Saudi Arabian Guantanamo detainee dies in ‘apparent suicide’

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A Saudi Arabian detainee died Wednesday at Guantanamo Bay prison and the US military said he apparently committed suicide.

Critics of the detention centre said the death showed the level of desperation among Guantanamo detainees.

In an unrelated incident, a Canadian detainee fired his American attorneys, leaving him without defence counsel ahead of his trial, his former US military attorney told the Associated Press on Wednesday. The detainee, Omar Khadr, is to be arraigned Monday and is one of only three of the roughly 380 Guantanamo prisoners to be charged with a crime.

The military did not identify the detainee who died or describe the manner of death. There are about 80 detainees from Saudi Arabia held at Guantanamo.

Guards at the US Naval Base in southeast Cuba found him in his cell unresponsive and not breathing Wednesday afternoon, the US military’s Southern Command said in a statement.

“They tried to save his life but he was pronounced dead,” said Mario Alvarez, a Miami-based spokesman for the command.

Lawyer Julia Tarver Mason, whose firm represents eight Saudi detainees at Guantanamo, said she has tried so far without success to learn from the government if the apparent suicide was by one of her clients.

“They are in the care of the United States government and that should mean that deaths should not occur,” Mason said.

It would be the fourth suicide at Guantanamo since the prison camp opened in January 2002. On June 10, 2006, two Saudi detainees and one Yemeni hanged themselves with sheets.

A spokesman for detention operations, Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, declined to comment, referring questions to the Miami-based Southern Command, which oversees US military operations in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Defence attorneys said it was likely an act of desperation at a prison camp where detainees are denied access to US civilian courts and isolated in their cells for up to 22 hours a day.

“You have five-and-a-half years of desperation there with no legal way out,” said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights. “Sadly, it leads to people being so desperate they take their own lives.” Marc Falkoff, who is part of a team of attorneys representing 17 men from Yemen, said the suicide should be expected given the conditions at Guantanamo.

“We’ve said all along that these guys are going to try to take their lives and that appears to be what happened here.

It’s just incredibly sad and it wouldn’t happen if these guys were just given their day in court.” A cultural adviser was helping the military handle the remains. “The remains of the deceased detainee are being treated with the utmost respect,” the military said.

The death came as the US military prepared to try Khadr and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni, in military tribunals set up by Congress after the US supreme court rejected a previous military trial system, calling it unconstitutional.

Their arraignment is scheduled to proceed on Monday at Guantanamo as planned, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said late Wednesday.

Khadr was 15 when he was captured in a firefight with US troops in Afghanistan in which he allegedly killed a US army special forces soldier with a grenade.

“He doesn’t trust American lawyers, and I don’t particularly blame him,” said US Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who was taken off the case Wednesday. “The United States is responsible for his interrogation, and his treatment under a process that is patently unfair.” Vokey was excused as defence counsel by Col. Dwight Sullivan, chief defence counsel.

“I’m definitely disappointed,” Vokey said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “I wanted to go the distance for Omar.” Khadr is now represented by only two Canadian lawyers, who are known as foreign attorney consultants because they have not been cleared to be full-level attorneys, Vokey said.

Under new rules for military tribunals adopted last year, the detainee is permitted to represent himself.

The apparent suicide Wednesday came despite the military’s best efforts.

It tightened security at the prison camp following the previous suicides and an uprising last spring, removing access to light fixtures and other possible makeshift weapons and taking away bedsheets in the daytime.

About 380 men are held at the isolated prison camp on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda or the Taleban. Many have been held for five years.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is conducting an ongoing investigation into the three previous suicides.

The former commander of the detention facilities, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, described those suicides as acts of “asymmetric warfare” — an effort to increase condemnation of the prison.

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