US Judge Orders Independent Psychiatric Assessment of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner Mohammed Al-Qahtani

13.3.20

Tortured Guantánamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, and US District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who has ordered the US government to allow independent psychiatrists to visit him at Guantánamo, to assess whether his long-standing mental health problems are so severe that he should be sent back to Saudi Arabia.

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In a breakthrough legal ruling, a US judge has ordered the government to allow a psychiatric assessment of a Guantánamo prisoner, involving not only US doctors, who have been allowed into the prison before, to make assessments of certain prisoners’ mental and  physical health, but also, for the first time, foreign doctors, the intention being, as Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times explained, “to determine whether he should be released from the prison” and “sent home for psychiatric care.”

The prisoner in question, Mohammed al-Qahtani, is well-known to seasoned Guantánamo watchers, as he is one of only two prisoners at Guantánamo to have been subjected to torture programs specifically approved for them (the other one being Mohamedou Ould Slahi). Al-Qahtani was regarded as the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and was subjected to what Carol Rosenberg described, accurately, as “two months of continuous, brutal interrogation”, by US soldiers, at the end of 2002 and the start of 2003. The torture took place in a wooden hut at Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray, after that facility — the prison’s first camp — had closed, and TIME magazine published the harrowing log of those torture sessions in 2006, which are available here.

What was not publicly known until long after al-Qahtani’s torture was that, as Carol Rosenberg put it, he “had a history of profound mental illness and psychiatric hospitalization in Saudi Arabia before he left in 2000 or 2001,” although this has been consistently ignored by the US authorities.

When al-Qahtani finally secured the support of someone in the US government, it was Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commission trial system at Guantánamo. Crawford’s job was to choose whether or not to press charges, and in al-Qahtani’s case, after he was put forward for a trial along with five men accused of involvement with the 9/11 attacks, she refused to press charges, admitting to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, just before George W. Bush left office, that she did so because al-Qahtani had been tortured.

“We tortured Qahtani,” Crawford told Woodward, adding, “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.” As she also explained, “[T]hat’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

This was the only admission, by a senior Bush administration official, that a prisoner had been subjected to torture, but although it removed al-Qahtani from the broken military commission trial system, his severe mental health problems continued to be ignored by the authorities, and when he was made eligible for the Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type review process under Barack Obama, panels of military and intelligence officials continued to ignore his mental health problems and to approve his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial because, the panel members claimed, “By consensus, continued law of war detention of the detainee remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The ruling in al-Qahtani’s case came last Friday, March 6, almost two years after it was first submitted, when I wrote about it in an article entitled, Lawyers for Guantánamo Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Urge Court to Enable Mental Health Assessment and Possible Repatriation to Saudi Arabia. As Carol Rosenberg described it, “Mr. Qahtani’s lawyers petitioned the court to order the Pentagon to treat him like a prisoner of war with Geneva Convention protections, as defined by a US Army regulation, to evaluate whether he was too ill to be held at Guantánamo,” while “Department of Justice lawyers opposed the request, saying that Guantánamo detainees were not covered by the Army regulation.”

As Rosenberg also explained, District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer’s 25-page opinion was “a departure from the court’s usual deference to the military” on medical issues  at Guantánamo, giving “foreign doctors a decisive say in determining, for the first time, whether to release a detainee” from the prison.

As Rosenberg proceeded to explain, “Judge Collyer wrote that she was granting a request” by al-Qahtani’s lawyers “to compel the United States to apply an Army regulation designed to protect prisoners of war and to create ‘a mixed medical commission’ made up of a medical officer from the U.S. Army and two doctors from a neutral country chosen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and approved by the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

As Rosenberg also stated, “In ordering the evaluation, Judge Collyer relied on a report from Dr. Emily A. Keram, an American psychiatrist who treats US veterans and who examined Mr. Qahtani at Guantánamo and some of his medical records in Saudi Arabia.” Her report noted that al-Qahtani “spent four or five days in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, after an ‘acute psychotic break’ and a suicide attempt in May 2000,” and she also noted that he “suffered a head injury in a car accident when he was a child and was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia.” As Rosenberg pt t, “One symptom included hallucinations; he spoke to nonexistent people before he left Saudi Arabia and after his arrival at Guantánamo.”

As Rosenberg also explained, “Central to Judge Collyer’s order was the contention by Mr. Qahtani’s lawyers that Guantánamo was not equipped to handle his psychiatric illnesses, and that he was entitled to repatriation to culturally appropriate mental health care under the prisoner-of-war provisions in the Army regulations.“ These provisions,” she noted, “give the board members access to both Mr. Qahtani and his clinical records,” adding, “Recommendations are made by a majority vote, and if repatriation is warranted, it must be done within three months of the decision.”

Judge Collyer also noted that “she agreed with the Justice Department that the use of the mixed medical commission was entering ‘uncharted territory’ and [was] ‘likely burdensome.’”

It is not known, at present, whether the US government will appeal Judge Collyer’s ruling. Rosenberg also noted that the government could send al-Qahtani “to Saudi Arabia for care in lieu of allowing the first-ever mixed medical commission to evaluate him.” Whatever the outcome, Ramzi Kassem, one of al-Qahtani’s lawyers, said that the need for his repatriation was “a matter of life and death,” adding, “We hope he can return to Saudi Arabia, where he will be given the psychiatric care and treatment he needs.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, about a historic US court ruling, in which District Judge Rosemary Collyer has ordered the US government to allow tortured Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, who has long-standing and profound mental health issues, to be assessed by “a mixed medical commission,” consisting of a US medical officer, and two doctors from a neutral country chosen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, to determine whether he should be returned to Saudi Arabia for treatment.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Mansoor Adayfi wrote:

    Thank you Andy on behalf of brother Mohammed al-Qahtani.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Mansoor. I have been living with Mohammed’s story for such a long time. It was 14 years ago – the same time I began working full-time on Guantanamo – that TIME magazine released the interrogation log of his torture, which had been leaked to them (I wonder who leaked it). This caused some serious consternation on its release, but, as I mention in my article, at the time none of us knew that Mohammed had profound mental health problems dating back to his youth in Saudi Arabia. The US authorities worked hard to keep that information hidden. It makes the torture even worse when you realize that those authorizing it must have already been in possession of information about al-Qahtani’s underlying – an profound – mental health problems.

    What I particularly discovered about al-Qahtani’s case at the time, which helped me when I was working on ‘The Guantanamo Files’, was that he, under torture, was the source of the ridiculous allegation that 30 Yemenis caught crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan – the so-called ‘Dirty Thirty’ – were bodyguards for Osam bin Laden, when they were mostly young and inexperienced, and some had only been in Afghanistan for a few months before 9/11 happened, whereas bin Laden’s actual bodyguards were battle-hardened, and many were Egyptians, via Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    It sounds like a chink of light is getting through this terrible deadlock caused by Trump’s blanket refusal to allow any more prisoners to leave. I guess it’s too soon to hope. Thanks for continuing to bring us news, Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Jessy. Thanks for your continued interest. I think it’s the sheer amount of time involved – over 18 years now, of course – plus Trump’s absolute refusal to engage with any complaints that is prompting increased indignation. I don’t want to sound foolishly optimistic, but I can only see the pressure increasing until something is actually done.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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