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Calls for Change at Guantanamo

Times Staff Writer

International condemnation of the Guantanamo prison mounted Tuesday, as lawyers, doctors and ethicists called for changes in the treatment of the reportedly despondent prison population, after three suicides among the terrorism suspects last weekend.

A lawyer who had tried to represent one of the dead men accused the U.S. government of thwarting his efforts with bureaucratic maneuvers and lamented that justice can never be done because for his client, it’s “case over.”

Charlotte, N.C., attorney Jeff Davis’ complaints over the deprivation of legal rights to 30-year-old Mani Shaman Turki Al Habardi Al Utaybi of Saudi Arabia could pressure prison authorities to cease such intrusions, although Davis seemed doubtful.

“The government’s behavior puzzles me. I don’t have a clue what they will do,” said Davis, who added he never dreamed he would see U.S. authorities jailing people without charges and condoning torture.

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Al Utaybi was one of the three prisoners found hanging from torn sheets and clothing early Saturday, the first deaths among the 759 men known to have been brought to this secretive detention center on the south coast of Cuba. The bodies of the three men remain at the Naval Hospital morgue here, and the Islamic janaza funeral prayer was said over the washed and shrouded corpses under the direction of Navy Lt. Abuhena M. Saifulislam, an Islamic chaplain, said Lt. Col. Lora Tucker, a spokeswoman for the prison operation.

Legal scholars and attorneys offering their services to Guantanamo detainees have complained throughout the prison’s 4 1/2 year existence that the military has routinely delayed the security reviews necessary to come to the naval base and even canceled attorney-client meetings without explanation.

Davis and a retired colleague, George Daly, filed a legal challenge to Al Utaybi’s detention here in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., nine months ago, one of hundreds of writs of habeas corpus filed on behalf of Guantanamo detainees to get U.S. court jurisdiction for the prisoners.

Pentagon officials refused for months to acknowledge that Al Utaybi was at the prison because the lawyers had spelled the detainee’s name differently from the prison administration’s records. Spellings have varied wildly, even among the military’s multiple lists and records.

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Until March, when a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press forced disclosure, the Pentagon had never revealed the names of the men jailed on suspicion of fighting against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Daly traveled to Guantanamo from North Carolina in April after securing military clearance but was told when he went to the prison camp that Al Utaybi refused to meet him.

The three reported suicides early Saturday appeared to validate human rights activists’ contentions that holding prisoners for years without charges or trials has given rise to widespread depression and despair among the prisoners.

The U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo and all other military operations in Latin America, acknowledged Tuesday that officials had incorrectly stated on the day of the prisoners’ deaths that none had habeas representation.

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Southcom Lt. Cmdr. Brad Fagan said authorities have since learned that the Yemeni who died, Ali Abdullah Ahmed, was a habeas petitioner and that Davis’ efforts to represent Al Utaybi were still under consideration at the time of the prisoner’s death.

The American Medical Assn. has also stepped into the Guantanamo controversy in an effort to address an ethical dilemma created by new Pentagon rules authorizing military doctors to take part in prisoner interrogations.

At a meeting in Chicago on Monday, the AMA’s House of Delegates adopted guidelines that make it unethical for physicians -- AMA members or not -- to use their medical knowledge to interrogate prisoners, deeming all such operations inherently coercive and adversarial.

The AMA’s ruling counters guidance issued last week by the assistant Defense secretary for health affairs, William Winkenwerder, who found no ethical obstacle to military medical personnel questioning prisoners or disclosing confidential medical information to other interrogators.

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Winkenwerder toured the Camp 1 scene of the suicides as well as the prison hospital on Sunday, part of a Pentagon delegation inspecting the measures underway to prevent further suicides or what the military refers to as incidents of “self-harm” or “hanging gestures.”

The AMA action came after decisions by the American Psychiatric Assn. and the World Medical Assn. explicitly prohibiting physicians from assisting in interrogations.

“The new AMA policy goes a long way toward protecting the ethical commitments and integrity of all military medical personnel,” said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.

Also supporting the AMA’s position at the Chicago meeting were the surgeons general of the armed forces. Combined with the association’s swift rebuke of Winkenwerder’s statements, the opposition highlighted an apparent rift between medical professionals and civilian strategists in the war on terrorism at the Defense Department.

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“There may be a difference of opinion, or the surgeons general, who are responsible for carrying out the practices, are exercising their legitimate authority to interpret DoD policy as they see as ethical and responsible,” said Steve Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and physician. “In my view, Dr. Winkenwerder’s policy is open to interpretation, and the surgeons general have the responsibility to implement it according to their best judgment.”

Physicians for Human Rights strategist Nathaniel Raymond said the association’s guidance applied to all physicians, civilian or military, as it would become the standard that, if violated, would affect a doctor’s eligibility for state licensing.

Prison officials here are reviewing detention practices and standards, but with an eye to preventing detainees from having the ability to harm themselves, rather than addressing suicidal motivation.

Detention officers have swept the seven prison camps in contraband searches and imposed measures to hinder detainees’ ability to fashion nooses from their bedding or clothing.

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Sheets are now issued sheets only for the eight-hour period allotted for sleep, then collected in the morning. Special suicide blankets made of tightly woven, tear-resistant fabric also are being issued to prisoners on suicide watch as guards intensify their surveillance of the approximately 460 men in custody here.


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