SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, (AP) – A Saudi Arabian detainee died Wednesday at Guantanamo Bay prison and the U.S. military said he apparently committed suicide. Critics of the detention center said the death showed the level of desperation among prisoners.
Also Wednesday, a Canadian detainee fired his American attorneys, leaving him without defense counsel ahead of his trial, his former U.S. military attorney told The Associated Press. The detainee, Omar Khadr, is still to be arraigned and is one of only three of the roughly 380 Guantanamo prisoners to be charged with a crime.
The military did not identify the detainee who died or describe the manner of death. There are about 80 detainees from Saudi Arabia held at Guantanamo.
Guards at the U.S. Naval Base in southeast Cuba found the detainee unresponsive and not breathing in his cell Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. military’s Southern Command said in a statement.
“They tried to save his life but he was pronounced dead,” said Mario Alvarez, a Miami-based spokesman for the command.
Lawyer Julia Tarver Mason, whose firm represents eight Saudi detainees at Guantanamo, said she has tried so far without success to learn from the government if the apparent suicide was by one of her clients.
“They are in the care of the United States government and that should mean that deaths should not occur,” Mason said.
It would be the fourth suicide at Guantanamo since the prison camp opened in January 2002. On June 10, 2006, two Saudi detainees and one Yemeni hanged themselves with sheets.
A spokesman for detention operations, Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, declined to comment, referring questions to the Miami-based Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Defense attorneys said the death was likely an act of desperation at a prison camp where detainees are denied access to U.S. civilian courts and isolated in their cells for up to 22 hours a day.
“You have five and a half years of desperation there with no legal way out,” said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. “Sadly, it leads to people being so desperate they take their own lives.”
Marc Falkoff, who is part of a team of attorneys representing 17 men from Yemen, said the suicide should be expected given the conditions at Guantanamo.
“We’ve said all along that the guys are going to try to take their lives and that appears to be what happened here,” Falkoff said. “It’s just incredibly sad and it wouldn’t happen if these guys were just given their day in court.”
A cultural adviser was helping the military handle the remains. “The remains of the deceased detainee are being treated with the utmost respect,” the military said.
The death came as the U.S. military prepared to try Khadr and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni, in military tribunals set up by Congress after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a previous military trial system, calling it unconstitutional.
Their arraignment is scheduled to proceed Monday at Guantanamo as planned, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said late Wednesday.
Khadr was 15 when he was captured in a firefight with U.S. troops in Afghanistan during which he allegedly killed a U.S. Army special forces soldier with a grenade.
“He doesn’t trust American lawyers, and I don’t particularly blame him,” said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who was taken off the case Wednesday. “The United States is responsible for his interrogation, and his treatment under a process that is patently unfair.”
Vokey was excused as defense counsel by Col. Dwight Sullivan, chief defense counsel.
“I’m definitely disappointed,” Vokey said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I wanted to go the distance for Omar.”
Khadr is now represented by only two Canadian lawyers, who are known as foreign attorney consultants because they have not been cleared to be full-level attorneys, Vokey said. Under new rules for military tribunals adopted last year, the detainee is permitted to represent himself.
The apparent suicide Wednesday came despite the military’s best efforts.
The military tightened security at the prison camp following the previous suicides and an uprising last spring, removing access to light fixtures and other possible makeshift weapons and taking away bed sheets in the daytime.
About 380 men are held at the isolated prison camp on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Many have been held for five years.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is conducting an ongoing investigation into the three previous suicides.
The former commander of the detention facilities, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, described those suicides as acts of “asymmetric warfare” — an effort to increase condemnation of the prison.