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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prisoners Recollect Guantanamo Bay

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghans and Pakistanis who were detained for many months by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba before being released without charges are describing the conditions as so desperate that some captives tried to kill themselves.

According to accounts in the last three months from some of the 32 Afghans and three Pakistanis in the weeks since their release, it was above all the uncertainty of their fate, combined with confinement in very small cells, sometimes only with Arabic speakers, that caused inmates to attempt suicide. One Pakistani interviewed this month said he tried to kill himself four times in 18 months.

An Afghan prisoner who spent 14 months at the camp, at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, described in April what he called the uncertainty and fear. "Some were saying this is a prison for 150 years," said Suleiman Shah, 30, a former Taliban fighter from Afghanistan's Kandahar region.

None of those interviewed complained of physical mistreatment. But the men said that for the first months, they were kept in small wire-mesh cells, about 2 meters by 2 1/2 meters, in blocks of 10 or 20. The cells were covered by a wooden roof, but exposed at the sides.

"We slept, ate, prayed and went to the toilet in that small space," Shah said. Each man had two blankets and a prayer mat and slept and ate on the ground, he said.

The prisoners were taken out only once a week for a one-minute shower. "After 4 1/2 months we complained and people stopped eating, so they said we could shower for five minutes and exercise once a week," Shah said. After that, he said, prisoners got to exercise for 10 minutes a week, walking inside a cage 10 meters long.

In interviews at their homes, weeks after being released, he and the freed Pakistani detainee talked of what they said was the overwhelming feeling of injustice among the approximately 680 men detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay.

"I was trying to kill myself," said Shah Muhammad, 20, a Pakistani who was captured in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, handed over to U.S. soldiers and flown to Guantanamo in January 2002. "It is against Islam to commit suicide, but it was very difficult to live there. A lot of people did it. They treated me as guilty, but I was innocent."

In the 18 months since the detention camp opened, there have been 28 suicide attempts by 18 individuals, with most of those attempts made this year, Captain Warren Neary, a spokesman at the detention camp, said Monday. None of the prisoners have killed themselves, but one man has suffered severe brain damage, according to his lawyer.

The prisoners come from more than 40 countries, and include more than 50 Pakistanis, about 150 Saudis and three teenagers under 16, a majority of them captured in Afghanistan, said Dr. Najeef bin Mohamad Ahmed al-Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, who is representing nearly 100 of the detainees.

Since January 2002, at least 32 Afghan prisoners and three Pakistanis have been released from Guantanamo Bay. Five Saudis were recently handed over to the Saudi authorities. Yasser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi, was moved from the camp to a military brig in Norfolk, Virginia, in April 2002. Neary said 41 people had been released in all.

At the same time, the military is preparing to place about 10 of the prisoners before a military tribunal soon, officials said this month.

"At the beginning it was very hard to bear. There was no call to prayer, and there was no shade. In the afternoon the sun came in from the side," said Muhammad, who spent 18 months in Cuba before his release.

Under the current routine, most prisoners remain in their cells but for two 15-minute periods a week, in which they walk around the cage and take a shower. In addition, the call to prayer is played over the prison's loudspeakers five times a day, according to Youseff Yee, the Muslim chaplain who oversees the religious needs of the prisoners.

Conditions improved after the first few months, and prisoners were moved to newly built cells with running water and a bed, Shah said. Interrogation was sporadic and it varied in length and intensity. Sometimes they were questioned after 10 days, or 20 days and then not for several months.

But it was the uncertainty that they would be there forever that drove many of them to despair, prisoners said.

One Taliban fighter from the southern province of Helmand, who only uses one name, Rustam, said in May that he was driven to trying to hang himself because he was in a block of Arabs and Uzbeks he described as "crazy." When he tried to hang himself, Rustam said, the guards found him.

Muhammad, one of three Pakistani prisoners released at the end of April, said he first tried to hang himself because for months on end he was surrounded by Arabs and could not speak their language.

Back home with time to ponder their ordeal, the former prisoners now want to demand compensation.

"The Americans said if anyone is innocent, they will get compensation," Muhammad said. "They held me for 18 months, and so they should give me compensation."

No charges have yet been brought against any of the detainees, some of whom have been there for 18 months. Concerned about their prolonged detention without trial or clear legal status, the head of the International Red Cross, which visits the detainees, urged the United States last month to start legal proceedings for the hundreds of detainees and to institute a number of changes in conditions at the camp.

Commander Brian Grady, the staff psychiatrist at the camp's medical facility, said in a recent interview that most prisoners suffering from depression brought their symptoms with them to Cuba. Guantanamo officials have generally dismissed the notion that the confinement and uncertainty are specifically to blame.

But Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview that that was highly implausible.