Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Finally Released from Guantánamo, Sent to Mental Health Facility in Saudi Arabia; But 19 Other Cleared Prisoners Remain


Mohammed al-Qahtani, photographed before his capture (on the left), in a photo provided by one of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, and, on the right, 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 Monday (March 7), Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo, who was shamefully tortured at the prison in 2002-03, despite suffering from schizophrenia, related to a car accident as a child, was released from Guantánamo, and sent back to Saudi Arabia to receive appropriate mental health care in a rehabilitation facility. His release brings to 38 the number of men still held at the prison.

Al-Qahtani had been tortured, over many months in Guantánamo’s first year of operations, because it had emerged that he had tried to get into the US in August 2001 to be the 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, but had been turned away by the authorities, presumably because he was incapable of disguising his already existing mental health problems. He then made his way to Afghanistan, where he was seized and sent to Guantánamo.

At Guantánamo, US personnel had been persistently unable to cope with his profound mental health problems, exacerbated by his torture, and yet it had taken until March 2020 for anyone in a position of authority to recognize that a valid case could be made that he should be sent back to Saudi Arabia because the authorities at Guantánamo were unable to adequately deal with his illness.

His lawyers had argued in court that the state of his mental health was so severe that he should be considered eligible for a “mixed medical commission,” which, as Carol Rosenberg described it for the New York Times, would be “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.” The lawyers had stated that Army Regulation 190-8, based on  Article 110 of the Third Geneva Convention, should apply in al-Qahtani’s case.

In her ruling, District Judge Rosemary Collyer — drawing on testimony from Dr. Emily Keram, a US psychiatrist who had examined al-Qahtani at Guantánamo and had also reviewed his medical records in Saudi Arabia — agreed, noting that “Article 110 of the Third Geneva Convention obligates signatories to return a prisoner of war to his home country if he is (1) ‘[i]ncurably wounded and sick [such that his] mental or physical fitness seems to have been gravely diminished’; (2) ‘[w]ounded and sick … [and] not likely to recover within one year’; and (3) recovered from being ‘[w]ounded and sick …, but [his] mental and physical fitness seems to have been gravely and permanently diminished.’”

Donald Trump, of course, refused to contemplate allowing foreign doctors into Guantánamo, and instead appointed a Navy Doctor to assess his condition. However, that doctor, Corry Kucik, agreed with Dr. Keram’s assessment that, as Rosenberg described it, al-Qahtani “suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and could not receive adequate care at the US military prison,” and “advised that he was too impaired to pose a future threat — particularly if he was sent to inpatient mental care,” and the doctor’s conclusions were instrumental in a Periodic Review Board — a parole-type system set up by President Obama — approving his repatriation last June, although the decision was not made public until February 4 this year, to allow negotiations with the Saudi authorities to proceed without disruption.

That disruption would, of course, have come from fanatical Republican apologists for Guantánamo, and, indeed, the announcement of the decision recently spurred three Republican Senators, Marco Rubio, James Risch and James Inhofe, to write to President Biden to urge him to reverse the decision to release al-Qahtani, ignoring the Navy Doctor’s considered opinion, and describing al-Qahtani as a “terrorist” and “a devout jihadist who committed his life to killing Americans,” and adding that they were “concerned that that he may try to resume terrorist activity once released from US custody.”

Not missing an opportunity to cast their hysterical net wider, the Senators added their opinion that “[t]he individuals remaining at Guantánamo are some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world and have dedicated their lives to attacking Americans and our allies,” and that, “[a]s such, they should not be given the opportunity to return to the battlefield in any role,” ignoring the fact that Periodic Review Boards — comprising officials from representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have approved another 16 of the remaining 38 prisoners for release (with 14 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office), to add to three others approved for release by another high-level government review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, in Obama’s first year in office.

A far more sober and accurate assessment of al-Qahtani was delivered by his long-standing lawyer, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who, as Carol Rosenberg put it, “said the transfer was long overdue.” Kadidal said, “For 14 years I’ve sat across from Mohammed as he talks to nonexistent people in the room and makes eye contact with the walls — something that’s been a constant part of his life since his teens. It’s an extraordinary relief that the next time the voices in his head tell him to swallow a mouthful of broken glass, he’ll be in a psychiatric facility, not a prison.”

Responding to the news, Scott Roehm, the Washington director of the Center of Victims Against Torture, said, “After two decades of indefinite detention, Mr. Qahtani finally has a chance to heal from the torture he suffered, receive mental health care Guantánamo can’t provide and hopefully one day reclaim his life. His transfer is a welcome incremental step, but the Biden administration needs to act much faster and more comprehensively to close Guantánamo than it has so far.”

With 19 other men approved for release but still held, Scott Roehm’s words need to be taken on board by the Biden administration, and we would only add that the Biden administration also needs to reflect on the fact that approving men for release but then not setting them free not only demonstrates how Guantánamo continues to exist outside the law, because no mechanism exists to compel prisoners to be freed after decisions taken by a court of by a PRB, but also because, fundamentally, it is, after 20 years of the prison’s existence, almost unbearably cruel — and this is especially the case because another prisoner, Majid Khan, is also due to be released soon.

Khan, a Pakistani seized in March 2003, who was held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for three and a half years prior to his arrival at Guantánamo in September 2006, was not approved for release by a PRB. Instead, he agreed to a plea deal in his military commission trial ten years ago, in February 2012, in which he was promised his release in exchange for admitting that he had being involved in planning terrorist plots with Al-Qaeda, and offering to provide testimony against other prisoners facing trials. At his sentencing in October 2021, his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights expressed their belief that he would be freed in February this year. That deadline has already slipped, but it is expected that the Biden administration will release him soon.

Majid Khan deserves his freedom. He is thoroughly remorseful about his involvement with Al-Qaeda, and has been fully cooperative with the US authorities. However, there is no way of disguising the fact that his imminent release will highlight how shameful it is that other men, held for longer, and never even charged with a crime, are still awaiting their freedom.

If the Biden administration has any notion of justice, some of these men must also be freed in the very near future.

* * * * *

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009 (out of the 532 released by President Bush), the 196 prisoners released from February 2009 to January 2017 by President Obama, the one prisoner released by Donald Trump, and the one prisoner released by President Biden in his first year in office, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else – either in print or on the internet – although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Filesand for the stories of the other 390 prisoners released by President Bush, see my archive of articles based on the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011: June 2007 – 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (herehere and here); July 2007 – 16 Saudis; August 2007 – 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 – 16 Saudis1 Mauritanian1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 – 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans14 Saudis; December 2007 – 2 Sudanese; 13 Afghans (here and here); 3 British residents10 Saudis; May 2008 – 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 – 2 Algerians1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 – 2 Algerians; September 2008 – 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 – 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik2 Algerians; 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan), repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 – 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani); 4 Uighurs to Bermuda; 1 Iraqi; 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad); 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni; 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); 2 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); 1 Algerian1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 — 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians2 Saudis2 Sudanese3 Uighurs to Slovakia; March 2014 — 1 Algerian (Ahmed Belbacha); May 2014 — 5 Afghans to Qatar (in a prisoner swap for US PoW Bowe Bergdahl); November 2014 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fawzi al-Odah); 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi; December 2014 — 4 Syrians, 1 Palestinian and 1 Tunisian to Uruguay4 Afghans2 Tunisians and 3 Yemenis to Kazakhstan; January 2015 — 4 Yemenis to Oman, 1 Yemeni to Estonia; June 2015 — 6 Yemenis to Oman; September 2015 — 1 Moroccan and 1 Saudi; October 2015 — 1 Mauritanian and 1 British resident (Shaker Aamer); November 2015 — 5 Yemenis to the United Arab Emirates; January 2016 — 2 Yemenis to Ghana1 Kuwaiti (Fayiz al-Kandari) and 1 Saudi10 Yemenis to Oman1 Egyptian to Bosnia and 1 Yemeni to Montenegro; April 2016 — 2 Libyans to Senegal9 Yemenis to Saudi Arabia; June 2016 — 1 Yemeni to Montenegro; July 2016 — 1 Tajik and 1 Yemeni to Serbia, 1 Yemeni to Italy; August 2016 — 12 Yemenis and 3 Afghans to the United Arab Emirates (see here and here); October 2016 — 1 Mauritanian (Mohammedou Ould Slahi); December 2016 — 1 Yemeni to Cape Verde; January 2017 — 4 Yemenis to Saudi Arabia8 Yemenis and 2 Afghans to Oman1 Russian, 1 Afghan and 1 Yemeni to the United Arab Emirates, and 1 Saudi repatriated to Saudi Arabia for continued detention; May 2018 — 1 Saudi to continued imprisonment in Saudi Arabia; July 2021 — 1 Moroccan.

* * * * *

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.

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.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, about the welcome news that Mohammed al-Qahtani, who suffers from schizophrenia but was, nevertheless, tortured at Guantanamo, has finally been freed, and repatriated to Saudi Arabia, where he will be able to receive treatment for his mental health problems that was not available at Guantanamo.

    As Shayana Kadidal, one of his attorneys explained, “For 14 years I’ve sat across from Mohammed as he talks to nonexistent people in the room and makes eye contact with the walls — something that’s been a constant part of his life since his teens. It’s an extraordinary relief that the next time the voices in his head tell him to swallow a mouthful of broken glass, he’ll be in a psychiatric facility, not a prison.”

    Significantly, however, 19 of the remaining 38 prisoners at Guantanamo have also been approved for release, and it is imperative that we do all we can to remind President Biden that they too must be released; that approving men for release but not freeing them is, after 20 years, almost unbearably cruel.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    As I am translating this and celebrated his release, it’s still heartbreaking to think what kind of life could he possibly reconstruct after how damaged he was left with the torture and horrible conditions he endured. How can he start a new life at home? I think about his family and loved ones and I can’t express how horrifying this must be for them. They lost 20 years with him and maybe he could’ve been medically treated better in his country. The US hypocrisy saying they’re sending him home to receive the care he needs … they did this.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Natalia. Although Mohammed was clearly a broken man, mentally, even before his torture, I keep wondering what those interrogating him thought. They can’t have failed to notice that he was profoundly disturbed. What shameful behavior takes place when people are told what to do and not to question it.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Mohammed Al-Qahtani, víctima de tortura, finalmente fue liberado de Guantánamo y enviado a un hospital de salud mental en Arabia Saudita, pero quedan 19 aprobados para liberación’:

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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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