Uprising at Guantanamo as 'armed' inmates attack guards

The much-criticised US jail at Guantanamo Bay experienced unprecedented disturbance this week, including four attempted suicides by detainees in a single day and an impromptu uprising by inmates against guards.

Prisoners armed with fans, light fixtures and other improvised weapons fought guards who were trying to prevent another prisoner from hanging himself on Thursday - the fourth suicide bid that day, the Pentagon said yesterday.

The fracas took place in a medium-security section of the camp. Detainees struck guards as they entered a communal living area or dorm housing some 10 inmates, where the man was trying to hang himself. Earlier, three detainees in another part of the prison attempted suicide by swallowing prescription medicine they had been hoarding, a spokesman said.

The revolt appears to have been quickly quelled, and the prisoners involved were transferred to higher-security sections of the prison, where some 470 suspected members of al-Qa'ida and the Taliban in all are being held. Those who attempted suicide received medical treatment, the military said. Their names were not released.

The incidents occurred on the day that 15 Saudi detainees were transferred home to their country, and hours before a UN committee issued a scathing report urging Washington to close the prison.

Almost from its opening in early 2002, Guantanamo has been a source of controversy. In addition to 39 attempted suicides, it has witnessed prolonged hunger strikes, which guards have countered by strapping strikers into restraining chairs and force feeding them, according to lawyers.

Inmates' attorneys, human rights groups and released prisoners have also given graphic descriptions of torture, both physical and psychological. Some prisoners, devout Muslims, are said to have been sexually humiliated by female guards. Other guards are said to have deliberately desecrated the Koran in front of prisoners.

The latest report, by the UN Committee Against Torture, joins a host of critics - among them Lord Goldsmith, the British Attorney General, who this month called the prison "unacceptable" and "a symbol of injustice" - in recommending that it simply be shut down.

The 10-man UN panel of independent experts expressed strong concern that detainees were being held for protracted periods on an open-ended basis, with inadequate legal safeguards, and without court assessment of whether their imprisonment was even justified. "The state party should cease to detain any person at Guantanamo Bay and close the detention facility," the report said.

Yesterday, the White House noted that President George Bush himself said earlier this month he would like to close Guantanamo, but that he was waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on whether inmates could face military tribunals.

In the meantime, "everything that is done in terms of questioning detainees is fully within the boundaries of American law," Tony Snow, Mr Bush's spokesman, told reporters. Washington also argues that it cannot release some detainees because there is nowhere to send them where their safety can be guaranteed.

A harsher reaction came from John Bellinger, the State Department's legal adviser, who led Washington's delegation to the UN Committee's hearings earlier this month. The panel, he said, seemed not to have read a lot of the information he had supplied - or ignored it. The report contained "a number of both factual inaccuracies and legal misstatements." The Committee also dwelt on allegations that the United States has established secret prisons, where the International Red Cross does not have access to the detainees. The report does not flatly state that such prisons exist, but urged the US to make sure that "no-one is detained in any secret detention facility under its de facto control."

Washington is instructed to cease all forms of torture committed by military or civilian personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and other prisons it operates, and to investigate allegations thoroughly, prosecuting those found guilty.

The report demands the outlawing of other notorious practices including "water boarding" and "short shackling", as well as the use of dogs to terrify detainees. Water boarding is a technique in which a subject is made to think he is drowning. Short shackling involves shackling a detainee to a hook in the floor to limit movement. The US routinely denies the use of torture, but Mr Bush himself has left no doubt that for him the priority is protecting national security, whatever that takes.