NEW YORK (IPS/GIN) – The U.S. government sought to distance itself June 13 from an official’s statement calling the suicides of three Guantanamo Bay prisoners a “public relations move,” as human rights groups, legal experts and newspapers in the Middle East renewed calls to close the prison.

Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC that the suicides at the U.S.-run camp in Cuba were a “good P.R. move to draw attention” and “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.”

Guantanamo’s commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., poured more fuel on the fire by saying the three who took their lives “are smart, they are creative, they are committed. 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.” The three men–two Saudis and a Yemeni–hanged themselves in their cells June 10. There have been numerous earlier suicide attempts, but the three are believed to be the only successful ones.


Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA told IPS that her group is calling for an independent investigation into the deaths. “Amnesty has long been concerned for the mental health of prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere who are being held for years on end without charge and without trial and possibly abused,” she said. “We call on President Bush to put an end to this human rights scandal and ensure that all detainees in the ‘war on terror’ are brought to fair trial or released.”

There are some 460 prisoners at the U.S. naval base. Many have been detained without charges for more than four years. Only 10 have been charged with a crime, and there have been no trials. There have also been widespread hunger strikes, with prisoners being force-fed with the help of military physicians and other medical personnel.

On June 12, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack struggled to distance the Bush administration from Ms. Graffy’s remarks.

“We would not say that it was a P.R. stunt. We have serious concerns anytime anybody takes their own life,” he said. But he added that while the United States did not wish to become the world’s jailer, Guantanamo housed “dangerous citizens” who were a threat to the world.

Despite the efforts at damage control, Ms. Graffy’s remarks were quickly picked up in the Arab press. Lebanon’s The Daily Star newspaper said, “Her comments quickly appeared to be bad P.R. moves for the U.S. administration.” An editorial in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News called the suicides a “tragedy was just waiting to happen.” It added, “These deaths reflect the desperation for a basic human need–a need for justice, a need to have someone hear what these incarcerated people have to say, then be duly punished if a crime has been committed or be set free. Three of the detainees are now gone without ever having seen a court or enjoyed a system of justice that is held so dearly by their captors.”

Egypt’s influential Al-Ahram newspaper said, “Washington, which considers itself the sponsor of democracy and human rights in the world, appears today as the main suspect in the violation of these rights.” An editorial in the pan-Arab Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper said that, “The prevalent belief is that they died of torture. … The whole world should act and compel the current U.S. administration to retract from this disgraceful violation of human rights and close the Guantanamo detention center immediately without delay.”

Human rights and religious advocates were as harsh. Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch, told IPS, “At long last, it is time for the administration to ask itself whether the humiliation, brutalization and torture of Muslim detainees around the world is making us safer from terrorism or is in fact fanning the flames of resentment and making it easier for the jihadists to find recruits for their evil cause.”

Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, accused the Bush administration of “systematically and deliberately” denying Guantanamo detainees “their most basic rights through a policy of choking off all contact, communication, information and hope. For this administration to now claim that these suicides were acts of war by men who have no regard for human life is powerful evidence that the Bush administration itself has no conception of the desperation they have caused.”

He added, “This government has consistently fought to keep these men from lawyers, doctors and others who were willing to help them. Now, in attempting to deny the truth, this administration will not only cause more pain and misery amongst the detainees at Guantanamo, it will ultimately undermine fundamental democratic institutions of the United States.”

President George Bush said June 11 that he would like to see Guantanamo closed and its detainees tried in the U.S. But Guantanamo inmates have filed numerous appeals to U.S. courts–one case has reached the Supreme Court–but the government thwarted most of these appeals through claims of national security. Any new appeals will fall under a new law that deprives the inmates of the centuries-old right of habeas corpus to challenge their imprisonment. Government lawyers have sought to dismiss pending appeals by applying the new law retroactively.

Guantanamo Bay is a U.S. military facility leased from the Cuban government. Washington began sending prisoners there in 2002, believing they would be out of reach of U.S. courts. But the Supreme Court ruled that the prison was within the reach of the U.S. justice system since the U.S. had effective control over the territory.

Most, though not all, Guantanamo prisoners were picked up in Afghanistan during the U.S. war against the Taliban. While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld characterized the detainees as “the worst of the worst,” some of the prisoners are known to have been “sold” by Afghan warlords for fees to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and others appear simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.