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November 19, 2018

Fit For Court? Another Medical Emergency in Guantanamo

By Elaina Stephenson

Earlier this month, I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to observe the military proceedings in the Abd al Hadi al Iraqi case. The Hadi case is unusual in and of itself, but those familiar with the Military Commissions would say the bizarre week of hearings was par for the course in this broken "justice" system.

Hadi is one of fifteen “High-Value Detainees” currently being held in detention at top-secret Camp Seven in Guantanamo Bay. Prior to his detention at Gitmo, Hadi was held in custody at an undisclosed CIA black site for 170 days. Hadi’s legal case remains shrouded in mystery as to whether torture occurred during his time there—with defense counsel adamantly affirming and prosecution denying

Hadi has been detained at Gitmo since 2007 but was not formally charged by the government until 2014. His charges include a host of crimes, such as leading insurgents and targeting civilians in the Middle East. In a nutshell, he’s accused of being the Commander of Al-Qaeda.

Since his detention at Gitmo began, Hadi has frequently complained of extreme back pain. However, the government consistently ignored his claims of pain to the brink of paralysis—coming to a head when a team of neurosurgeons had to be flown down during Hurricane Irma to perform a series of emergency surgeries.

Over a year later, Hadi is still recovering from these surgeries and relies on a walker, a wheelchair, and a back brace to get around, but movement of any kind is extremely difficult for him.

From the first day of the hearing on November 6, Hadi’s pain was evident. Throughout the session, he shifted uncomfortably and lifted himself up and down in his orthopedic chair. “Judge, he does not belong here today,” lead defense counsel Adam Thurschwell stated, “but he wanted to come to show you and everyone that he wants to move the process along.”

Thirty minutes into the session, Hadi experienced a back spasm in the courtroom that entirely restricted his breathing. Quickly thereafter, he was taken away in a military ambulance.

Following this incident, the hearings were cancelled for two days and did not resume until Friday, November 9. Opening the session on Friday, Judge Libretto read a statement from the government doctor who deemed Hadi had “healed appropriately” and was fit to be present in the courtroom.

However, it was immediately clear that that was not at all the case. When asked if he was coherent enough to proceed, Hadi exclaimed from his hospital bed, which had been wheeled into the courtroom: “I feel like my head is going to explode, my entire body is strained.”

Despite ample breaks to stretch and rest, including a one-hour nap in the courtroom with the lights dimmed, Friday’s hearing only lasted for about two hours before Hadi needed to be excused again.

What happened at Camp Justice earlier this month would have never occurred in the federal court system. Never before has a detainee been wheeled in on a hospital gurney, worn a white hospital gown, or been able to sleep off painkillers during court proceedings. Setting aside well-documented legal and ethical issues with the Military Commissions at Gitmo, the proceedings in Hadi’s case would be postponed in the federal court system until the defendant was able to be present in Court without risking a medical emergency.

Though federal courts have a proven record of effectively handling terrorism-related cases, the Military Commissions continue to plod on, with Hadi’s next hearing scheduled for January 5, 2019.