Many perils at Guantánamo - for Bush, too

Suicides at the detention camp follow already-sharp international criticism of US.

The recent suicide deaths at the US terrorism detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are drawing sharp scrutiny of the use of an overseas naval base to indefinitely hold terror suspects.

In addition, the deaths point up a growing dilemma for the Bush administration as it seeks to maintain an array of options in fighting the war on terror in the face of rising domestic and international criticism.

Guantánamo Bay was primarily selected as a remote, offshore venue for open-ended interrogations and military tribunals to try suspected war criminals. It was seen as a place beyond the reach of most US constitutional protections.

The harsh treatment of Al Qaeda suspects at Guantánamo was billed as part of an aggressive interrogation process aimed at obtaining actionable intelligence that might help prevent future terror attacks.

But critics of Guantánamo say the Bush administration appears to have miscalculated. America's tough policies have generated intense criticism among human rights activists both at home and abroad. US allies in Europe as well as the United Nations Committee Against Torture are calling on the US to close the detention camp. The US Supreme Court is expected this month to rule on whether the administration's plan for military trials at Guantánamo comports with constitutional safeguards and international treaty obligations.

The suicides of two Saudis and a Yemeni on Saturday inject a sense of urgency into questions about US antiterror tactics. The three men used bed sheets and clothing to fashion makeshift nooses, officials said.

They were among 460 detainees currently housed at Guantánamo, many of whom have been held without charge or contact with family members for more than four years.

Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the Guantánamo detention camp, has told reporters that the suicides were a coordinated attempt to spark international outrage against the US. "They have no regard for human life. Neither ours nor their own," he said. "I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."

Others disagree.

"I think it is people who have no hope, detained indefinitely, without rights," says Harold Koh, an international law expert and dean of Yale Law School. "We're really in the last days of a dying policy," Mr. Koh says. "This is just another sad sign."

Military officials say there have been 41 unsuccessful suicide attempts by 23 detainees since the detention camp opened in January 2002. On May 18, two detainees were discovered unconscious in their cells after attempting an overdose of an antianxiety medication, according to press reports. A third detainee also attempted an overdose. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of detainees who had tried and failed to commit suicide.]

In addition, scores of detainees have undertaken hunger strikes, prompting military officials to force-feed them. Earlier this year, lawyers working with some of the detainees complained that medical personnel at the camp were inserting large tubes into the detainees' noses to facilitate forced feeding. The lawyers said the process was extraordinarily painful and was a form of mistreatment. They said the number of hunger strikers dropped off significantly following use of the tubes.

Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said the detention cells at Guantánamo were reserved only for the "worst of the worst," defense lawyers have shown that many of the detainees wound up at Guantánamo by mistake. In other cases, military officials have recharacterized detainees, saying they are no longer considered enemy combatants.

President Bush has twice suggested his desire that Guantánamo be closed. On Friday, he said he hoped most of the detainees could be sent home. "We're now in the process of working with countries to repatriate people, but there are some that - if put out on the streets - could create a grave harm to American citizens and other citizens of the world," Bush told reporters.

David Remes, a Washington lawyer who represents 17 Yemenis held at Guantánamo, says the Bush administration has painted itself into a corner.

"The US would dearly like to repatriate most, if not all, of the prisoners, and it appears the difficulty is in negotiating the repatriation with the Saudi and Yemen governments," Mr. Remes says.

Remes says President Bush's recent comments on Guantánamo suggest the administration is bracing for a defeat at the Supreme Court. The justices are expected to rule by the end of June whether the president acted within his power in designating military trials for 10 Guantánamo detainees.

News of the suicides was greeted with skepticism in Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi Human Rights Group calling for an independent investigation into the deaths, according to an Associated Press report.

"There are no independent monitors at the detention camp, so it is easy to pin the crime on the prisoners, given that it is possible that they were tortured," said Mufleh Al-Qahtani, deputy director of the group.

Wire services were used in this report.

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