'Killing themselves was unnecessary. But it certainly is a good PR move'
· Bush officials' hard line provokes condemnation
· US ally admits prison is hampering war on terror
The Bush administration stared down a new wave of international condemnation of Guantánamo yesterday, dismissing the suicides by three inmates of the prison camp as a "good PR move" on their part and an "act of asymmetrical warfare".
The deaths of two Saudis and a Yemeni, who used knotted bedsheets to hang themselves in their solitary cells, brought renewed calls from European governments and human rights organisations to bring the 460 inmates to trial, or close down the camp. But Bush administration officials rejected suggestions that the three had killed themselves in despair over their indefinite confinement.
"It does sound like this is part of a strategy - in that they don't value their own lives, and they certainly don't value ours; and they use suicide bombings as a tactic," Colleen Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told BBC's Newshour yesterday. "Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good PR move."
On Saturday, the camp's commander, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, said the suicides were an al-Qaida tactic. "They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us," he said.
The hard line from an administration official comes at a time of increasing international criticism at the handling of terror suspects at Guantánamo. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a staunch ally of the US in Iraq, said that Guantánamo was damaging America's image in the world, and undermining the global war on terror. "I think it would be to the benefit of our cause, and our fight for freedom and for democracy, if the facilities at Guantánamo were closed down," the Danish leader told CNN.
In Stockholm, Sweden's foreign minister, Jan Eliasson, voiced similar concerns about the lack of due process. "It shows the importance of letting the prisoners free or giving them a statutory trial."
In Saudi Arabia, officials at the semi-official human rights organisation accused the prison administration of torturing the men to death. "Even if the suicide story is true, I have no doubts that they were pushed to it by torture and the lack of attention paid to the health of the detainees," said Saleh al-Khathlan of the Saudi human rights group.
Lawyers for the detainees called the comments by administration officials deeply offensive. Gitanjali Gutierrez, a lawyer for the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents most of the detainees, said: "It's very clear that any human being who is kept in indefinite detention over four years, not given any kind of hearing, and whose life and fate is subject to such uncertainty, inevitably will contemplate suicide, and the fact that three of them finally succeeded comes as no surprise. This is not an act of warfare, it is a consequence of inhumane and immoral treatment of human beings by the United States."
In Britain, Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said of the US officials' remarks: "This is the sort of statement that SS officers in Nazi Germany would have been envious of." Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, deplored the "incredibly insensitive and callous" comments. "The deaths of these three people was not an act of war, it was an act of desperation."
President George Bush at the weekend expressed "serious concern" about the suicides. At Guantánamo, a military official yesterday said that the bodies of the three men would be dealt with in accordance with Muslim tradition, and that a fatwa had been obtained to allow autopsies. A Saudi interior ministry official told the Associated Press that procedures had begun to send home the bodies of two detainees, identified as Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani. The Yememi was named as Ali Abdullah Ahmed.
Utaybi had actually been cleared by the Pentagon for transfer out of Guantánamo in late 2005 - although it was uncertain whether he knew he would be leaving, Cully Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of detainee affairs told the Guardian. He said that Utaybi, who belonged to a militant Islamist missionary organisation, had been recommended for transfer to a third country.
Mr Stimson described Ali Abdullah Ahmed as a mid-to high-level al-Qaida operative with connections to Abu Zubaydah, the former chief of military operations in US custody. The third man, Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, had been captured on the battlefield in late 2001 during the prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif.
The suicides were the first deaths since the first detainees were brought to Guantánamo from the battlefields of Afghanistan four years ago. The authorities at the camp have at times gone to extreme measures to keep inmates alive, resorting to brutal force-feeding during hunger strikes. The deaths come three weeks after three prisoners tried to kill themselves. Earlier this month, the authorities confronted a hunger strike by more than 80 prisoners. Eight were still on hunger strike yesterday.
We treat them well and they try to kill us, says camp commander
Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of Guantánamo, defended the treatment of detainees in an article published in the Chicago Tribune on May 17
"Conditions have improved dramatically for detainees since they first arrived in 2002. More important, we aggressively look for ways to build on the 'safe and humane care and custody' mission ...
"We hold men who proudly admit membership at the leadership level in al-Qaida and the Taliban, many with direct personal contact and knowledge of the September 11 2001 attackers. We are keeping terrorist recruiters, facilitators, explosives trainers, bombers and bombmakers, Osama bin Laden bodyguards and financiers, from continuing their jihad against America ...
"We provide safe shelter and living areas with beds, mattresses, sheets and running-water toilets. We also provide adequate clothing, including shoes and uniforms, and the normal range of hygiene items, such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and shampoo. Even so, many detainees have taken advantage of this - crafting killing weapons from toothbrushes and garrottes from food wrappers, for example ...
"We provide outstanding medical care to every detainee, the same quality as what our service members receive ... That said, many detainees persist in mixing a blood-urine-faeces-semen cocktail and throwing this deadly concoction into the faces of the American men and women who guard them, feed them and care for them ...
"Despite articles written by defence attorneys and young translators arguing the contrary, these are, in fact, dangerous men in our custody. Make no mistake about it - we are keeping enemies of our nation off the battlefield. This is an enormous challenge. These terrorists are not represented by any nation or government. They do not adhere to the rules of war."