Gitmo suicides: A good PR move?

The suicides of three Arab detainees at Guantanamo ignited new calls on Sunday for the United States to shut down the prison camp but a U.S. diplomat called their hangings a “good PR move” to gain attention.

Two Saudis and a Yemeni hanged themselves with clothes and bed sheets in maximum security cells on Saturday — the first prisoners to die at Guantanamo since the United States began sending suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives there in 2002.

Prisoner advocates blamed the Bush administration for the deaths and said the men were held under conditions that “for all intents and purposes had already taken their lives.” Several countries urged Washington to shut the camp down.

“Their blood is on the hands of the Bush regime and their deaths will fuel the anger of the global Muslim community,” said, a Web site that draws attention to the cases of detained Muslims.

Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry identified the two Saudis as Manei al-Otaibi and Yasser al-Zahrani but gave no further details. Pentagon documents show Zahrani was 21, meaning he was sent to Guantanamo as a teenager.

The Pentagon confirmed the identity of the two Saudis and said al-Otaibi had been recommended for transfer to another country. Commander J.D. Gordon identified the Yemeni detainee as Ali Abdullah Ahmed. He described all three as “dangerous enemy combatants.”

Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally, asked for the return of the bodies, and said it was stepping up efforts to repatriate more than 100 Saudis held at the prison so they could be tried “based on our laws and regulations.”

A Yemeni rights group, the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, said it could not accept U.S. accounts of the deaths without an impartial, international probe.

The prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, holds about 460 foreigners captured during the U.S.-led war to oust al Qaeda from Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.


Colleen Graffy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC World Service the suicides were a “good PR move to draw attention.”

“It does sound that this is part of a strategy in that they don’t value their own life and they certainly don’t value ours and they use suicide bombings as a tactic to further their Jihadi cause,” she said.

Graffy coordinates efforts with Karen Hughes, a former top aide to President George W. Bush who is now a special envoy charged with trying to improve the U.S. image abroad, especially in Islamic countries.

In Kuwait, Waleed al-Tabtabaie, a former member of parliament, called the deaths “a big question mark over America’s human rights record” and said the United States should release the prisoners or give them fair trials.

“Things should not stay as is at this prison. This would be a black spot in the history of humanity, especially from a country that claims to be modern and that claims to uphold human rights and democracy,” said Tabtabaie.

Britain, Germany and Denmark joined a chorus of rights groups that have long expressed outrage at the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and urged Washington to close it.

“If it is perfectly legal and there is nothing going wrong there, why don’t they have it in America?” Britain’s Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman asked on BBC television.

Guantanamo inmates have staged many suicide attempts over several years that human rights advocates call evidence of despair and isolation. Before Saturday, 23 prisoners had tried to kill themselves in 41 suicide attempts at the camp.

The U.S. administration calls the captives dangerous men who would launch deadly attacks on America and its allies if released. But on Friday Bush said he would like to empty Guantanamo and was working to repatriate many detainees.

“There are some ruthless and fanatical terrorists that are in our custody and we just can’t turn them loose,” Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, told CNN’s Late Edition. But he said: “We should recognize that as long as Guantanamo exists, it is a source of international attention and concern.”

The detainees have been held for more than four years, most without charges, and face indefinite detention with none of the rights afforded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions or to criminal suspects in the U.S. justice system.

Shafiq Rasul, a British former Guantanamo prisoner who won a U.S. Supreme Court case upholding the inmates’ now-curtailed right to challenge their detention in the U.S. courts in 2004, said he witnessed suicide attempts while held there.

“There were individuals who had just had enough, couldn’t take any more, were going crazy, who would attempt to kill themselves,” he told Sky Television.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on the legitimacy of special military tribunals set up to try those charged with war crimes, and to clarify what rights the prisoners have in U.S. courts.

(Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen)

© Reuters 2006