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Threats and Responses: Captives. Tales of Despair from Guantánamo.

New York Times
By Carlotta Gall with Neil A. Lewis
June 17, 2003

Afghans and Pakistanis who were detained for many months by the American military at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba before being released without charges are describing the conditions as so desperate that some captives tried to kill themselves.

According to accounts in the last three months from some of the 32 Afghans and three Pakistanis in the weeks since their release, it was above all the uncertainty of their fate, combined with confinement in very small cells, sometimes only with Arabic speakers, that caused inmates to attempt suicide. One Pakistani interviewed this month said he tried to kill himself four times in 18 months.

An Afghan prisoner who spent 14 months at the camp, at the American naval base at Guantánamo, described in April what he called the uncertainty and fear. ''Some were saying this is a prison for 150 years,'' said Suleiman Shah, 30, a former Taliban fighter from Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan.

None of those interviewed complained of physical mistreatment. But the men said that for the first few months, they were kept in small wire-mesh cells, about 6 1/2 feet by 8 feet , in blocks of 10 or 20. The cells were covered by a wooden roof, but open at the sides to the elements.

''We slept, ate, prayed and went to the toilet in that small space,'' Mr. Shah said. Each man had two blankets and a prayer mat and slept and ate on the ground, he said.

The prisoners were taken out only once a week for a one-minute shower. ''After four and a half months we complained and people stopped eating, so they said we could shower for five minutes and exercise once a week,'' Mr. Shah said. After that, he said, prisoners got to exercise for 10 minutes a week, walking around the inside of a cage 30 feet long.

In interviews at their homes, weeks after being released, he and the freed Pakistani detainee talked of what they said was the overwhelming feeling of injustice among the approximately 680 men detained indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay.

''I was trying to kill myself,'' said Shah Muhammad, 20, a Pakistani who was captured in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, handed over to American soldiers and flown to Guantánamo in January 2002. ''I tried four times, because I was disgusted with my life.

''It is against Islam to commit suicide,'' he continued, ''but it was very difficult to live there. A lot of people did it. They treated me as guilty, but I was innocent.''

In the 18 months since the detention camp opened, there have been 28 suicide attempts by 18 individuals, with most of those attempts made this year, Capt. Warren Neary, a spokesman at the detention camp, said today. None of the prisoners have killed themselves, but one man has suffered severe brain damage, according to his lawyer.

The prisoners come from more than 40 countries, and include more than 50 Pakistanis, about 150 Saudis and three teenagers under 16, a majority of them captured in Afghanistan, said Dr. Najeef bin Mohamad Ahmed al-Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, who is representing nearly 100 of the detainees.

Dr. Nauimi represents many of the Saudis, and American lawyers represent about 14 prisoners from Kuwait. There are also 83 Yemenis, he said, and a sprinkling of others, including Canadians, Britons, Algerians and Australians, and one Swede.

Since January 2002, at least 32 Afghan prisoners and three Pakistanis have been released from Guantánamo Bay. Five Saudis were recently handed over to the Saudi authorities. Yasser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi, was moved from the camp to a military brig in Norfolk, Va., in April 2002. Captain Neary said 41 people had been released in all, but he could not give a more exact description.

At the same time, the military is preparing to place about 10 of the prisoners before a military tribunal soon, officials said this month.

Mr. Muhammad, who spent 18 months in Cuba before his release, said that ''when they first took us there they would not let us talk, or stand or walk around the cell.

''At the beginning it was very hard to bear,'' he added. ''There was no call to prayer, and there was no shade. In the afternoon the sun came in from the side.''

Under the current routine, a majority of the prisoners remain in their cells but for two 15-minute periods a week, in which they walk around the cage and take a shower. In addition, the call to prayer is played over the prison's loudspeakers five times a day, according to Capt. Youseff Yee, the Muslim chaplain who oversees the religious needs of the Guantánamo prisoners.

Conditions improved after the first few months, and prisoners were moved to newly built cells with running water and a bed, Mr. Shah said. Interrogation was sporadic and it varied in length and intensity. Sometimes they were questioned after 10 days, or 20 days, and then not for several months, prisoners said.

But it was the uncertainty and fear that they would be there forever that drove many of them to despair, prisoners said.

''All of the people were worried about how long we would be there for,'' Mr. Shah said. ''People were becoming mad because they were saying: 'When will they release us? They should take us to the high court.' Many stopped eating.''

One Taliban fighter from the southern province of Helmand, who only uses one name, Rustam, said in May that he was driven to trying to hang himself because he was in a block of Arabs and Uzbeks he described as ''crazy.''

''There were some very strange people, they were hitting their heads on the wall, insulting the soldiers, and that is why I hated it,'' said Rustam, who is 22, in an interview in an Afghan prison in Kabul. ''I think they were really crazy people, and that's why I kept asking to be taken out for questioning.''

When he tried to hang himself, Rustam said, the guards found him quickly. ''They untied me and said 'Don't do this,' '' he said. ''They gave me medicine, but it was no good. They put me under supervision and moved me to another place.''

Mr. Muhammad, one of three Pakistani prisoners to be released at the end of April, said he first tried to hang himself because for months on end he was surrounded by Arabs and could not speak their language.

''It was difficult not talking to anyone for so long,'' he said. ''It was because of the jail. They put me in a block full of Arabs, they were only letting us out for a very short time, and it was very difficult. I could feel myself going down.''

After 11 months in the prison camp, he tied his bedsheet to a ceiling wire and hanged himself from it at 4 o'clock one afternoon. ''I don't know what happened,'' he said. ''They took me to the hospital. I was unconscious for two days.''

Only after that suicide attempt, Mr. Muhammad said, did his American keepers tell him that he was only being held for questioning, and that one day he would go home. Tranquilizers were prescribed, he said, but he stopped taking the tablets after a while and attempted suicide again.

Then the doctors gave Mr. Muhammad a powerful injection that he said left him unable to control his head or his mouth or eat properly for weeks. Although he refused to have the injection, the military medical personnel gave it to him by force, he said. He made two further attempts to kill himself that he said were more protest actions at the conditions.

''We needed more blankets, but they would not listen,'' he said. ''And I kept asking them to take me to the Afghan and Pakistani side. All the time I was with Arabs. I did not speak my own language for months.'' Mr. Muhammad also threatened to kill himself again if he was given another injection. He remained on tablets until his release, he said.

American officials have confirmed that one prisoner who tried to commit suicide remains in the prison hospital with severe brain damage. Dr. Nauimi said the prisoner was Mish al-Hahrbi, a Saudi schoolteacher. He said that the teacher became desperate over not knowing what his future held and that he tried to hang himself. The teacher was resuscitated but is unlikely to recover from a severe hemorrhage, the lawyer said.

Back home with time to ponder their ordeal, the former prisoners now want to demand compensation.

''The Americans said if anyone is innocent, they will get compensation,'' Mr. Muhammad said. ''They held me for 18 months, and so they should give me compensation. They told me I was innocent, but they did not apologize.''

Human rights organizations have raised concerns about the conditions at Guantánamo Bay and the unclear legal status of the detainees. The American military has refused to consider them prisoners of war, even though a majority were captured on the battlefield, and does not allow them access to lawyers. No charges have yet been brought against any of the detainees, some of whom have been there for 18 months.

Concerned about their prolonged detention without trial or clear legal status, the head of the International Red Cross, which visits the detainees, urged the Bush administration last month to start legal proceedings for the hundreds of detainees and to institute a number of changes in conditions at the camp.

Cmdr. Brian Grady, the staff psychiatrist at the camp's medical facility, said in a recent interview that most prisoners suffering from depression brought their symptoms with them to Cuba.

''I don't know what the effects of this particular confinement are,'' he said. ''I'd be hesitant to comment.'' Officials at Guantánamo have generally dismissed the notion that the confinement and uncertainty about the future are specifically to blame.

''I would not particularly say these circumstances are a factor,'' Commander Grady said.

But Jamie Fellner, director of the United States program for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview that that was highly implausible.

''These conditions of confinement by themselves over a prolonged period are enormously psychologically stressful,'' she said. ''Added to that is the uncertainty as to the future.''

Ms. Fellner added that her group had not found any credible reports of physical abuse and that it had investigated several accounts of beatings and such that turned out to be unfounded.

Hospital officials said that about 5 percent of the inmates were suffering from depression and that they were being treated with antidepressants, typically Zoloft.

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