Sunday, June 18, 2006


The three men proceeded with plans to get past the entrapment of the US prison at Guantanamo. Each one of them made a noose out of strips of bedsheets in his own cell; each put a ball of cloth down his throat to silence the gurgling and the gasps. Their plan was the Great Escape from indefinite confinement. No razor wire would suffice to block their way. They were out of options, ready for the breakout. They could do without the dark of the moon, in the wee hours of Saturday, the 10th of June.

One of the dead, a Saudi, Mr. al-Utaybi, had not been informed by camp officials that he, like 141 other prisoners, was due to be released. The authorities were to release him, and he had been declared a "safe person". Ali Abdullah Ahmed from Yemen, and another Saudi, Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, also committed suicide by hanging themselves that night.

Nothing that the responsible authorities said, in the aftermath of this tragedy, helped clear up America's increasingly corrupt image. The Joint Task Force commander at Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris said, "This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us". The Admiral reminded the world that like 9/11, it was after all, an attack.

Harris had said that three men, detainees in a US military prison, men who were imprisoned indefinitely with no legal rights whatsoever, would not act out of desperation. According to Admiral Harris, by hanging themselves sometime after midnight in their cells, they committed an act of asymmetric war. This is a special assignment for the word, asymmetric, to signify a lopsided relationship. There is certainly an asymmetric relationship between the helpless and the powerful. And what temerity it is, for tormented men to show their own dead bodies to their tormenters--to their torturers even--guards and officials at Guantanamo, the powerful who claim that being confronted with their own crimes is an act of war.

Coleen Graffy threw in her two cents, representing the State Department, as diplomatic Deputy Assistant Secretary: "Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good PR move".

Three must die to set the others free. Before the suicides this mantra of hopelessness had been circulating around the camp. What were the men thinking as they laid down their lives?

The death by suicide of three men in American military custody is, in part, the result of a prolonged information blackout that has concealed so much suffering and pain. The military authorities have conformed to administration policy; and America has been diminished every time a prisoner has been tortured in the camp, whenever a man has been beaten, whenever he has been broken by stress positions or waterboarding, or in the case of one of the dead men, when he could have been offered information about his release, which would have given him hope.

Hamdan vs Rumsfeld is a case which may soon be heard in the Supreme Court. Salim Hamdan, who is held at Guantanamo, is accused of being a chauffeur for Osama bin Laden, of driving the al-Qaeda chief around in Afghanistan. The Bush administration has filed a motion with the High Court to have every pending appeal by others at the camp, including Hamdan's, thrown out of federal court. Under a disputed provision of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, military captives, such as those at Guantanamo, are denied the right to petition the courts with writs of habeas corpus.

A habeas corpus petitioner can compel his wardens or captors to present the basis for his captivity to a judge, who can then rule on the legality of the detention. The issue under this writ, which we inherited from English law, is not about determining innocence or guilt; however, it is concerned with whether there is sufficient cause to hold prisoners, or a question of mistaken identity.

What a cruel irony it is, that a bill designed to protect the detainees, under the Geneva Conventions and Army regulation covering POWs, was amended by Senator Lindsey Graham to deny any detainee the right to a writ of habeas corpus. And to compound the injustice, the administration claims that this provision should be interpreted to mean that already pending applications to the court should be dismissed.

All the doors were closed upon the men who hanged themselves. What was left then?-- but to make the Great Escape to set others free?


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