End 20 Years Of Injustice

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

Mohammed al-Qahtani, in a photo taken at Guantánamo.

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By Andy Worthington, February 7, 2022

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 U.S. 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," and 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 U.S. 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 U.S. custody." She also noted that, given his preexisting 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 "preexisting 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."