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Nearly two decades ago, after the September 11 attacks, a man named Mohammed al-Qahtani was captured on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The Saudi national, US authorities alleged, was an al Qaeda agent who was allegedly the "twentieth hijacker," but was unable to board United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
After his capture, al-Qahtani was jailed, tortured by the US government, and when the charges against him were dropped in 2008, he was left to languish behind bars with no end in sight.
Today, he sits in an isolated cell in Camp 6 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he is one of 39 detainees left at a facility that once housed approximately 680 of so-called enemy combatants, a spokesperson confirmed to CNN. of the Department of Defense.
His lawyers have fought a protracted legal battle over al-Qahtani's repatriation to Saudi Arabia.
His quest for freedom is forcing the Biden administration to consider whether to release the 45-year-old man, whose lawyers say he is a seriously mentally ill person battling schizophrenia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of his torture or seek to detain him indefinitely without charging him with a crime.
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The Al-Qahtani case, experts say, is a litmus test to determine whether President Joe Biden is committed to his promise to shut down the controversial facility, an enduring symbol of the administration's global "war on terror." George W. Bush, who persisted during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
And, they say, the case has troubling implications for the humane treatment of other prisoners of war, including any US servicemen who may be captured in future conflicts.
The challenge facing the Biden administration's legal team is how to balance the merits of the al-Qahtani case with the broader political realities at stake, said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, who follow the Guantánamo litigation.
While there will be those who urge the president to side with the detainee with a serious mental illness as part of the Guantanamo closure process, Vladeck said, others within the White House may advise Biden to consider the political downsides of any decision that may arise. Help free a man who allegedly aspired to participate in the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
"As much as the administration wishes to show compassion towards al-Qahtani, any broader effort to effect his release and that of the 38 other men still detained there would require political capital that the administration is unable or unwilling to spend," added Vladeck, who is a CNN legal analyst.
The disadvantages of holding the prisoner
However, efforts to keep al-Qahtani in custody have their own potential drawbacks.
Biden has bet his foreign policy agenda on improving relations with America's allies and changing the country's image abroad.
It has sold its decisions to end combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as a breakthrough by the country from the foundation of the perpetual "war on terror" in which it has operated for nearly two decades.
Keeping al-Qahtani in custody and Guantanamo open would not align with those stated goals, said Eric M. Freedman, a professor of Constitutional Law at Hofstra University, who has long criticized the Guantanamo detentions.
"This individual's saga clearly exemplifies layer after layer of outrage that the entire Guantanamo company has represented since its inception," Freedman said.
"If President Biden wants to make good on his campaign promises to bring America back, releasing this man would be an excellent place to start," he said.
Mental illness, extremism and capture
Al-Qahtani's long history of mental illness began at age eight, when he was in a serious car accident and was thrown from the vehicle, sustaining a traumatic brain injury, according to Dr. Emily Keram, a court-appointed psychiatrist at the request of the defense attorneys, to evaluate your client.
Keram, who reviewed al-Qahtani's Saudi medical records, said the injury affected his ability to read and concentrate, made worse by two more car accidents in later years.
In the following years, al-Qahtani experienced "episodes of extreme behavioral loss," according to Keram, who has interviewed al-Qahtani on multiple occasions, including during two trips to Guantanamo Bay, since 2015. He also interviewed an older brother of al -Qahtani, one of the 12 children in his family.
The Pakistani Army captured al-Qahtani in December 2001, when he was traveling with other suspected al-Qaeda fighters from remote Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan to cross into Pakistan.
At some point in his early 20s, the Riyadh Police found al-Qahtani naked in a garbage container, Keram noted in their report.
A few years later, police in the holy city of Mecca arrested al-Qahtani after he jumped into oncoming traffic, Keram said.
That incident resulted in his involuntary admission to the psychiatric unit of the city's King Abdul Aziz Hospital for four days, where doctors determined that he was delusional and suicidal, according to Keram, who also said he suffered from schizophrenia before entering the custody of United States.
Six months after leaving King Abdul Aziz Hospital, al-Qahtani began to embrace a more extreme version of Islam and later attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, US authorities allege.
Al-Qahtani's "psychological and cognitive deficits would be recognized by others, leaving him vulnerable to manipulation and coercion," Keram wrote in a June 2016 evaluation of al-Qahtani.
In the field, according to US military records, al-Qahtani met with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and swore allegiance to him.
Bin Laden personally selected him to participate in the September 11 attacks, records claim.
On August 4, 2001, al-Qahtani landed in Orlando, Florida, with a one-way ticket and $ 4,000 in cash, making immigration officials suspicious.
They interrogated him for 90 minutes before sending him back to Dubai.
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While military records allege that he was in Orlando to meet with al-Qaeda member Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, they also note that al-Qahtani later told interrogators that he did not know the purpose of the attack. meeting.
At the end of that month, al-Qahtani returned to Afghanistan.
Weeks later, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration embarked on a worldwide search to find the perpetrators that stretched to the far reaches of Afghanistan's remote eastern border.
In December, when al-Qahtani was traveling with other suspected al-Qaeda fighters from remote Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan to cross into Pakistan, he was captured by the Pakistani army at the border and transferred to US custody for approximately two weeks later, military records show.
Washington transferred al-Qahtani to Guantanamo Bay on February 13, 2002, one of the first waves of detainees to arrive at the new facility.
He became known as Detainee 063.
Military dogs, strangulation and beatings
In May 2015, Keram met with al-Qahtani for approximately 39 hours in an empty interrogation room at Camp Echo, a former black CIA site in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
She was there to assess the general state of her mental health after more than 13 years in detention and whether she was receiving adequate medical and psychiatric care.
When their conversations turned to his torture at Guantanamo, al-Qahtani used to cry as he relived the ordeal.
Mohammed al-Qahtani, known as Detainee 063, was tortured for a period of approximately 50 days, between November 2002 and January 2003, at Camp X-Ray, at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
According to government interrogation records, which describe torture in detail and were leaked to Time magazine in 2005, al-Qahtani experimented with some of the harsher "enhanced interrogation" techniques endorsed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld under his authority. "First plan of special interrogation".
Rumsfeld infamously scrawled a note in the margins of a memo suggesting even harsher techniques.
Over a period of approximately 50 days, between November 2002 and January 2003, al-Qahtani was subjected to a long list of brutal methods, including sleep deprivation, exposure to noise and extreme temperatures, sexual humiliation, beatings. and strangulation, according to Keram's report.
At times, in apparent protest at his treatment, al-Qahtani refused to eat or drink water.
Dehydrated, doctors occasionally forcibly administered an IV, records show.
In one case, al-Qahtani broke an IV tube in two before being immobilized.
Al-Qahtani's interrogators also threatened him with military dogs and tied a leash to his shackles, led him across the room, and forced him to perform a series of dog tricks.
At times, he was not allowed to use the bathroom, causing him to repeatedly urinate on himself, according to military records.
Al-Qahtani told Keram that during his torture he experienced hallucinatory episodes.
In one, he believed he was dead and saw ghosts and before an imaginary bird assured him that he was still alive.
He told her that he wanted to end his life to stop the torture.
"The intensity I had to kill myself was not the intensity to die, it was the intensity to stop the psychological torture, the horrible pain of solitary confinement," al-Qahtani said.
"The symptoms of the psychological torture were horrible. It was even worse than the effects of the physical torture," he added.
During the sessions, interrogators allowed medical staff inside the room to check al-Qahtani's vital signs, sometimes three times a day.
They were done to make sure he "could continue" with the interrogations, the records say.
He was hospitalized twice for an abnormally slow heart rate, according to military records.
In one case, officials brought in a radiologist from a naval station in Puerto Rico to read al-Qahtani's CT scan after his heart rate dropped to 35 beats per minute.
When the doctor found no "abnormalities", al-Qahtani was "hooded, chained and restrained on a stretcher" and taken back to the X-Ray camp for questioning the next day, records report.
Order to be shipped to Saudi Arabia
On December 6, 2002, approximately two weeks after the interrogations began, al-Qahtani told the interrogators the story that he had met bin Laden in Afghanistan.
"I'm doing this to get out of here," he said.
He retracted the story the next day, saying he had made the claim because he was under pressure.
In an October 2008 memo, a military official alleged that al-Qahtani's admission of his involvement in "bin Laden's special mission to the United States appears to be true and is corroborated by reports from other sources."
The document does not detail what information the military had or how it was corroborated.
In the June 2016 assessment, Keram concluded that al-Qahtani cannot receive effective mental health treatment while incarcerated at Guantánamo.
She recommended her release to Saudi Arabia, where the government has said it would provide her with psychiatric care.
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"The profound physical and psychological torture that Mr. al-Qahtani experienced during interrogations, coupled with his inability to control what was happening to him, led him to conclude that he had only two means to end his suffering: suicide or compliance, "Keram wrote of the torture sessions.
"Therefore, Mr. al-Qahtani's statements were coerced and not voluntary, reliable or credible," he added.
Al-Qahtani's condition has deteriorated significantly in the last year.
He has tried to kill himself on three separate occasions in the past nine months during psychotic episodes triggered by schizophrenic hallucinations, including swallowing pieces of broken glass, his legal team says.
"The fact that someone as ill as Mr. al-Qahtani poses some kind of threat to the security of the United States is unthinkable," said Scott Roehm, Washington director of the Center for Victims of Torture, a nonprofit organization. of profit that has lobbied the Biden administration to close Guantanamo.
CNN was unable to interview al-Qahtani for this story.
Last February, Keram provided another court statement, writing that al-Qahtani was at "high risk of suicide."
Court ruling forces Biden's White House to make decisions
Investigating the last 16 years of court records in al-Qahtani's legal quest for freedom - a behemoth of more than 400 filings between October 2005 and June 2021 - is a journey through some of the most sordid moments in recent United States history.
The government dropped all charges against him in 2008, which Susan Crawford, a senior Bush administration official, later admitted in The Washington Post, was because he was tortured.
Crawford served as head of the Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay and was charged with deciding whether to bring the detainees to trial.
Crawford acknowledged that any information obtained during those sessions at Camp X-Ray was inadmissible in court.
The admission was unprecedented.
Despite dropping the charges, the 2008 military memorandum called for continuing al-Qahtani's arrest, categorizing him as "high risk" to national security.
A new legal route
Al-Qahtani's legal team has made numerous efforts to secure his release, particularly after 2008, when the charges against him were dropped.
They all failed.
Faced with these defeats, al-Qahtani's lawyers decided - in April 2017 - to take an unknown legal route for the Guantanamo detainees.
As a prisoner of war, they argued, their client was entitled under the Geneva Conventions to receive a medical evaluation by an independent panel of three doctors, known as a joint medical commission.
Al-Qahtani's lawyers argued that an independent medical evaluation was warranted under a US Army rule known as Army Reg. 190-8, an internal law that allows for the repatriation of sick and wounded prisoners of war.
The strategy, according to al-Qahtani's lawyers, was to see if other doctors agreed with Keram's view that al-Qahtani was so mentally ill that he posed no threat to the United States and should be repatriated to Saudi Arabia.
Lawyers for the Justice Department maintained that the Army rule did not apply to Guantanamo detainees.
After years of disappointment, al-Qahtani and his legal team scored their first significant victory.
In March 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer, in a 25-page opinion, ordered the Army to allow a joint medical commission to examine al-Qahtani and determine his eligibility for repatriation to Saudi Arabia, to receive psychiatric care.
The judge's order shook the Pentagon, which has constantly fought to prevent civilian courts from deciding the fate of those detained at Guantánamo.
The Trump administration appealed the order, which the Washington Court of Appeals dismissed in September.
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment for this story, citing al-Qahtani's ongoing case.
On January 15, in the final days of Trump's presidential term, the Justice Department made another attempt to have Collyer's ruling overturned, filing a "motion for reconsideration" in the US District Court for the District. Columbia, citing a last-minute rule change instituted by then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy declaring Guantanamo detainees exempt from Army regulation 190-8.
The new rule, the government said, made the judge's ruling moot.
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"In the final hours of the Trump administration, they tried to move the goalposts," said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, whose law clinic represents al-Qahtani.
"It is the government, having lost under the law, then trying to change the law," he added.
In the back and forth of court filings, al-Qahtani's lawyers have argued that the last-minute rule change attempt did not change the government's obligation to adhere to the Geneva Conventions.
The Biden administration has now inherited the case and on five occasions has asked the court for an extension to determine how it will proceed.
He has until September 8 to decide what course of action to take: continue fighting Collyer's order, grant al-Qahtani access to a joint medical commission, or drop the matter and repatriate him to Saudi Arabia.
A challenge for the White House
Wherever the White House falls, the potential moral, ethical, and practical implications are significant.
The White House declined to comment on the al-Qahtani case, citing pending litigation.
If the Biden White House allowed a joint medical commission to examine al-Qahtani at Guantanamo, the first in the base's history, it could set a precedent in which several other prisoners could request independent medical evaluations that could expose conditions in those that are and those that have been subjected for almost two decades in some cases.
Al-Qahtani was interrogated for 18 to 20 hours a day at Camp X-Ray.
However, if the government denies al-Qahtani a medical evaluation and supports the Trump administration's unilateral attempt to exclude Guantanamo detainees from the Geneva Conventions, that could endanger the U.S. military captured as prisoners of war.
In a life-and-death scenario, those military men could be denied the same kind of treatment and medical evaluations that al-Qahtani now seeks, Freedman said.
In the background looms the fierce debate over whether Guantanamo detainees have the right to "due process," a constitutional guarantee of fair treatment in court, which is the foundation of the US judicial system.
Previous administrations have argued that such rights do not apply to them.
The Biden administration's legal team is divided on the issue, according to a recent report by The New York Times.
The administration has yet to take a public stance on this.
Recently, however, the Biden White House put its first stamp on the Guantanamo policy, on July 19, allowing the transfer of detainee Abdul Latif Nasser to Morocco.
Because Nasser, who was never charged with any crime, had been cleared for repatriation in 2016, it is unclear whether the move represents a significant change in policy.
As the battle for the future of Guantanamo Bay rages in Washington, al-Qahtani spends his days isolated in his cell.
He avoids other detainees due to his outbreaks of schizophrenia, Keram noted in an August 2020 court statement.
In a recent phone conversation with his lawyer, Kassem, al-Qahtani said he survived in hopes of seeing his family again.
The unclassified notes from that call, documented by Kassem, reveal the desperation felt by his client.
"There is no life for me here," al-Qahtani told his lawyer.
"If I have a future, it is outside this place," he said.
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