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Guards tighten security to prevent more deaths

The Charlotte Observer
by Michael Gordon
June 13, 2006

Human rights groups, defense lawyers call for investigation of 3 men's suicides

Even as demands grew for an independent investigation into the weekend suicides at Guantanamo Bay, military leaders locked down the prison to prevent more deaths.

Amnesty International and defense lawyers called for an investigation into the suicides of two Saudis and a Yemeni who hanged themselves in their cells early Saturday.

But inside the detention facility, military leaders started clamping down on discipline and security in what they say is an effort to stop another round of suicide attempts already being planned.

"Right now, we are at ground zero," an emotional prison commander, Col. Mike Bumgarner told officers at his morning staff meeting.

"The trust level is gone. They have shown time and time again that we can't trust them any farther than we can throw them. There is not a trustworthy son of a ... in the entire bunch."

With that, Bumgarner, a Kings Mountain native, ordered his staff to assess and curtail existing policies on detainee clothing, meals, recreation time, prison lighting and discipline. He ordered more frequent patrols in the cellblocks. He said existing rules on detainee behavior must be enforced quickly and fully.

"If a brother covers up a window with a sheet or blanket, you give him an order and then you go get (him)," Bumgarner said.

Later in the day, the colonel said the tougher restrictions would stay in place for the foreseeable future.

"Once I get a better read of things, I can manage a better balance of their quality of life with the security of this facility."

The suicides occurred early Saturday morning in three cells on the same block. The detainees hanged themselves with strips of knotted cloth taken from clothing and sheets. They used pillows and blankets to make it appear they were sleeping in their beds. They left suicide notes in Arabic. And Bumgarner said each had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling their voices.

Prison authorities say they think other suicides are planned and they ave already seized nooses from cells since the Saturday deaths, the first at the 4-year-old U.S. facility on Cuban soil. At least 25 inmates have made 41 suicide attempts since the facility opened.

Critics, domestic and abroad, say the rash of recent attempts illustrates the desperation of inmates held in isolation and subjected to conditions that violate international law.

None of the three men who committed suicide was among the 10 Guantanamo detainees who have been charged with criminal offenses and face military tribunals at the base.

The International Committee of the Red Cross plans to send a delegation to look into the suicides. The European Union on Monday called the Guantanamo Bay detention center an "anomaly," and said it would urge Bush to shut it down when he comes to Europe for a trans-Atlantic summit next week.

The sprawling, high-security facility overlooking the Caribbean holds 465 men, all considered by the government to be enemy combatants or terrorist threats. Guantanamo Bay's commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, said the suicides were a concerted act of "asymmetrical warfare" designed to bring more public scorn onto the prison.

Several detainee leaders also said they had a vision in which the deaths of three prisoners would lead to freedom for the rest, Bumgarner says.

Monday, the facility's staff said detainees have been asking about the suicides for the first time. "Acknowledge nothing," Bumgarner said. "Tell them it's none of their business."

The staff meeting took place in a conference room inside the prison wire. The Observer was not allowed to attend because classified information was shown on a screen. Instead, a reporter was allowed to listen a few feet away by an open door.

Bumgarner ordered a high suicide alert for "the brothers," the term used by the military personnel to describe the detainees. "Brother" also is a term of Muslim endearment the inmates use among themselves.

"If any brother says he's going to kill himself or says the death chant, anything. That brother will immediately go to a suicide blanket and smock," Bumgarner said.

The suicide blanket is made of a tightly wound material that's hard to puncture or strip. The smock keeps a detainee from ripping apart his shirt, pants or underwear to knot a cloth rope.

Later in the discussion, Bumgarner ordered a smock for another detainee.

"Sir," one of his officers said, "we're going to run out of smocks."

"Order some more," Bumgarner said. "I want them in the next 72 hours if I have to put you on a jet to get them"

Mid-afternoon, Senior Petty Officer Mac King walked into the colonel's office to discuss how to handle "The General," whom Bumgarner called the leader of the detainees' military wing.

King, of Spartanburg, said The General had refused to exchange his brown prison suit for an orange one, signifying he was moving to a more restricted status.

Bumgarner put his face in his hands. "Why does this brother do this to me," he said.

King said five guards would make an FCE, a "forced cell entry," to restrain the inmate, cut the old suit off of him and put the new one on.

Bumgarner suggested an intermediate step.

"How's your relationship with The General?" he asked.

Not bad, King said.

"Well do me a favor then. Go down there and talk to him, and tell him there's an easy way and a hard way. It's his choice." Media Access Guantanamo Bay welcomes media visitors but keeps a close eye on them while they're here.

All reporters and photographers must have military escorts wherever they go. Photographers must have all images approved by a base editor. Photographs of the detention center gates, unmanned guard towers and anything that shows the prison and its proximity to the nearby Caribbean sea, among others, are prohibited.

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