End 22 Years Of Injustice

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, in a photo taken at Guantánamo.

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By Andy Worthington, March 8, 2022

Yesterday (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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.