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Skirmish With Guards, Two Suicide Attempts Test Guantanamo Procedures

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2006 – A bogus suicide attempt yesterday lured guards into a 10-man detainee bay where an attack awaited them, the admiral in charge of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, told reporters today. Two other detainees had attempted suicide earlier in the day.

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One barrack room in Camp 4, the medium-security facility within Camp Delta at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In Camp 4, highly compliant detainees live in a communal setting and have extensive access to recreation. Photo by Sgt. Sara Wood, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The large skirmish in Camp 4, the only medium-security facility at Guantanamo Bay, began around 6:30 p.m. when guards were searching all cells in response to earlier incidents in other camps.

Compliant detainees in Camp 4 live in communal bays and have more privileges and more recreation time than those in other camps at Guantanamo. They are "assigned to the camp when they have demonstrated continued compliance with camp rules," Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, said via telephone from Guantanamo Bay.

However, he added, officials "consider this to be the most dangerous camp, because detainees have the opportunity to plan and act out in groups."

A quick-reaction force of 10 guards responded when a detainee was seen hanging sheets from the ceiling and making as if to hang himself. Harris explained that guards are taught to respond to save the detainee's life but also to consider the possibility that such a gesture is intended to lure guards into a cell.

"Because of the dangerous nature of the men in our custody, we train for the possibility that a suicide attempt may be used by the detainees to create an opportunity to conduct an assault, take a hostage, or kill the guards," he said. "In fact, that was exactly what was going on last night."

When guards entered the bay to prevent the detainee from hanging himself, the 10 detainees in that bay attacked them. Harris said the detainees had "slickened the floor in their block with feces, urine and soapy water in an attempt to trip the guards." They then attacked the guards with broken light fixtures, fan blades and "bits of metal."

Harris and Army Col. Mike Bumgarner, commander of the Joint Detention Group, explained that the guards used a "continuum of force" to quell the disturbance. Continuum of force is a law-enforcement term used to explain that guards or officers start with the lowest level of force and escalate until they reach the appropriate level of force for the situation at hand.

In this case, guards started with verbal commands to cease the actions, then quickly moved to using pepper spray. Within a matter of minutes they progressed to physical force and finally to using nonlethal weapons, which allowed the guards to end the skirmish within five minutes of the guards entering the bay.

Officials did not call for the use of nonlethal crowd-control measures until two guards were on the ground after detainees jumped on them from the beds and leaders determined their lives could be at risk, Bumgarner said.

Guards fired five .12-guage shotgun rounds with rubber pellets and one "sponge-type grenade" from an M-203 grenade launcher.

The detainees who started the disturbance were then moved to a maximum-security facility after being examined by medical personnel, Harris said.

While authorities worked to end the fighting in the first bay, detainees in two other bays began acting out by damaging their accommodations, destroying fans, light fixtures and security cameras. Guards used pepper spray in these bays as well. Guards also had to enter one bay to evacuate a detainee who complained of severe chest pains.

Bumgarner said officials have estimated the property damage at $110,000, most of that cost from the security cameras in the bays.

Officials later determined the initial act was not a legitimate suicide attempt but a ruse to get guards into the bay. In all, six detainees were treated for minor injuries, and no servicemembers were injured beyond scrapes and bruises, Bumgarner said.

Guards first responded to a medical emergency in Camp 1, a maximum-security facility within Camp Delta, early yesterday when a detainee was discovered unconscious after missing morning prayer, Harris said.

Later, around noon, a second detainee complained of dizziness and nausea after taking five pills.

"Not knowing if this was another suicide attempt, we locked down the camps and began a total search of each cell, realizing that this process would take several hours," Harris said.

In the end, officials determined that this second detainee had not attempted suicide but was having a reaction to medication prescribed to him for latent tuberculosis. That individual is fine now, Harris said.

Shortly thereafter, guards found a stash of drugs hidden in a detainee's toilet. Minutes after this, guards found another detainee frothing at the mouth when they arrived to search his cell. Harris said this was another suicide attempt.

Both individuals are being treated at the Guantanamo naval hospital, where they are in stable condition but were still unconscious this afternoon, Harris said. Officials determined the men had ingested "large quantities of the benzodiazepine family of drugs." This type of drug is commonly used to treat anxiety or insomnia.

Harris said neither of the men was prescribed the medication they took. Officials theorize that several detainees surreptitiously hoarded their prescribed medication for an unknown period of time to pass to these "two jihadists who ... either they wanted to be the suicides or they were told to be the suicides."

Medical personnel at Guantanamo Bay dispense about 1,000 pills a day to 200 to 300 detainees, Harris said. "That's a very difficult thing to track," he said. "The guard force and the medical staff do their best to ensure that the detainees are not squirreling away meds, but when you're dispensing that quantity of meds to that quantity of detainees, some get by us."

Two other detainees also complained of nausea and dizziness, and one of them stated that he had tried to kill himself but didn't have enough drugs. Medical officials believe these two are "attention-seeking sympathizers," but were not seriously trying to kill themselves.

Since detainees were first brought to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, no detainee has died at the facility. Including yesterday's attempts, there have been 41 suicide attempts from a total of 25 detainees, Harris said. About 750 detainees have been through the base, and about 460 currently are held there.

In his comments to the press today, Harris said the guards performed "magnificently yesterday, showing remarkable restraint in the face of considerable danger."

"They were, in fact, heroic," he added. "The young men and women here are doing a magnificent job, and I'm proud of each of them."

He also praised the medical staff involved and credited them with saving the lives of the two detainees who attempted suicide.

Harris said officials believe the detainees were seeking attention by causing the disturbance in Camp 4. "This is a way to bring attention to their position and the fact that they are continuing to wage war against America and our allies, and they are doing what they can to further their ideals."

Defense officials have continually stressed that detainees are not held at Guantanamo Bay to punish or attempt to reform them, but to keep them off the battlefield in the war on terrorism.

"This illustrates to me the true nature of the men we have detained here," Harris said today. "They are dangerous men and committed jihadists who will do whatever it takes to kill an American here, even killing themselves to get to that point."

Contact Author

Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., USN

Related Sites:
Joint Task Force Guantanamo
Web Special Report: Guantanamo Bay

Click photo for screen-resolution imageA basketball court stands in the center of Camp 4, the medium-security camp within Camp Delta at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This camp also has a volleyball court and large recreation areas for the detainees. Photo by Sgt. Sara Wood, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDetainees walk around an exercise yard in Camp 4, the medium-security facility within Camp Delta at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In Camp 4, highly compliant detainees live in a communal setting and have extensive access to recreation. Photo by Sgt. Sara Wood, USA  
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