SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay has died of an apparent suicide, U.S. military officials said Tuesday. His is the fifth apparent suicide at the offshore U.S. prison, which President Obama hopes to close by January.
The Joint Task Force that runs the U.S. prison in Cuba said guards conducting a routine check found Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih unresponsive and not breathing in his cell Monday night.
In a statement issued from Miami, the U.S. military said the detainee was pronounced dead by a doctor after "extensive lifesaving measures had been exhausted."
The Yemeni prisoner, also known as Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al-Hanashi, had been held without charge at Guantanamo since February 2002, a month after the isolated U.S. base started taking prisoners. Military records show the alleged Taliban fighter was about 31.
The apparent suicide happened late Monday, but it was not revealed by the military until after a dozen journalists who were covering a military tribunal session left the base about midday Tuesday. A Defense Department official said the reason was that the Yemeni government had not yet been notified.
Medical records previously released by the military in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press showed that the prisoner's weight had dropped to about 86 pounds in December 2005 -- an indication that he may have joined a long-running hunger strike among prisoners. He weighed 124 pounds when he was first taken to Guantanamo in February 2002.
The military won't identify hunger strikers, citing privacy rules and a desire to keep detainees from trying to become martyrs.
Attorney David Remes identified the Yemeni as one of six inmates held in the prison's psychiatric ward along with his client, Adnan Latif. He said all the men in the ward had been force-fed a liquid nutrition mix through a tube inserted in their noses and down their throats.
"Salih was being force-fed in a restraint chair; the other six surviving inmates are being force-fed from bed," Remes said, adding that he didn't think the Yemeni had any legal representation until two lawyers arrived in February.
"They were due to see him for the first time in a couple of weeks," he said.
Remes said the death serves to refute a Pentagon report prepared for Obama saying Guantanamo's prison meets the standard for humane treatment laid out in the Geneva Conventions. The February report was written in response to Obama's order to close the prison within a year.
"Despite small improvements since President Obama took office, conditions there remain appalling," he said from Washington. "I hope this tragedy will prompt the president to take another look at the conditions at the prison, and focus his attention on the human consequences of his delay in closing [it]."
A prison spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, confirmed the detainee's apparent suicide but declined to discuss details or to say if any family members had been contacted. He could not immediately confirm the information that the prisoner was in the psychiatric ward.
DeWalt declined to say whether procedures have changed at the prison as a result of the apparent suicide. He only said al-Hanashi was being held in Camp Delta -- a prison complex behind tall fences and coils of razor wire.
Guantanamo critics said the death underscores the urgent need to close the U.S. prison as soon as possible.
"This kind of desperation is caused by the uncertainty of not knowing whether one will ever be released or even charged," said Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a rights group which has been fighting the detainees' detention, criticized the Obama administration for only having sent two detainees home in the past five months.
"Frustrations and disappointment at the base are running high because the hopes for change under the new administration were so great," the center said in a statement. "Every day that passes makes it more likely that more people will die in detention under President Obama's watch."
Obama has pledged to close the prison but maintain the controversial military tribunal system to try at least some Guantanamo detainees. Eleven detainees are facing charges, including five men accused of organizing the Sept. 11 attacks.
Scott Allen, senior medical officer for Physicians For Human Rights, an international medical group, said the apparent suicide was likely an act of desperation by the longtime detainee.
"Suicides are often a reflection of a detainee's sense of futility and helplessness in prolonged detention," Allen said during a telephone interview from Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military says the remains will be autopsied by a pathologist from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has launched an investigation to determine the cause and manner of the detainee's death.
The Joint Task Force said that the remains are being treated with "utmost respect."
A cultural adviser is assisting the Joint Task Force "to ensure that the remains are handled in a culturally sensitive and religiously appropriate manner," the JTF said.
An official with the Republic of Yemen's embassy in Washington was traveling Tuesday to Guantanamo and will ensure the remains are treated as dictated by Islamic custom, according to embassy spokesman Mohammed Albasha.
"This incident demonstrates the urgency of closing the detention facility," Albasha said in a statement released Tuesday evening.
U.S. authorities say Al-Hanashi traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 and allegedly admitted to fighting with the Taliban on the front lines. He lived in four different al-Qaida and Taliban-affiliated guest houses, and was captured at Mazar-e-Sharif following the uprising there, they said.
In court documents, al-Hanashi said he planned to go back to Yemen if released from Guantanamo. He said he hoped to get married and become a history or geography teacher.
Over the years, there have been many attempts at suicide at Guantanamo, though military officials have often characterized them as acts of "self-injurious behavior" intended to draw media attention.
A former detention center commander, Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, said three simultaneous suicides in June 2006 were "an act of asymmetrical warfare," in a comment that drew criticism from rights groups.