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Guantanamo Attorneys Say Suicides Reveal Desperation, Hopelessness at U.S.-Run Prison Camp

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Three detainees at Guantanamo Bay–two Saudis and one Yemeni–were found dead in their cells this weekend. The military reported the men hanged themselves with nooses made of sheets and clothes. They are the first reported deaths at the U.S.-run camp. The three men had been imprisoned for up to four years and never charged with a crime. We speak with an attorney for Guantanamo detainees and former Army Chaplain James Yee. [includes rush transcript]

Ali Abdullah Ahmed, Yassar Talal al-Zahrani and Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi. The three men were found dead in their cells at the U.S.-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay this weekend. According to military officials, the detainees committed suicide by hanging themselves with nooses made of sheets and clothing and died before they could be revived by medical personnel. Two of the men were Saudis, one was from Yemen. They had been held at the prison for up to four years and never charged with a crime. One of the men–21-year-old al-Zahrani–was first detained when he was a juvenile.

These are the first deaths to have been reported at the prison though there have been literally dozens of suicide attempts since the facility opened in 2002. U.S officials suggested that the suicides were a coordinated protest designed to bring attention to their cause. The Commander of the detention center at Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, spoke to reporters on Saturday via teleconference.

  • Rear Admiral Harry Harris, speaking June 10, 2006.

On Sunday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Colleen Graffy told the BBC on that the suicides were “a good public relations move” and “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.” She went on to say that the men did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them. But these deaths come as criticism of Guantanamo and the conditions there have increased.

There had been 41 previous suicide attempts as well as a camp-wide hunger strikes.

Last month, the United Nations Committee Against torture concluded that Guantanamo should be shut down. And President Bush himself stated in an interview with German television in May that he would like to shut down the detention center. The President repeated this just last Friday even though a new $30 million prison is currently under construction at Guantanamo.

  • Joshua Denbeaux, a partner in the law firm Denbeaux and Denbeaux. He represents 2 prisoners being held in Guantanamo and is the co-author of two reports about Guantanamo detainees.
  • James Yee, former Army Chaplain James Yee–he authored the standard operating procedure for Muslim funeral and burial rights at Guantanamo Bay. He was posted there in 2002 but less than a year after serving there, he was accused of espionage by the military and faced charges so severe, that he was threatened with the death penalty. Yee was locked away in a Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina where he spent 76 days in solitary confinement and was subject to abusive treatment. In 2004, the government dropped all charges against him.

Note: We asked a spokesperson from the Pentagon to be on but they did not respond to our request.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Denbeaux, thanks for joining us.


AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the deaths of these three men.

JOSHUA DENBEAUX: Well, I’m grateful that none of them were my client, either of my clients. I’ve met both of my clients many times. I can tell you that my clients are losing hope. I mean, who wouldn’t after being in jail for more than four years, almost five years without — with the promise that they’ll never see a trial, that they’ll be there until they are 50, or forever, and that justice is not on its way. Why wouldn’t they lose hope? And it’s a sad thing that Americans are doing this to people.

AMY GOODMAN: You were there when your — one of your clients tried to commit suicide. Can you describe what happened and when it was? You actually just came back from Guantanamo, is that right?

JOSHUA DENBEAUX: I was in Guantanamo last weekend. One of my clients, his name is Mohammed Rahman, detainee 894. Now, Mr. Rahman previously had been pleasant to deal with, eager to speak with us, always hopeful for good news, and quite willing to talk about almost anything. We arrived and sat down in the interrogation cell — that’s really what it is, unfortunately, even for lawyers. We are trying to meet with our clients here, in an interrogation cell. And he was a changed man. Now, we’d thought this was — he looked terribly sick. And it turned out he had been on a hunger strike. Now, we weren’t aware of that at the time that we met with him, because he’s also suffering from severe heart problems that the military is not treating. And we tried to feed him by offering him food over and over again and when we left for lunch, the military came in, yanked him out of the cell, forcibly extracted him, took him to the medical wing, if there is such a thing in Guantanamo, strapped him to a chair, shoved a tube up his nose and down his throat, and fed him.

Now, I can go on to even more detail about what happened but the problem we have with that is, he’s obviously trying to commit suicide by not eating. I don’t know what to tell a guy in this circumstance. I can’t promise him when he’s going to get out. And I see the man dying from lack of hope and medical care. And the only thing the military cares about is not that he dies of a heart attack or heart failure, but that he doesn’t die by his own hand or by starving himself to death.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you say to the military when you came back?

JOSHUA DENBEAUX: Well, we were furious because we feared that the issue was that our client was obviously on a hunger strike. We tried to feed him, just out of common courtesy — we brought food he doesn’t get–— for several hours. We leave for lunch, the military extracts him and force-feeds him. The logic of conclusion he might have is that we were in collusion with the guards, which we were not. And I had a huge fight with the Lt. Colonel on that days and I explained to him, I said to him, look, my client would rather be dead than in your care again for another day, if you’re not going to give him the slightest bit of hope. You are holding his life in your hands. The Lt. Colonel expressed no interest in this position.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone by former army chaplain James Yee. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chaplain Yee.

JAMES YEE: It is always a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this latest news of the deaths of these three Guantanamo prisoners. First of all, did you know them?

JAMES YEE: The names, off hand, I don’t recognize, but since they were in general population, it is more than likely I had direct contact with them when I was down there.

AMY GOODMAN: First, your response to their deaths and then, can you talk about what it is that you designed in terms of burial procedures and what will happen to them now?

JAMES YEE: Right. My first response and the immediate reaction was that it was only a matter of time until one of prisoners down in Guantanamo died from a suicide attempt or something like that. When I arrived there in 2002, in November, I recall the chief medical officer at the time, Captain Al Shimkus, from the Navy, had briefed the former commander of Guantanamo, Major General Jeffrey Miller, that he expected a prisoner to die at the camp within the next two years. Now, that didn’t happen and it didn’t come to pass until this weekend but it almost happened in 2003 when a prisoner did attempt suicide and ended up in a coma for months.

As a result of that incident, the command asked me immediately to put together the standard operating procedure for the camp to respond to a possible or potential prisoner death. And that was the policy that I put together regarding Muslim funeral and burial rights. There is a possibility that the deceased will be buried in Guantanamo. There is a separate area allocated in the graveyard at Guantanamo for Muslim burials and they have the necessary resources that were quickly ordered anticipating that death, or that possible death, back in 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: Can prisoners hang themselves — in Camp One, at Delta Camp — hang themselves from their cells, Chaplain Yee?

JAMES YEE: Can they? That’s a possibility. They could have used their clothing or the sheets that they have to form some type of hanging method from the fence-like cage that they’re held in. That’s a possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: And then this issue, Joshua Denbeaux, of one of the men, who is now 21, Yassar Talal al-Zahrani, being a juvenile when he was held at Guantanamo.


AMY GOODMAN: When he was first taken there.

JOSHUA DENBEAUX: Well, the fact that we are picking up juveniles and locking them away without a trial is a serious problem. But he’s not my client. I don’t have much to say beyond the fact that I’m horrified that we’re doing this to juveniles let alone to grown men as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Chaplain Yee, the issue of juveniles there. When you were ministering at Guantanamo, did you meet teenagers?

JAMES YEE: Oh, for sure. It’s confirmed that there were juveniles as young as 12-14 years old that were held down in Guantanamo. I had direct contact with them. But in the general population, I came across several prisoners who I thought were very close to the ages of 15 or 16, as I mentioned, being held in the general population, being treated like adults down in Guantanamo. That’s very disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to ask about President Bush’s statement on Friday. He was with the Danish Prime Minister, who wants Guantanamo closed. And President Bush said, “I assured him that we would like to end the Guantanamo. We’d like it to be empty. And we’re now in the process of working with countries to repatriate people.” He said, “But there are some that, if put out on the streets, would create grave harm to American citizens and other citizens of the world. And, therefore, I believe they ought to be tried in courts here in the United States. We will file such court claims once the Supreme Court makes its decision as to whether or not — as to the proper venue for these trials. And we’re waiting for our Supreme Court to act.” So, the president has said, he wants to close Guantanamo, says, he is waiting for the Supreme Court to act. He doesn’t have to wait to close Guantanamo, does he?

JOSHUA DENBEAUX: Of course not. The Razul decision said that it is up to the District Courts to determine what process was due these people. The government created the combatant status review tribunals, which are patently inappropriate and insufficient process, in the hope that the District Courts would disagree as to whether that’s sufficient in order to delay a decision for several years until the matter can be brought back to the Supreme Court. That’s not even the decision that is coming up with the Supreme Court. So yes, the president has the authority to do whatever he wants. As far as the process that’s due, he has not even made the slightest attempt to provide a process that is anything short of a kangaroo court.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Denbeaux, I want to thank you for being with us. And finally, Chaplain Yee, your final thoughts — you were not able to go back to Guantanamo after they arrested you, though ultimately were completely vindicated — on the three men who committed suicide this weekend and the military saying, it was an act of asymmetric warfare and a publicity stunt.

JAMES YEE: Yeah. My final thought is, first of all, that comment is very disturbing because suicide is a very serious matter. We have, in our own country here, over 30,000 victims a year to suicide. And to describe suicide in this manner would be offensive to any family that has been affected by someone —–or a loved one who has committed suicide. And lastly, I think this all has to be put into the proper perspective. The policy down in Guantanamo is to prevent injury and loss of life of detainees. Admiral Harris said that his policy is to intervene, to save the life of a detainee. Obviously, that didn’t happen. So, this is really an American military failure. The guards failed to perform their mission in what they were charged to do.

AMY GOODMAN: James Yee, I want to thank you for being with us, author of For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, former Army chaplain at Guantanamo.

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