WASHINGTON (CN) — Guantanamo Bay’s review board focused Thursday on whether a Saudi psychiatric facility should take in the man prosecutors say narrowly missed serving as the “20th hijacker” on 9/11.
Mohammad al-Qahtani is the only prisoner who senior U.S. government officials formally acknowledge was tortured.
One of Guantanamo’s first prisoners, al-Qahtani remains at the black-site facility eight years after the convening authority dropped the charges against him because he was tortured.
A native Saudi, al-Qahtani appeared restless today at his review-board hearing, which the Pentagon broadcast for 20 minutes via closed circuit.
Donning a white T-shirt and a chest-length, dark brown beard, the 41-year-old detainee rocked back and forth in a high-backed chair, rubbed his face and eyes, and repeatedly clasped his hands together before resting them over his nose and mouth.
Al-Qahtani fidgeted continually as his personal representative, Dr. Ramzi Kassem, described the abuses his client faced. Among other things, al-Qahtani was subjected to forced nudity, sexual assault, sleep deprivation and water boarding.
The Saudi has a storied history within the al-Qaida network. According to his profile, he personally met Osama bin Laden and swore his allegiance to him after receiving basic and advanced training in late 2000 from al-Qaida operatives.
Bin Laden had assigned al-Qahtani to a “special mission” in mid-2001, according to the profile.
As part of that mission, al-Qahtani met with accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then returned to Saudi Arabia where he obtained a new passport and visas for entry into the United States and the United Kingdom.
Al-Qahtani also met with al-Qaida’s finance and travel facilitator, Mustafa al-Hawasawi, during this time.
Though al-Qahtani arrived in Orlando, Florida, on a one-way ticket, immigration officials found the “circumstances of his travel and conduct … suspicious,” and turned him back, according to his detainee profile.
This was on Aug. 4, 2001 — weeks before 19 men hijacked four planes for coordinated terrorist attacks against symbolic U.S. landmarks.
Al-Qahtani meanwhile returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan. After communicating his failure to gain access to America to bin Laden, he was sent to the frontlines to fight against the Northern Alliance. Heavy bombing there forced him to flee to the mountains of Tora Bora where U.S. coalition members ultimately captured him.
Al-Qahtani has been “mostly compliant with guard staff,” his profile says, but the government says he does not cooperate with interrogators, “repeatedly trying to disassociate himself from al-Qa’ida and using cover stories to account for his travels.”
The report further says al-Qahtani has not “made any statements in the past 10 years renouncing [al-Qa’ida] or its ideology.”
Aside from al-Qahtani’s history of torture, the detainee’s history of traumatic brain injuries complicates his interrogation record.
In addition to surviving a car accident as a child, al-Qahtani exhibited “episodes of extreme behavioral dyscontrol [sic],” his family has recalled.
Riyadh police once found al-Qahtani naked in a garbage dumpster, and the man was also reported to have suffered from “spells of auditory hallucinations.”
These symptoms of mental illness pervaded all the way through late May 2000.
At this morning’s hearing, Dr. Kassem said these factors “likely impaired his capacity for independent and voluntary decision making well before the United States took him into custody.”
“These findings call into serious question the extent to which it would be fair to hold Mr. al-Qahtani responsible for any alleged actions during that period of his life … and that it casts doubt on any claims that [he] would have been entrusted with sensitive information about secret plots,” the personal representative added.
Kassem emphasized that al-Qahtani’s torture at Guantanamo Bay had only served to “exacerbate his pre-existing psychological ailments … [causing] psychotic symptoms that included repeated hallucinations involving ghosts and a talking bird … and [conversing] with himself and with others who were not present.”
The strongest argument presented for al-Qahtani’s release is that he has no trust in “medical mental health personnel at Guantanamo owing to their predecessors’ involvement in his interrogations and torture.”
Al-Qahtani thus cannot receive effective treatment of his mental illnesses “while he remains in U.S. custody at GTMO or elsewhere, despite the best efforts of available and competent clinicians,” his representative said.
The representative promised that al-Qahtani would be committed to a reputable psychiatric health facility if released to Saudia Arabia.
A decision will be issued by the board in a few months.
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