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Suicides Raise New Questions at Guantanamo

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The Pentagon says it has opened an investigation into the deaths this weekend of three detainees being held at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Military officials say the men committed suicide. They are the first reported deaths at the isolated detention center since it opened more than four years ago.

NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam has been following the story, and she joins us now. Jackie, first of all, what details can you give us about the suicides?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Well, early yesterday morning, Saturday morning, a guard at Guantanamo discovered that one of the detainees had hanged himself in his cell. Medics were called in. They tried to revive the detainee, but no luck. The man had died. And it was shortly after that that they discovered two other men nearby that had also hanged themselves and were also dead, pronounced dead.

All three of the men had made nooses out of their bedclothes and out of the sheets and that, and that's how they hanged themselves. I have to say that two of the men were from Saudi Arabia. One of the men was a Yemeni National. The other thing that we found out is all three men had left suicide notes. They were all written in Arabic, but the military will not say what was in those notes, even though they have translators, obviously, at the base, that type of thing. This is now part of an investigation, so they won't divulge this sort of information. They won't tell us what their names were, their ages, that type of thing. So the investigation is underway. We're still waiting for more details.

HANSEN: Is the U.S. military saying it was a coordinated act?

NORTHAM: They, that's right. Well, they're calling it coordinated protest. And they said it was well planned out by these men, who they called dangerous prisoners. They said that the methodology used by all three men in committing suicide was the same.

Now, what's interesting is that the military called this, not an act of desperation, Liane, but an act of warfare. The Guantanamo commander, in a press conference yesterday, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris said that these men were committed Jihadists, they were captured in Afghanistan, that they were smart and creative, and that they were willing to carry on the fight, even though they were in Guantanamo Bay. So somehow committing suicide is in line with that thinking.

And this falls in line with what the military has always said, that anytime that these suicide attempts are made, it's a tactic used by al-Qaida to garner support, you know, within the media, and sympathy from the public.

HANSEN: What are the defense lawyers for the detainees and human rights advocates saying about these suicides?

NORTHAM: Well, defense lawyers and human rights advocates have always suggested that these suicide attempts are really a way to end the mental trauma that many of these men are going through. You have to remember that most of them have been held there for well over four years now. Only ten out of the 460 that are remaining there have been charged. So the rest are really just languishing. They don't know what their future holds whatsoever.

Some of them have lawyers now, but many still do not. They can't make phone calls to their families. You know, they don't have visitors, obviously anything like that. So again, they're just languishing in the cells, and you know, this has, you know, according to lawyers and human rights advocates, this really has created an enormous amount of mental anguish for the men.

HANSEN: Now, if all of that is the case, then is it likely the military is going to change its operations to try to prevent this, to try to prevent more suicides?

NORTHAM: Well, I think that, you know, it's probably pretty clear that there will be more suicide attempts. There have been 41 in the past few years. And the military, over the years, has changed some of its tactics or procedures to help prevent them. The guards cross in front of the cells much more often than they used to. There are methods to get in faster if they see a suicide attempt. This weekend, the military said that they're going to change those operations again. And one way, certainly, is that they're going to take the bed sheets away from the prisoners in the morning and give them to them at night again.

You know, I suppose they could still fashion nooses out of their clothes. I don't know what they're going to do with that. But, you know, I think other methods are certainly underway to try to prevent something like this happening again.

HANSEN: NPR's national security correspondent, Jackie Northam. Jackie, thank you very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.
Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.