainees agree on, it's that the battle over Gitmo takes place on two levels: in the camp, where prisoners stage hunger strikes and attempt suicide, and in the outside world, where reports of alleged mistreatment foment negative international and domestic reaction, which in turn puts pressure on the White House to close down Gitmo.

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