WASHINGTON -- Three detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had tried to conceal themselves in their cells to prevent guards from seeing them commit suicide, an official said yesterday.
One prisoner hanged himself behind laundry drying from the ceiling of the cell and had arranged his bed to make it look as if he were still sleeping, according to Lt. Cmdr. Robert T. Durand. The other two detainees who committed suicide also took steps to prevent guards from seeing that they had put nooses around their necks, he added.
The deception by the prisoners raises questions about how long it took military guards to discover the suicides. Military officials said one focus of an investigation into the suicides would be the need for procedural changes, such as barring prisoners from doing laundry in their cells.
Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who oversees Guantanamo as head of the Southern Command, told reporters yesterday that the investigation into the deaths "kind of boils down to two things: Are the procedures that you have in place adequate, and then were the procedures followed to the standards?"
The Pentagon identified the three detainees as two Saudis, 30-year-old Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al-Habardi and 22-year-old Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, and a 33-year-old Yemeni named Ali Abdullah Ahmed.
White House officials described the men as committed terrorists, and military officials said that none of them had been among the handful of prisoners whose cases have been brought before military commissions for prosecution.
The Pentagon released a statement describing Ali Abdullah Ahmed, the Yemeni, as a "mid to high-level al-Qaida operative" who was close to Abu al-Zubaydah, a senior figure for al-Qaida who has been captured. The statement also said that Mani al-Habardi was a member of a terrorist group that recruits for al-Qaida and had been recommended for transfer to another country; presumably that would be Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said that Yasser al-Zahrani was "a frontline fighter for the Taliban."
"You can't have a final disposition about Guantanamo until the Supreme Court has ruled on the Hamdan case," said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, referring to a pending ruling on whether detainees at Guantanamo may be tried as war criminals before military commissions and whether they may challenge their detentions in federal courts.
Military officials said they had translated notes left by the prisoners, but the officials refused to describe the contents of the messages.
Speaking by telephone from the Saudi holy city of Medina, Talal Abdallah al-Zahrani, 50, the father of Yasser al-Zahrani, said that when he heard from his son in a recent letter, he sounded in good spirits and appeared to be more optimistic than before about being released soon.
"Nothing suggested that he would commit suicide, nothing," al-Zahrani said.
Craddock speculated that the suicides may have been timed to affect the Supreme Court decision on the Hamdan case.
The probe into how the three were able to hang themselves and whether changes in procedures are needed will be conducted by the prison commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris.
The inquiry will probably look at whether procedures requiring guards to observe prisoners at least every two minutes were followed the night of the suicides. Until now, prison officials have voiced confidence that the safeguards were adequate.
There have been recent signs of prisoner unrest, including an episode last month in which a prisoner was said to have faked a suicide to lure guards who responded into an ambush.