GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — The Biden administration Monday repatriated a prisoner to Saudi Arabia for mental health care who had been tortured so severely by US interrogators that he was ineligible for trial as the suspected 20th hijacker in the September 11 attacks.
The prisoner, Mohammed al-Qahtani, in his forties, is the second to be transferred from the war prison under the administration.
A government panel recently recommended that Mr. Qahtani, who had spent 20 years in Guantánamo Bay, was set to be released after a naval medic advised he was too weak to pose a future threat — especially if he was sent to a mental institution. The doctor confirmed last year an independent psychiatrist’s finding that Mr Qahtani suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he was unable to receive adequate care in the US military prison.
His lawyer, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the transfer was much too late.
“For 14 years I sat opposite Mohammed as he talks to non-existent people in the room and makes eye contact with the walls – something that has been a constant part of his life since his teenage years,” said Mr. Kadidal. “It is an extraordinary relief that the next time the voices in his head tell him to swallow a mouthful of broken glass, he will be in a mental institution, not a prison.”
Mr Qahtani’s case was controversial until the very end. Three Republican senators wrote to the president last week asking to end all transfers from Guantanamo, and specifically to keep Mr. Qahtani in jail. “We are concerned that he will resume terrorist activities once he is released from U.S. custody,” Oklahoma Senators James M. Inhofe, Idaho Jim Risch and Florida Marco Rubio wrote.
The US military has Mr. Qahtani flew in from remote Guantanamo on Sunday, shortly after the clock expired on the 30-day deadline required by Congress for a detainee transfer. In an unusual move, the Saudi government did not send its own plane to pick him up, delaying the announcement of his release until the US military transfer operation was completed.
The fame of Mr. Qahtani is related to his attempt to enter the United States on August 4, 2001, when an immigration inspector at the Orlando, Florida airport, turned him away. US authorities later learned that he would be met there by Mohamed Atta, a leader of the attacks carried out by 19 hijackers that killed nearly 3,000 people in four near-simultaneous hijacks the following month.
Mr Qahtani made his way to Afghanistan and was captured along the Pakistani border in late 2001. In Guantánamo, in late 2002 and early 2003, the US military isolated him naked, disoriented and sleep-deprived in a wooden hut at Camp X-Ray, and brutally and brutally interrogated him. A senior Bush administration official later concluded that the torture made him ineligible for prosecution. His lawyers later revealed that he suffered a traumatic brain injury in his youth in Saudi Arabia and was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, circumstances that also made him ineligible for a trial.
The transfer follows the July repatriation of a Moroccan man, Abdul Latif Nasser, whose release was largely arranged in the dwindling days of the Obama administration, but never acted upon by the Trump administration.
In a statement announcing the release of Mr. Qahtani from Guantánamo, the Pentagon thanked Saudi Arabia and other partner countries for supporting US efforts to reduce the prison population with the aim of eventually closing the facility.
“After two decades of indefinite detention, Mr. Qahtani finally has a chance to heal from the torture he has undergone, receive mental health care that Guantánamo cannot provide, and hopefully one day get his life back,” Scott said. Roehm, the director of the Washington Center of Victims Against Torture. “His transfer is a welcome step, but the Biden administration must act much faster and more extensively to close Guantanamo than it has done so far.”
The transfer left 38 detainees behind in Guantánamo, half of whom have been approved for release if the State Department can negotiate security agreements with the host countries that satisfy the Defense Minister. Of the rest, 12 have been charged with war crimes, including two men who have been convicted.
The other seven are being held as “prisoners of war”, essentially held indefinitely because the United States considers them too dangerous to release. Their cases are periodically reviewed by a U.S. government panel, which may recommend a transfer with certain security measures, including travel restrictions or detention in overseas prisons.