Mohammed Al-Qahtani: Will Severe Mental Illness Secure His Release from Guantánamo?


Guantánamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is seeking release from the prison because of severe mental health issues that cannot be adequately addressed by Guantánamo staff. The text accompanying the photo describes his current mental state.

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For anyone seeking a single story that is emblematic of the horrors of Guantánamo, the story of Mohammed al-Qahtani ought to be instructive.

One of hundreds of prisoners seized in the chaos of Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in October 2001 and sent to Guantánamo after brutal treatment in US prisons in Afghanistan, al-Qahtani finally came to the attention of the US authorities in Guantánamo when it was assessed that he was the same man who had tried and failed to enter the US before the 9/11 attacks, and was presumed to have been intended to be the 20th hijacker.

He was then subjected to a horrible torture program, personally approved by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which lasted for several months in late 2002, and which, as Murtaza Hussain explained for the Intercept in April 2018, involved him being subjected 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 al-Qahtani’s torture is here, and it led to the only time in Guantánamo’s history when a senior government official acknowledged that a prisoner had been tortured. “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture,” Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commission trial system at Guantánamo, told Bob Woodward just before George W. Bush left office, explaining why she had refused to refer his case for prosecution.

What no one discussed at the time — although US officials knew — was that al-Qahtani was also mentally ill. As one of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York, said, “The government knew from very early in his detention that this man was manifesting serious psychiatric conditions. As early as 2002 [before his torture], 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.’”

When al-Qahtani was eventually allowed to meet a lawyer (after the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in June 2004), the lawyers discovered that he had “documented mental health issues going back to the age of 8,” as Kassem explained, and that he had been committed to a mental health facility in Saudi Arabia in 2000.

The Intercept’s report coincided with a submission by his lawyers to the District Court in Washington, D.C., in which they sought to get the judge, Rosemary Collyer, 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.”

I wrote about that court submission here, and followed up in March this year, when, prior to her retirement, Judge Collyer ruled on the case, ordering the mixed medical commission to go ahead. Her ruling, as Carol Rosenberg explained for the New York Times, involved her spelling out 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 US 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.”

In August, Judge Ellen Huvelle, who was assigned the case after Judge Collyer’s retirement, reiterated the court’s commitment to securing a mixed medical commission for al-Qahtani, after the government appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court, and on September 29 the appeals court dealt another blow to the government, refusing to accept the government’s efforts to delay the ruling.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights explained in a press release, Ramzi Kassem said, “Mohammed al-Qahtani was already gravely mentally ill when he was taken into US custody and tortured. None of this is seriously disputed by the government so we hope that today’s ruling sends a message that it is high time for Mohammed’s ordeal to end and for the larger travesty at Guantánamo to conclude.”

For CCR, Shayana Kadidal said, “Our client has suffered from schizophrenia since his adolescence. The government has never seriously challenged that conclusion, nor could it. Today’s ruling means the military will have to break with its preferred habit of inertia and move this process forward towards a conclusion all parties acknowledge will result in a finding that Mohammed suffers from schizophrenia, and should be sent home to a psychiatric facility in Saudi Arabia.”

AS CCR further explained, “Mr. al-Qahtani suffers from serious mental and physical health conditions, including schizophrenia. Medical records prove that that incurable disorder long predates his imprisonment. In addition, he suffers from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his systematic torture at Guantanamo beginning in 2002.”

CCR also explained that the motion for a mixed medical commission was filed in 2017, and medical experts have declared that, since it was first filed, al-Qahtani’s condition “has deteriorated to an alarming degree.” As CCR described it, “He suffers from an inability to control his behavior that is triggered by hallucinations, such as “screaming, being angry, throwing things, [and] taking off [his] clothes;” he has withdrawn from interacting with his family; and he has failed to attend meetings with his attorneys and then forgotten that he missed them.”

In the New York Times, Carol Rosenberg noted that Justice Department lawyers greeted the ruling with what seems to me to be a typically scaremongering over-reaction, warning that the first use at Guantánamo of a mixed medical commission “would be disruptive and unleash more requests by other prisoners.”

As Rosenberg described it, “The order has rattled the Defense Department, which considers the Guantánamo detention center its domain and any Red Cross role as advisory. The current prison commander, Rear Adm. Timothy C. Kuehhas, predicted in a court filing in April that the detainees would exploit the creation of a mixed medical commission ‘to undermine their health or injure themselves,’ to seek medical repatriation, and ‘jeopardize the safety of the guard force.’”

She added that “the three-judge panel at the circuit appeals court ruled that the decision to conduct a fact-finding in the context of a habeas corpus petition was not subject to review by the higher court,” with the judges — Karen LeCraft Henderson, Judith W. Rogers and David S. Tatel — adding that, “even if it was, the government did not demonstrate in its filings that conducting a mixed medical commission at Guantánamo ‘might have a ‘serious, perhaps irreparable, consequence.’”

Hopefully, the commission will now go ahead, and other prisoners — also with long-standing mental health issues — might also get to have the state of their mental health assessed, but no one should get too carried away with any enthusiasm that there will be a just resolution to al-Qahtani’s long-standing — and deteriorating — mental state.

Elsewhere in the court system, appointments made by Donald Trump have already started to poison any notion that the long injustice of Guantánamo can reach any kind of resolution in the courts, as a recent decision in the D.C. Circuit Court, led by a Trump appointee, Judge Neomi Rao, showed, when the court made an unprecedented — and alarming —  decision that Guantánamo prisoners are not entitled to invoke the due process protections of the Constitution. And in the Supreme Court, of course, there is now a dangerous right-wing bias, with the Court unlikely to deal fairly with any Guantánamo case that makes its way to them, having worked its way through the lower courts.

And beyond all this, of course, is the fundamental lawlessness of Guantánamo, where the law has barely made itself felt over 18 years, where the legacy of torture still lives on, and where parts of the government remain as determined as ever that tortured prisoners — like Mohamed al-Qahtani, and like other men tortured in CIA “black sites” — should never be freed.

* * * * *

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 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 eight 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.

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8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, providing an update in the case of Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, who, notoriously, was subjected to months of torture at the prison in 2002 in relation to claims that he was the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. The quote accompanying the photo is from his lawyers, describing his mental state right now.

    Al-Qahtani has long-standing severe mental health issues, exacerbated by his torture, and earlier this year the District Court ordered a mixed medical commission for him, to assess whether or not he should be returned to Saudi Arabia to receive appropriate treatment. The government appealed for a stay, but the good news is that now the appeals court, the D.C. Circuit Court, has refused to go along with the government’s wishes.

    A mixed medical commission, which has never taken place at Guantanamo before, would consist of a medical officer from the US Army and two doctors from a neutral country chosen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and approved by the United States and the prisoner’s home country; in this case, Saudi Arabia.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Bloody heartbreaking, torturing a mentally ill man for almost two decades 😑

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Asiya. It is as though the passage of time doesn’t exist for prisoners held outside of normal conditions of imprisonment, just as happened in the UK with alleged “terror suspects” held without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence. Unlike those tried and convicted, the status of prisoners who are never tried never changes, so al-Qahtani remains the intended 20th hijacker forever, regardless of his mental state or the passage of time. It’s truly shameful.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    yes it is heartbreaking and shameful …..and inexcusable.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Andy, that’s a narrative we all need to change. This is appalling. Can’t imagine how utterly terrifying It is to suffer from scitzophrenia, let alone being tortured while suffering with such a torturous illness 😔

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I can only hope that more of the attorneys for the men still held will be able to follow up on this, Asiya – if it goes ahead, that is. I still fear that Trump will take this to the Supreme Court where it would, of course, be defeated, because of the Court’s absolutely unforgivable entrenched right-wing bias.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    And to think that at Julian Assange’s hearing it was unutterable that torture goes on at Guantanamo when, if there was even a scrap of justice, every one of these vile torturers would be in the dock for the grossest and most heinous abuses to fellow human beings.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, Anna. Good to hear from you.

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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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