More than twenty detainees in the Guantanamo Bay prison have attempted suicide and UN investigators continue to press for visits at the prison camp despite refusals from the Bush administration. We speak with lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, who recently witnessed a client’s suicide attempt during a visit, about the ongoing desperation of prisoners and the military’s reporting of the events.
The Bush administration has decided not to allow human rights investigators from the United Nations to meet with any detainees being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. For three years, UN investigators have been trying to visit the prison camp. A breakthrough appeared to have occurred last week when the Pentagon invited three UN experts to visit Guantanamo, but the invitation was on the condition that they had no access to the detainees. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, said it now makes no sense to send UN experts to Guantanamo under these conditions. He said, “They said they have nothing to hide. If they have nothing to hide, why should we not be able to talk to detainees in private?”
Until now, the detainees have been largely held incommunicado from the outside world with the exception of occasional visits by attorneys. We speak with one of these attorneys — Joshua Colangelo-Bryan. He represents six men from Bahrain who have been held without charges at Guantanamo. Two weeks ago, he witnessed one of his clients, Jumah Dossari trying to commit suicide. More than twenty other detainees have also tried to commit suicide, but according to the Washington Post, this is believed to be the first such event witnessed by an outsider at the prison. Lawyers and human rights advocates say this highlights the growing desperation among the more than 500 detainees there.
* Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, lawyer for Guantanamo Bay detainees
AMY GOODMAN: We reached Joshua Colangelo-Bryan Tuesday in Ecuador. I asked him to explain who his clients are and what he saw when he visited them.
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: My law firm has represented six citizens of Bahrain who have been detained at Guantanamo for the past several years. We initiated our representation in the summer of 2004 and since then have been down to Guantanamo a number of times to meet with our clients. In October of this year, I was at Guantanamo visiting with each of our six clients, including Jumah al-Dossari. Jumah is a 32-year-old divorced father of a ten-year-old daughter. He is generally a very affable person, very personable. We have quite informal conversations about a range of subjects and certainly have developed a certain understanding and closeness over the course of my visits.
On October 15th in the afternoon, I was meeting with him when he needed to use the bathroom, and without describing in elaborate detail the procedures at Guantanamo, that requires my calling M.P.s to come and move him from our meeting area to a small adjacent cell where there’s a toilet. The M.P.s arrived. I left the room. Several minutes later, the M.P.s came out after having moved Jumah into the cell. After a few moments, I decided that I should check and see whether he was finished, so that I could come in and speak with him again.
I opened the door to the room that houses both the meeting area and the cell. The first thing I saw was a pool of blood on the floor, and strangely in that first moment, my initial thought was that he had made himself vomit blood because this is a symptom that he has complained about, and I had the strange thought that maybe he was trying to convince me that it was a genuine symptom and not something that he had made up. A second later, I looked towards the area of the cell, however, and saw Jumah hanging by his neck from the top of a mesh metal wall that encloses the cell. He also had what appeared to be a very serious gash on the inside of his right arm, which was causing him to bleed on himself and also on the floor.
I immediately yelled for M.P.s, who arrived quickly. I called Jumah’s name several times, but he did not respond, and as best I could tell, appeared to be unconscious. The M.P.s arrived, cut him down from the noose that was holding him and put him on the floor. Still didn’t seem that he was conscious, and I also didn’t see him bleeding at all. Within a moment or so, I was asked to leave the room, or ordered to leave the room might be more accurate, and as I did I saw Jumah seeming to gasp, which at least struck me as a good sign.
I have been told that he was taken for surgery on his arm, and that the surgery was successful and that he is recovering from it. I was not allowed to see him again during that visit, and all of my requests for information about Jumah’s condition over the past week-and-a-half have been completely ignored. So, at the moment, I don’t have any idea of how he is and what his condition is. My request to return to Guantanamo for a visit next week have not been approved, either. So at this point, the military is not providing me with any information about his health, and is not permitting me to go see him. For that reason, I will be going to the court shortly to ask for that and also related relief , relief that we hope will ease the conditions that we believe clearly have led him to be in a suicidal space.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you have any indication before that your client, that Jumah would try to commit suicide?
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: Jumah has tried to commit suicide several times while in Guantanamo. One of his suicide attempts, in fact, was described in a book by Erik Saar, who I know has appeared on your program and who was a former military intelligence soldier at Guantanamo. In his book, Saar described being called to the scene of a suicide attempt, where he was asked to read writing in blood on the wall of a shower where the suicide attempt occurred, and that writing said, “I committed suicide because of the brutality of my oppressors.” That was my client, Jumah. And he, in fact, described that incident to me about six months before the book came out. So, it was certainly quite chilling to read the book describing the same event.
There have been other suicide attempts, as well. The problem is that the military’s response to those suicide attempts has been to keep Jumah in virtual isolation for nearly two years. At this point, he is held in a cell from which he can see no other human beings. He is held in a cell from which he can occasionally communicate with another detainee by shouting, but frequently cannot. He is permitted approximately an hour of exercise a week, and he is at this point not even permitted to have books other than the Koran.
Based on my understanding of his conditions, there’s really no surprise that he has attempted to commit suicide again. That having been said, there was no indication during my meeting with him that a suicide attempt would be – might be forthcoming immediately. In fact, as I was leaving the room to allow him to be moved into the cell, we shared a quick joke. So, I certainly had no inkling that something like that was about to occur, but it’s not surprising in light of how he has been treated for the past two years, in particular.
AMY GOODMAN: What is Jumah charged with?
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: Jumah, like all 750 detainees or so who have passed through Guantanamo, with the exception of four, is not charged with anything. He notably is not even accused of having been involved in any violence. What the government says is that he was, quote, “present at Tora Bora,” close quote. The government does not say when he was at Tora Bora. It does not say what he was doing, if anything, at Tora Bora. It doesn’t say with whom, if anyone, he was at Tora Bora. So, we are left utterly guessing as to what the true nature of the allegations against him are. I have to note that we have other clients in very similar circumstances against whom, in fact, there are allegations that I would describe as even more minimal.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the other detainees who have made suicide attempts? Are there others that you know of? What is being done about them?
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: The military has issued periodic reports about suicide attempts, although at times it has chosen to refer to those attempts as self-injurious manipulative behavior or something to that effect. I don’t have any personal knowledge about those other attempts. I would certainly have some question about the military’s figures, given that there’s no independent means to verify them.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the hunger strike? Has he been a part of that, and do you know how many prisoners are a part of that?
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: Jumah took part in several hunger strikes that occurred in years past and also a hunger strike that occurred in June and July of this year. Again, the only numbers we have for overall numbers of detainees participating in the hunger strike come from the military, and we have no means to verify them independently. I do see a commonality between those engaging in hunger strikes and those attempting to commit suicide. We have men who have been held for four years without charge, often not even accused of violence; they have been subjected to a range of abuses corroborated by U.S. personnel. They have been prevented from speaking with their families, and they have been told, in many instances, that they will be in Guantanamo for the rest of their lives. As I see it, these men are exercising what they believe is the only form of control over their own lives that they’re able to, so while it was certainly a shocking sight for me to witness, I can’t say that it’s particularly surprising when you consider Guantanamo as a whole.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you to respond quickly to Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Martin, spokesperson for the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, who said claims hunger strikers are near death is absolutely false. He said that the protests that began on August 8, at one point had over 130 participants, is now much smaller. He said, quote, “This technique, hunger striking, is consistent with the al Qaeda training and reflects the detainees’ attempt to elicit media attention and bring pressure on the United States government.”
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: The military has said that it treats all detainees humanely, yet military personnel at Guantanamo have reported their own firsthand observations very much to the contrary. The U.S. government position is that the men at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst, yet they have released nearly 250 of them. In light of those obviously inaccurate statements, I take anything that the military says with a grain of salt. I have one client who, when I visited him in October, had a feeding tube inserted in his nose, and I would estimate has lost 40 to 50 pounds since the time that I had seen him previously. Whether or not you want to characterize that as being perilously close to death, you know, is certainly up to the individual making the characterization, but there’s no disputing the fact that his health has suffered tremendously and that there’s — it’s the direct result of his engaging in the hunger strike.
AMY GOODMAN: I know you have to go, but I just wanted to ask you about the three U.N. human rights experts who have rejected an invitation to tour Guantanamo until the U.S. government backs down from its refusal to let them meet with detainees in private. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, said, quote, “They said they have nothing to hide. If they have nothing to hide, why should we not be able to talk to the detainees in private?” How significant is this? Why is it so important that they speak to them privately?
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: I met with those individuals last week and was convinced of their sincerity in wanting to find out what’s happening in Guantanamo. Certainly, a prepackaged publicity tour where people are led around to various facilities and shown sample meals but never get to speak with detainees is in my mind an exercise without any value, if you are trying to figure out what exactly is happening at Guantanamo. In order to do that, you need to go to the source, and by that, I mean the people who are being held there and also the U.S. personnel, military, F.B.I. agents, who have worked at Guantanamo and who have reported, themselves, horrific abuse.
AMY GOODMAN: In your experience now, as we wrap up, having been through what you have with your client, what are your thoughts, and have you experienced anything like this in your practice, in your career as a lawyer?
JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN: I have done post-conflict humanitarian aid work. I have worked on war crimes trials. But I have certainly never seen anything like I did when I walked into that cell on October 15. To me, it underscores the truly desperate nature of the situation at Guantanamo. The desperate need for the rule of law and the fact that, I believe, that the people being held at Guantanamo may well repeat this sort of act in the future, if things are not changed and changed quite drastically.
AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Colangelo-Bryan is the attorney for detainees at Guantanamo. We reached him in Ecuador.