Lawyers critical of military response to Guantanamo suicides

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(Host) Vermont lawyers representing detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are criticizing the military’s response to the recent suicides there.

Last weekend, three detainees hanged themselves. The military commander of the base said it was an act of war.

But lawyers for the detainees say the open-ended nature of the detention adds to the psychological strain of captivity.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Three Vermont lawyers have volunteered to represent detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba.

The government suspects that many of the men are terrorists. But only about 10 of the 460 detainees have been formally charged. And there’s growing international pressure to close the prison camp.

(Rachlin) “The only thing that comes to mind to me is Franz Kafka’s novel “Der Prozess” – “The Trial”, which deals with an individual who finds himself required to come before a tribunal but has no idea what he’s been charged with.”

(Dillon) Burlington lawyer Robert Rachlin has made several trips to the base on behalf of his clients. He says the psychological strain on the prisoners is hard to imagine.

(Rachlin) “So what effect this has on their mental health is very difficult to say, and you can’t assume that everybody is going to react the same way. But undoubtedly there are a number of people there who have suffered mental and emotional problems purely from the fact of the confinement and particularly the fact that a) they don’t know when they’re ever going to be released and b) they don’t know what they’ve been charged with.”

(Dillon) The three detainees who hung themselves over the weekend left suicide notes, but the contents have not been released. The military commander of the Guantanamo base said the suicides were not a sign of desperation but were instead an act of war.

Rachlin said he found that statement peculiarly insensitive.

(Rachlin) “In addition, a government spokesman referred to it as a PR stunt, which seemed a remarkably obtuse way of viewing this.”

(Dillon) St. Johnsbury lawyer David Sleigh has also volunteered to defend detainees. Sleigh said the military’s response to the suicides overlooks the conditions of their confinement.

(Sleigh) “The military head of the base said in reaction to the recent suicides that these were acts of asymmetric warfare and discounted the fact that being held in these conditions would lead to despair and despondency beyond human description. I think that utterance is emblematic of an inhumanity that just exceeds anything I could imagine the U.S. doing.”

(Dillon) The military last weekend suspended upcoming hearings for Guantanamo detainees.

Attorney Rachlin said it’s likely that the government wants to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether the military tribunals are constitutional.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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