Lawyers for Guantánamo Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Urge Court to Enable Mental Health Assessment and Possible Repatriation to Saudi Arabia


Mohammed al-Qahtani, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011. Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


Last Thursday, lawyers for Mohammed al-Qahtani, the only prisoner at Guantánamo whose torture was admitted by a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, urged Judge Rosemary Collyer of the District Court in Washington, D.C. to order the government “to ask for his current condition to be formally examined by a mixed medical commission, a group of neutral doctors intended to evaluate prisoners of war for repatriation,” as Murtaza Hussain reported for the Intercept. He added that the commission “could potentially order the government to release him from custody and return him home to Saudi Arabia, based on their evaluation of his mental and physical state.”

A horrendous torture program, approved by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was developed for al-Qahtani after it was discovered that he was apparently intended to have been the 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. As Hussain stated, court documents from his case state that he was subject to “solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, extreme temperature and noise exposure, stress positions, forced nudity, body cavity searches, sexual assault and humiliation, beatings, strangling, threats of rendition, and water-boarding.” On two occasions he was hospitalized with a dangerously low heart rate. The log of that torture is here, and as Hussain also explained, “The torture that Qahtani experienced at Guantánamo also exacerbated serious pre-existing mental illnesses that he suffered as a youth in Saudi Arabia — conditions so severe that he was committed to a mental health facility there in 2000, at the age of 21.”

The high-level acknowledgement of al-Qahtani’s torture, mentioned above, came just before George W. Bush left office, when Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commission trial system at Guantánamo, told Bob Woodward, “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture.” She was explaining why she had refused to refer his case for prosecution.

Shayana Kadidal, Senior Managing Attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “Mr. Al Qahtani was already suffering from psychosis when he was brought to Guantánamo and systematically tortured. His psychosis casts serious doubt on all the government speculations that led them to torture him in the first place. He belongs in a psychiatric hospital in Saudi Arabia, not talking to the walls of a cell in Guantánamo.”

Another of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, a City University of New York law professor, said, “The government knew from very early in his detention that this man was manifesting serious psychiatric conditions. As early as 2002, a senior FBI official reported observing ‘behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma’ in Mr. Qahtani, like ‘talking to nonexistent people, reportedly hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end.’”

Kassem added, “That was before the worst phase of torture in US custody, which only compounded those conditions. Torture can make a sane person lose their mind, but for someone who had documented mental health issues going back to the age of 8, this treatment was even more harmful.”

Murtaza Hussain also explained that, in 2008, six year after the arrived at Guantánamo, al-Qahtani “attempted to kill himself after being informed that he may face charges that would carry the death penalty.”

Since the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped, he has “continued to be held in a state of legal limbo,” as Murtaza Hussain described it. In 2016, when he faced a Periodic Review Board, an Obama-era parole-type process, which ultimately upheld his ongoing imprisonment, I noted that his lawyers had recently “succeeded in getting an independent psychiatrist, Dr. Emily Keram, to be allowed to visit Guantánamo … to assess al-Qahtani, and what she found — evidence of severe mental health problems predating his capture, and that can only have been exacerbated by his torture in US hands — would seem to suggest that, if he is not to be prosecuted — if, indeed, he is mentally unfit to stand trial — then he should not continue to be held under the laws of war that the US draws on to justify holding prisoners without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and should be returned to his home country.”

Dr. Keram’s evaluation was also included in last week’s submission, which, as Hussain put it, “found that he exhibited symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia,” adding, “In addition to these conditions, Qahtani is reportedly afraid to sleep due to a fear of ‘ghosts,’ a fear which is consistent with the phenomenon of post-traumatic nightmares.”

The medical evaluation also noted that “Mr. al Qahtani’s symptoms of PTSD and schizophrenia are chronic and are worsening,” adding that “these symptoms will therefore continue beyond one year, will probably continue to worsen, and will be present throughout his lifetime.”

No high-level official has been held accountable for the use of torture by US forces since 9/11, even though, in December 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released what Hussain described as “a landmark report about CIA torture that documented the systematic torture of terrorism suspects in agency custody.” He largely blamed Barack Obama’s decision “not to conduct backward-looking prosecutions” for the failure to hold anyone accountable, and with reference to the nomination as CIA director of Gina Haspel, who oversaw a CIA “black site” in 2002, he adds, “This failure to provide legal accountability — even in cases like Qahtani’s, in which U.S. officials acknowledged the torture — has since opened the door for Bush-era officials who authorized torture to return to government service at even higher levels under President Donald Trump.”

Ramzi Kassem told Hussain, “President Obama admitted in 2014 that the US government had ‘tortured some folks,’ but he never named names. So we had a crime but no officially acknowledged victims and, crucially, no identified perpetrators held to account. Mr. Qahtani is therefore the only person in the entire so-called U.S. war on terror who the government has publicly admitted torturing. Repatriating Mr. Qahtani to be committed and treated in a Saudi psychiatric facility would be in everyone’s interest. The United States cannot viably prosecute a man it has admitted torturing, nor can it treat him.”

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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six 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 a new 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 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.

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

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at efforts by lawyers for Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani to get a judge to order the government “to ask for his current condition to be formally examined by a mixed medical commission, a group of neutral doctors intended to evaluate prisoners of war for repatriation,” as Murtaza Hussain reported for the Intercept. The commission “could potentially order the government to release him from custody and return him home to Saudi Arabia, based on their evaluation of his mental and physical state.”
    The specific torture program for al-Qahtani, based on an assessment that he was the intended 20th hijacker for 9/11, was horrendous, and is the only case in which a senior government official (Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commissions under George W. Bush) admitted that the US had tortured a prisoner in its custody in the “war on terror.” It has been well established over the years that al-Qahtani suffers from PTSD and schizophrenia, and that he had severe mental health issues before his capture by US, which can only have been made worse by his treatment in US custody.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    It shouldn’t but still amazes me how these people got away with torturing men like Mohammed … and how can they still keep him like that! The information I’ve read about him by you is heartbreaking.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I think what’s saddest is that he was unwell long before he ended up in US custody, Natalia. And while I can’t categorically say that he was intended to be a 9/11 hijacker – one of the “muscle”, not the “brains” – I’m reminded of how, by sinking to torture, the US lost the opportunity to take the moral ground. The position should have been: look at these cowards who manipulate young men with mental health issue into being suicide bombers, but the US completely threw away the opportunity to take that position.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy yes, they tortured a mentally ill man … I can’t possibly understand how he endured the torture he was exposed to and manages to stay alive.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And all of this damage that Trump just wants to keep going forever, Natalia. What a shame.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan McLucas wrote:

    Indeed! Let’s all hope the court case goes well, for once. It would be so wonderful if he can get out.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Susan. So this case makes me think that one of the most horrible things about Guantanamo is how people are stuck there, metaphorically in some medieval dungeon, awaiting the whim of the king (president) as their only way out. I don’t know what al-Qahtani is like as a person. He may be unpleasant, because not everyone held at Guantanamo has been a nice person, but he doesn’t appear to have committed any crime against the US, and he clearly also has mental health issues, at least in part because of what the US did to him, and yet the default situation for Guantanamo prisoners is that they rot in Guantanamo forever unless the king (president) deigns otherwise. Imagine if the prisoners were US citizens, held for decade after decade without charge or trial and only released at the whim of the dictator holding them. Imagine the outrage!
    If the prisoners were prisoners of war, we’d surely have been able to ask by now if the war they’re held in connection with really can go on forever, and if they had been put on trial for crimes, al-Qahtani would probably have agreed to a plea deal involving “material support” and may well have got 15 years. But as it stands, he could die at Guantanamo, many decades from now.
    Unfortunately, I don’t know if the judge can order an assessment for al-Qahtani, as the independent medical commission his lawyers are asking for is only intended to evaluate prisoners of war. That may derail the judge, but even if she does have the power to order an evaluation, there’s nothing to make Trump act on its findings. It’s such a disgraceful situation.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    It’s horrible

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Aleksey.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    Thank you for persisting in helping these victims of terrible abuse….

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    And thank you for caring, Geraldine!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    I think the courts are the only recourse left for the men remaining in Guantanamo. Trump is terrified of Muslims and particularly of Gitmo prisoners. Al Qahtani’s torture was one of the worst instances of the thorough dehumanization of these detainees ever documented. The torture almost killed him and is one of the worst things the US ever did to a prisoner.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, I think you’re right, Mary – not to belittle the courts, but honestly, Guantanamo is such a betrayal of any notion that the US stands for the rule of law that everyone should have been clamoring to close it down for the last 16 years – Congress, the mainstream media and the American people. That hasn’t happened, of course, and the only time justice ever reached Guantanamo was via the courts. The law first pierced Guantanamo’s lawless walls in 2004, after Rasul v. Bush, when lawyers finally got access to the prisoners via the Supreme Court, and again in 2008, when the Supreme Court overturned the obstacles that Congress had again raised after Rasul. For two years, judges then reviewed the government’s alleged evidence against the prisoners, ordering several dozen to be released, until politically motivated judges in the court of appeals shut down the habeas process by rewriting the rules in the government’s favor, in numerous rulings between 2009 and 2011. Since then the Supreme Court had repeatedly refused to re-examine the rules governing post-9/11 detention, so yes, I think it really is time for lawyers and judges to take a lead again!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    The saddest thing to come out of it was the realization that in fact, there is no law. Presidents can pretty much ignore precedent, which is what Bush did in declaring that the laws do not apply to non-citizens and that terrorists are enemy combatants, but because they do not belong to a formal army from any country, the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus are not applicable to them. This is why hawkish politicians want conservative judges – to promote their fear-filled agendas. How do we protect people if the laws are not enforced?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, your last line is key, Mary – “How do we protect people if the laws are not enforced?”

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    Andy, with every administration the matter of Guantanamo is revisited, yet no one has been able to close this place because the laws that obstensibly protect us all against such barbaric practices as indefinite detention without charge – part of our Bill of Rights – are proven to be only as strong as the ability of a person to pay big money for legal representation.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    And I think, in the end, Mary, we have been let down by the quality of our presidents, lawmakers, judges and journalists. The Supreme Court shouldn’t have allowed imprisonment until the end of hostilities in Hamdi v Rumsfeld (also in 2004, like Rasul v Bush), as a weird parallel world to that of the Geneva Conventions, Obama should have shut it, lawmakers shouldn’t, as a class, be so extraordinarily unless, and broadcasters and newspaper editors should also have done more.

  18. The News And Times Blogs Network – 1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (87 sites): Eurasia Review: Will Mohammed Al-Qahtani's Severe Mental Illness Secure His Release From Guantánamo? – OpEd | News-Lynx - says...

    […] wrote about that court submission here, and followed up in March this year, when, prior to her retirement, Judge Collyer ruled on the […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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