Mentally Ill Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Approved for Release from Guantánamo


Mohammed al-Qahtani, photographed before his capture, in 2001, and subsequently photographed at Guantánamo.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

On February 4, another Guantánamo prisoner was approved for release from the prison by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established by President Obama, which led to the release of 36 men in his second term in office. Of the 39 men still held, 19 — very nearly half of those still imprisoned — have now been approved for release, with 14 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office just over a year ago.

There was surprise in some quarters, because the prisoner in question, Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi, was, in Guantánamo’s early days, considered the 20th intended hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and was subjected to a specific torture program, approved by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which, as the New York Times reported after the PRB decision was announced, involved him “undergo[ing] two months of continuous, brutal interrogation by the US military inside a wooden hut at Camp X-Ray in late 2002 and early 2003.”

The details of his torture shocked the world when a day-by-day interrogation log was leaked to Time magazine in 2006. As the Times described it, the log revealed how “military interrogators placed Mr. Qahtani in solitary confinement, stripped him naked, forcibly shaved him, and subjected him to prolonged sleep deprivation, dehydration, exposure to cold, and various psychological and sexual humiliations like making him bark like a dog, dance with a man and wear women’s underwear on his head.” As the Times added, “They extracted a confession, which he later recanted,” which included allegations that he had made against 30 other prisoners, falsely claiming that they were bodyguards of Osama bin Laden.

Despite these revelations, the Bush administration put al-Qahtani forward for trial by military commission in February 2008, along with five other men (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), who were accused of actual involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The charges against him were dropped in May 2008, but reinstated in November 2008. However, the official responsible for deciding whether or not to proceed with prosecutions, Susan Crawford, the military commissions’ convening authority, refused to press charges, memorably telling Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, just before George W. Bush left office, “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture,” and also explaining, “that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

Again, however, al-Qahtani continued to languish at Guantánamo, a torture victim who would now never be charged, but who no one wanted to take responsibility for releasing — much like Abu Zubaydah, for whom the post-9/11 torture program was created, who is also still held, despite the US government long ago having walked back from its initial claim that he was “the No. 3 in Al-Qaeda” — a claim that was patently untrue.

Under President Obama, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, a high-level inter-agency review process, met weekly throughout 2009 to decide who should be released, who should be prosecuted, and who should continue to be held, on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. 36 men were recommended for trials, and 48 for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, while the other 156 were recommended for release (and all but three of these men were subsequently freed).

However, as the credibility of the military commissions collapsed, with some of the few verdicts secured being overturned on appeal, some of those recommended for prosecution ended up being made eligible for a second review process, the Periodic Review Boards, along with the 48 men recommended specifically for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial. In the end, 71 men were put forward for the PRBs, including al-Qahtani, and his first review took place in June 2016.

Evidence of Mohammed al-Qahtani’s schizophrenia finally emerges

Over 13 years since he had been tortured, evidence finally emerged that al-Qahtani had severe mental health problems that pre-dated his capture, his torture, and the efforts by Al-Qaeda to recruit him for 9/11. His lawyers, including Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, whose legal clinic represented him, and Shayana Kadidal at the Center for Constitutional Rights, secured permission for an independent psychiatrist, Dr. Emily Keram, to be allowed to visit al-Qahtani at Guantánamo, where, as the Washington Post described it, he told her that “he had suffered a head injury after being ejected from a car when he was 8 and was injured twice more in car accidents,” and, as she concluded, “developed psychotic symptoms in childhood that worsened as he grew older.”

On one occasion, as the Post described it, “Saudi police found him naked in a garbage dumpster in Riyadh,” and on another occasion, in Mecca in 2000, he “was involuntarily committed to a hospital after trying to hurl himself into the street. Doctors at the time said he was delusional and suicidal, according to medical and psychiatric records.”

Dr. Keram confirmed that he was schizophrenic, and “will likely require lifelong mental health care,” and also assessed that he “cannot receive effective treatment for his current mental health conditions while he remains in US custody.” She also noted that, given his pre-existing mental health issues, he was “profoundly susceptible to manipulation by others” (hence his manipulation by Al-Qaeda), and also noted that he had developed PTSD as a result of his torture, interrogation and imprisonment.

At the time of his PRB, the Post noted that the Saudi Arabian government had “agreed to resettle him, according to a Saudi Interior Ministry document,” and also noted that his lawyers were intending to argue that his “pre-existing mental illness and the abuse he experienced at Guantánamo Bay should favor his release, as the prison is unable to provide adequate medical and psychiatric care.”

This was indeed what happened, but the review board, shamefully, refused to recommend him for release, and upheld that decision at another review in July 2018. In the meantime, his lawyers tried another route, urging a US court in April 2018 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, and as I reported at the time.

In March 2020, Judge Rosemary Collyer ordered an independent psychiatric assessment for al-Qahtani, a decision that was upheld by Judge Ellen Huvelle in August 2020. The lawyers’ intention, as the Times explained, was for a medical commission to recommend his release to Saudi Arabia “on medical grounds under both the Geneva Conventions and a US Army regulation,” but the Justice Department under Donald Trump “resisted that order,” which would have been “the first foreign medical intervention” at Guantánamo.

“Instead,” as the Times proceeded to explain, “Congress created a position of a Navy doctor who would be assigned to the base but who would work independently,” and “Mr. Qahtani’s lawyers agreed to put off resolving the court case while that official scrutinized the military’s medical records and Dr. Keram’s findings.”

In May, according to officials who spoke to the Times, the Navy doctor, Corry J. Kucik, submitted a seven-page report for al-Qahtani’s latest Periodic Review Board, in which he “concurred with Dr. Keram’s findings.” Dr. Kucik “agreed that Mr. Qahtani was damaged by his childhood brain injury and the schizophrenia he developed as an adolescent, and that his abusive interrogation and subsequent continued confinement had only aggravated that.” He also “agreed that Mr. Qahtani could not be adequately treated at Guantánamo, and that he was extremely unlikely to pose any threat if sent to a Saudi mental hospital near his family where his mental health could be more effectively addressed.”

According to the Times, in June the review board “unanimously adopted that recommendation,” as officials explained. However, “the Biden administration, apparently while it negotiated a security agreement with Saudi Arabia for Mr. Qahtani’s repatriation, held off on making the decision public until Friday.” By law, the defense secretary is required to notify Congress 30 days before the proposed release of any prisoners, and is obliged to certify that he is happy with the arrangement, but, if, as expected the current defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, notifies Congress immediately, then al-Qahtani can be released next month, which, according to the Times, is the Biden administration’s intention.

In their “Final Determination” recommending al-Qahtani’s release, the board members stated that, while they recognize that al-Qahtani “presents some level of threat in light of his past activities and associations,” that threat “can be adequately mitigated.” The board members “expressed confidence in the efficacy of the Saudi rehabilitation program,” and also understood that “Saudi Arabia can provide comprehensive mental health care,” as well as noting the Saudi government’s “ability to monitor” al-Qahtani “after completion of the rehabilitation program.” They also noted that they had “considered [his] significantly compromised mental health condition and available family support,” and supported the implementation of “a comprehensive set of security measures including monitoring and travel restrictions.”

No excuse for not freeing other men approved for release

In conclusion, however, it’s important to note that, while the Biden administration is to be commended for planning for al-Qahtani’s imminent repatriation, there is no excuse for not proceeding with the repatriation of some of the other 18 men already approved for release. The New York Times claimed that most of them “cannot be sent home because they come from unstable countries like Yemen and Somalia, which by law cannot receive Guantánamo detainees,” and so “the Biden administration must find other countries willing to take them.”

That is true in the case of eight Yemenis and a Somali, but the Times is wrong to claim that, “[b]ecause Mr. Qahtani can be repatriated, he could be the first to leave.” There ought to be no obstacles to the repatriation of Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian approved for release in 2006, and three Pakistanis, including Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, who were all approved for release last year, and yet these men remain in limbo at Guantánamo, with no sign of when they might actually be freed.

Approving men for release and then not freeing them is a peculiar aberration of the law that still prevails at Guantánamo, as Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, an attorney for some of the men still held, explained in a recent online event hosted by Revolution Books in New York, in which former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi and I also took part.

As Shelby explained, legally there is no mechanism whereby a court, in habeas corpus cases, or the Periodic Review Boards, can actually secure the release of men who have “won their freedom.” Although these men have had their release approved, there is no legal requirement for their release to actually take place. As Shelby described it, “they don’t have access to any meaningful rights.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

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 struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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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.

24 Responses

  1. Ethan Winters says...

    Thanks for posting this article. My guess is the U.S. doesn’t want to send the Algerian and Pakistanis to their home countries and is trying to find other countries that are willing to take them.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, reporting on the latest welcome news from Guantanamo: the decision by a Periodic Review Board to approve the release of Mohammed al-Qahtani, who suffers from schizophrenia, which pre-dates his capture and arrival at Guantanamo in 2002.

    Despite this, the US authorities tortured him over the course of several months, in 2002-03, after discovering that he was apparently the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. Finally, however, the authorities have recognized that his mental health issues are so profound that he cannot be adequately treated at Guantanamo, and have accepted the need for him to be repatriated to Saudi Arabia where he can receive proper treatment.

    It is expected that he will be repatriated next month — but while this is to be applauded, the Biden administration must not be allowed to gloss over the fact that 18 other men (out of the 39 still held) have also been approved for release, and yet are all still held.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I’d be surprised, Ethan, as there’s no ban in place regarding Pakistan and Algeria. I’m more inclined to think that the Biden administration is just biding its time when it comes to prisoner releases, trying to avoid opportunistic scaremongering by Republicans.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Lisa Duggan wrote:

    Yes Andy I’d agree, Biden needs to close Guantanamo Now. Unfortunately Biden led the charge (and lies) in the Senate after 9/11 to invade Iraq. The world is changing though. The masses are tired of the old BS, so stranger things have happened. Thankfully you keep this at the forefront of people’s minds.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Lisa. I think it’s reassuring that, finally, with the passage of time and the end of the war in Afghanistan, Republicans can no longer count on high levels of outrage whenever they try to get hysterical about Guantanamo, and, as a result, the prison’s closure is finally feasible, but, as ever with Guantanamo, the Democrats need to keep being reminded that it’s a necessity and not an option that can be endlessly deferred. That said, it was clearly reassuring last year that 99 Democrats in the Senate and the House publicly urged Biden to close the prison, and to release everyone who hasn’t been charged.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Great news! Now send them all home, Biden!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Natalia. 18 other men approved for release, who all need to be freed!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Please get on with this Joe Biden …… you are complicit with the illegal detention of these men – open the gates of this illegal hell-hole and let them go free. xx

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Lindis!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    I really do believe Guantánamo Bay needs closing now; for many reasons. It’s a disgrace that has lowered the standard on ethics and morality. The egregious behavior of the US and It’s allies has set us upon the road to global mistrust and maybe war.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Malcolm. It is definitively time for everything to do with the disgraceful “war on terror” to be brought to an end.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Rana wrote:

    The democrats are as much of a disgrace as the others. If they don’t use this opportunity now to release men who should never have been jailed in this way in the first place they are even worse, in fact.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I think there’s a plan, Asif, as the PRBs under Biden have approved almost everyone for release whose cases they have reviewed since he took office, and these decisions are hard for Republican extremists to argue with – although some will undoubtedly claim that he has “politicized” the review process.

    What reassures me the most is that the Republicans’ scaremongering is showing signs of having run out of steam, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the increasing recognition, throughout large parts of the US political establishment, that it really is intolerable to keep holding forever men who have never been charged with a crime.

    That said, Biden is going to have to, at some point, actually free all these men approved for release, and that will require actively “owning” Guantanamo, and showing something that looks like courage.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    The obvious response is “ABOUT FRIGGIN’ TIME!”
    We are a nation run by neocons. We used to “think” they were only Republicans but it became quite obvious, early in 2008, that they are both parties.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    I find it particularly dispiriting how politically toxic Guantanamo has been ever since Obama took office, Jan, when the Republicans became as cynically obstructive as possible, and the Democrats largely caved in. I recall the three years (2010-13) when Obama sat on his hands after the Republicans raised obstacles to prevent the release of prisoners, a situation that only ended when the prisoners themselves embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike, and I also remember the extreme tardiness with which Obama introduced the PRBs.

    Hopefully there’s actually a plan now in place, as it doesn’t seem to make much sense to keep approving prisoners for release without eventually setting them free, but fundamentally it’s going to depend on the Biden administration spending some time and effort arranging for third countries to be found to offer new homes to the men who can’t be repatriated, and releasing man like Saifullah Paracha who, frankly, should be on a plane back to Pakistan as soon as possible.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Meagan Murphy wrote:

    I’m relieved you are saying he will get proper treatment. I was worried he was in for more suffering.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m reasonably certain that he will be given the treatment he needs, Meagan, and that his family will be involved, but it depends primarily on how his family is regarded by the Saudi regime. The fact that the Saudis have been involved in negotiations regarding his repatriation suggests that he will be OK, but it’s a grim fact that many of the Saudis repatriated from Guantanamo under George W. Bush haven’t fared very well at all, with some, for example, subjected to ongoing arbitrary imprisonment.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Meagan Murphy wrote:

    Andy yes I think that’s what I heard you talking about on your show with Revolution Books a few weeks ago. It’s too bad we can’t help those imprisoned in Saudi Arabia – unless there is a petition or letter writing campaign for them to be released with help.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Honestly, Meagan, the problem is that the Saudi regime is a law unto itself. I doubt that many US politicians care about the fate of Saudi ex-prisoners, but, even if they did, who has the power in the US-Saudi relationship? Those with the oil, who also buy so many US weapons …

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Gail Baker wrote:

    Just so horrific and insane Andy. I hear you. Keep up this fight for humanity. It’s global and I do take this all to heart.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the supportive words, Gail!

  22. Ethan Winters says...

    Sorry for the mistake. I was just guessing because Obama’s secretary of defense Ashton Carter refused to send Sufyian Barhoumi to Algeria back in 2016.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Who knows, Ethan? You may be right. I’d forgotten that Ashton Carter had refused to approve Sufyian Barhoumi’s release just before Obama left office, with the Justice Department, as the AP reported, opposing the request and stating that Carter had rejected Barhoumi’s release “’based on a variety of substantive concerns, shared by multiple agencies,’ without going into detail.”

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Mohammed Al-Qahtani, víctima de tortura y mentalmente enfermo es aprobado para ser liberado de Guantánamo’:

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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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