al Qahtani v. Obama

Mohammed al Qahtani was sent to Guantánamo in 2002 and subjected to the Pentagon’s “First Special Interrogation Plan”—a regime of torture authorized by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Al Qahtani is the only Guantánamo detainee the government has openly admitted was tortured.

Al Qahtani’s treatment was partially detailed in a military interrogation log leaked to and published by Time magazine on March 2, 2006. Military Intelligence officials sought to use training tactics on al Qahtani, and others, that were based on the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE, training program designed to teach U.S. soldiers how to resist torture if they are captured by enemy forces.

The 84-page log describes interrogations during a six-week period, beginning on or around November 23, 2002 through January 11, 2003. The methods used against al Qahtani include:

  • severe sleep deprivation combined with 20-hour-per-day interrogations, all continuing for months at a time;
  • prolonged solitary confinement (including isolation for several months);
  • religious and sexual humiliation, including strip searching and forced nudity in the presence of female personnel and being forced to wear a bra and a thong on his head;
  • various other forms of humiliation (being forced to bark like a dog, wear a leash like a dog, dance with a mask on his face, pick up piles of trash with his hands cuffed while being called “a pig”);
  • denial of the right to practice his religion, including prohibiting him from praying for prolonged times and during Ramadan, threatening to desecrate the Koran in front of him, shaving his beard, and forcing him to pray to Osama Bin Laden;
  • forcible administration of IVs by medical personnel during interrogation;
  • denial of access to a toilet so that he would be forced to urinate on himself;
  • repeatedly placing him in tight restraints and in stress positions;
  • beatings;
  • threats and attacks by dogs;
  • exposure to low temperatures for prolonged periods of time, often while doused with water;
  • exposure to loud music for prolonged periods of time;
  • threats made against his family;
  • threats of extraordinary rendition to countries that torture more than the United States.

On one occasion, al Qahtani was rushed to a military base hospital when his heart rate dropped to half the normal rate during a period of extreme sleep deprivation, physical stress, and psychological trauma. The military flew in a radiologist from the U.S. Naval Station in Puerto Rico to evaluate him. After being permitted to sleep a full night, medical personnel cleared al Qahtani for further interrogation the next day. During his transportation from the hospital, al Qahtani was interrogated in the ambulance.

The military’s mistreatment of al Qahtani and the command authority sanctioning the use of these interrogation methods have been the subject of several military investigations, and former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto J. Mora warned that the use of these impermissible interrogation methods could make U.S. personnel vulnerable to war crimes prosecutions.

On February 11, 2008, six years after he was first brought to Guantánamo, the government charged al Qahtani, along with five others, with involvement in the September 11 attacks and sought the death penalty. In the 90-page charge sheet, the allegations relating to al Qahtani consisted of five paragraphs, which did not allege any actual contribution on his part to the attacks. Al Qahtani has adamantly and consistently denied ever taking up arms against the United States or ever being a member of the Taliban or Al Qaeda and insisted that all of the government’s claims against him originate from statements obtained through torture.

On May 9, 2008, the Convening Authority for Military Commissions issued final charges for the other five men, but dismissed all charges against al Qahtani. The charges were dismissed without prejudice, which leaves open the possibility that he could be re-charged in the future.

Al Qahtani participated in his Periodic Review Board hearing on June 16, 2016. The board declined to clear him for transfer on July 18, 2016, acknowledging his mental illness but complaining that al Qahtani’s refusal (at counsel’s instruction) to answer questions about past conduct left them unable to assess his current “mindset and credibility.” The decision is remarkable in that it seems to expect a mentally-ill, highly-traumatized torture victim who was subject to death penalty charges just a few years ago to meaningfully answer questions about his past and present mental state — even though the Board had access to reports and testimony from a psychiatric expert witness precisely about the nature of his psychiatric disorders and the effect of his mental illness on his past conduct. The Board noted that it anticipated reviewing his file again in six months.