At Guantánamo, a grim protest is disclosed

By Charlie Savage
The Boston Globe
Wednesday, January 26, 2005

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — Nearly two dozen detainees at the interrogation prison here tried to hang or strangle themselves during an eight-day period in 2003, including 10 simultaneous attempts on a single day, the U.S. military has disclosed.

The protest of August 2003 adds to the sensation created by reports about the prison contained in FBI memos describing abusive interrogations, which were made public recently through a lawsuit.

The protest, which the military declined to describe as a mass suicide attempt, began as several prisoners tried to hang themselves in their cells, which measure 6 by 8 feet, or 1.8 by 2.4 meters. The action widened as word of the protest was shouted between open cellblocks. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Marshall, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, said Monday that the protest had been "a coordinated effort to disrupt camp operations and challenge a new group of security guards" who had taken over duties at the base.

None of the 23 protesters died, although two detainees suffered "minor injuries" that were treated at the detention hospital, he said.

The medical staff at the base classified those two cases as suicide attempts but categorized the other 21 as "manipulative, self-injurious behavior."

The recent disclosures of past turmoil at Guantánamo, the government's prison for Afghan war detainees, are shadowing attempts by a new team of managers to make the prison a more professional, long-term holding place for people accused of being enemy combatants.

"I can't, frankly, really speak to the period before I arrived here with any authority," Brigadier General Jay Hood, who took command 10 months ago, said when asked about the memos. "I don't think it would be proper or appropriate for me to speculate on actions before my assumption of command, but the allegations of abuse were taken seriously and are being investigated."

Steve Rodriguez, the civilian who has run the interrogation operation since June 2003, said he had never used any of the techniques described in the FBI memos, such as shackling a detainee to the floor and leaving him there amid his excrement, and he condemned them.

Hood and his 2,000-soldier task force are moving to build permanent housing for detainees with more communal living areas for those who may be kept for decades in the oceanfront compound. And a new team of guards is coming in: A U.S. Army battalion specifically trained to oversee detainees will soon be stationed at Guantánamo, replacing National Guard and Reserve units on 10-month deployments.

Even as the government presses forward with its plans, the legal basis for continuing to hold the prisoners without trial may be unraveling. Continuing allegations of mistreatment of prisoners are adding urgency and weight to the legal challenges, according to lawyers disputing the government's right to hold prisoners indefinitely.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees could challenge their detentions in civilian courts, opening a floodgate of litigation. Meanwhile, a federal judge has halted the Bush administration's attempt to take several detainees before a military commission, ruling that the United States has violated the Geneva conventions.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group that has been a leader in the legal actions against the operation, said the lawsuits filed after the Supreme Court decision and the negative publicity from the FBI memos eventually would cause the Guantánamo operation to collapse.

"I think the whole thing is cracking," Ratner said. "It's just a matter of time."

"Guantánamo is under such scrutiny," he said, "and as soon as we get 40 attorneys down there, this place is over."

For Hood, the wave of negative publicity and speculation of rampant wrongdoing at Guantánamo, which began in earnest after photographs of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were made public last spring, is frustrating.

He argued that many detainees were such imminent threats to U.S. safety that they could not be released.

A senior defense official, speaking not for attribution, said Guantánamo was in a crucial period of transition. Only about a quarter of the approximately 550 detainees meet regularly with interrogators. Of the remainder, some will be returned to their home countries, but a hard-core group is too dangerous to risk being let go, even if the intelligence value is exhausted, the official said.

The military is seeking money for a new wing of the prison. A senior engineer at the base said it would house about 220 detainees and have communal cells and large group recreation areas to provide "a better quality of life in the spirit of the Geneva conventions."

The military also wants to build a greatly improved facility to house detainees with serious mental illnesses, said to be about 8 percent of detainees, and a high-tech fence to go around the perimeter of the complex, reducing the need for guards.

4 Britons arrested on arrival

Four Britons who were freed after being detained for as long as three years at Guantánamo returned Tuesday to Britain, The Associated Press reported from London. All four were arrested by the British police.

The four men - the last of the British detainees at Guantánamo - were accompanied by antiterrorist officers on a British military flight and landed at the Northolt Royal Air Force base, west of London.

The four - Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar - were among 550 prisoners from 42 countries swept up in the U.S.-led war on terror and detained without charges.

Mubanga, a former motorcycle courier from north London, and Begg, who moved to Afghanistan to set up a language school, have said they were tortured while in custody; the U.S. authorities dismiss the allegations.

Five other Britons were released from Guantánamo in March and were not charged with any offense on their return to Britain. Four of them have filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court, seeking $10 million each in damages.

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