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July 30, 2018

Al-Qahtani Requests Transfer to Receive Adequate Medical Care

By Reece Pelley

Last week the Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) convened to assess the status of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national detained for the past 16 years.

Al-Qahtani suffers from multiple psychiatric disabilities and was tortured during the initial stages of his detention at Guantanamo. The government alleges that al-Qahtani is a member of al-Qaeda and was intended to be the twentieth hijacker in the 9/11 attack. Al-Qahtani was denied entry into the United States in August 2001 and was captured in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invasion. In 2008 all charges against him were dropped, but during his 2016 review, the PRB declined to clear him for transfer, citing his refusal to answer questions about past conduct.

Last Tuesday’s PRB was al-Qahtani’s first full review since the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia compelled the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct an independent medical examination of him. His lawyer told the board that the examination confirmed that his client suffers from schizophrenia, deep depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Counsel also stressed that it is impossible for his client to receive adequate medical treatment while detained at Guantanamo. The psychiatric staff at the facility rotates every three to four months, resulting in al-Qahtani often being taken off his medication to allow new doctors to evaluate him. He then noted that PTSD treatment at Guantanamo does not satisfy DoD’s own treatment guidelines and asserted that by insufficiently caring for al-Qahtani’s PTSD, DoD is preventing adequate treatment for schizophrenia and deep depression. Due to al-Qahtani’s mental illness, and the U.S. government’s inability to adequately treat him, counsel urged the government to transfer his client to the custody of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qahtani’s lawyer also stressed that his client does not pose a threat to the U.S. government or its citizens—a key determination that the PRB must make prior to clearing a detainee for transfer out of Guantanamo—nor does he wish harm on the United States. Further, he argued, the government of Saudi Arabia and al-Qahtani’s family have guaranteed that he will be properly cared for if transferred to Saudi custody.

Last week’s hearing came on the heels of the release of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense spending bill. This year’s NDAA, like past versions, did not include language allowing the DoD to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the United States in order to provide emergency medical treatment unavailable on the naval base. This seemingly uncontroversial proposal has been included in the Senate version of the NDAA for the past several years. However, it is continuously stripped out of the bill during the conference process.

Last week’s hearing also took place just weeks before the American Psychological Association (APA) is scheduled to vote on a proposal that would allow APA members to return to Guantanamo for the first time since 2015. That year, the APA barred military psychologists from working at the detention facility after an independent report it commissioned found that some of its members colluded with the DoD after 9/11 to ensure they could actively participate in interrogations involving torture. The report’s findings are hotly contested by some members of the APA, leading to several defamation suits against the association. Supporters of the new proposal argue that the return of APA members to Guantanamo will allow detainees to receive necessary medical care that is currently unavailable. Opponents argue that eliminating the ban might allow for APA members to participate in abusive interrogations in the future.

Since President Trump took office, the DOD has transferred only one Guantanamo detainee out of the facility. That detainee, Mohammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi, however, was not cleared for transfer by the PRB; rather, he was transferred in accordance with a plea deal.