With $370,000 in rental MRI equipment at Guantánamo to study the brain of an al-Qaida captive accused of war crimes, a prosecutor on Wednesday invited defense lawyers for the alleged 9/11 plotters to apply for scans of the alleged terrorists’ brains or other body-parts too.
Brain damage can be a mitigating factor to avert the death-penalty in a criminal trial, according to defense attorneys who specialize in capital punishment cases.
The Pentagon recently shipped a mobile magnetic resonance imaging system to the remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba to comply with a court order to study the brain of Saudi captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. He is accused of directing the suicide bombers who blew up the USS Cole off Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000, and could face military execution if convicted. Seventeen American sailors died, and dozens more were wounded in the attack.
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Pentagon spokesman Maj. Ben Sakrisson put the price-tag on the rental, including setup and transportation, at $370,000. He said it will be shipped off the U.S. Navy base in mid-February.
Wednesday, Pentagon prosecutor Clay Trivett notified lawyers for the five men accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 terror attacks to contact the prison’s “litigation support” department if “an MRI scan is in your client’s best interests during that four-month period of time.”
Trivett, managing trial counsel in the Sept. 11 case, did not restrict the use of the MRI to the brains of the alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his four co-accused conspirators. Nor did he say a request would necessarily be honored. He said the prison would handle coordination “for any additional approved testing, including an assessment on whether your requested testing is feasible.”
So, he wrote in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald, “Please plan accordingly, and make any requests you have for an MRI scan(s) as soon as possible.”
One of the alleged plotters — Mohammed’s nephew, Ammar al Baluchi — already has requested a scan, his attorney Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas said Wednesday. During Baluchi’s 2003-06 CIA captivity, agents smashed his head into what the secret prison program architects described as a flexible wall. His lawyers suspect brain damage.
“There is real concern and evidence to support this concern that he has suffered a brain injury as a result of his captors’ torture,” Thomas told the Herald. “He was walled, and we think he had a traumatic brain injury.”
Baluchi, whose mother is Mohammed’s sister, allegedly helped with travel arrangements for some of the 19 hijackers of the airplanes who killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept, 11, 2001. All five are charged with capital crimes and could face execution if they are convicted at the trial, which so far has no start date.
One MRI-related issue yet to be addressed by the attorneys for the men is whether they will be able to handle an MRI machine.
Most MRIs have tight, capsule-like chambers, and a patient is pushed inside to lie still while the equipment operates and generates a loud noise.
Some CIA Black Site captives were confined to coffin-sized boxes, if not smaller, to break them during their CIA detention. To deprive them of sleep, agents sometimes blasted loud noises or music into rooms where they were kept in darkness, or isolation. Thomas said Wednesday he has his “own concerns about climbing into such a canister. I can only imagine what Ammar has to go through to get himself prepared for this — if he is indeed to proceed to have an MRI.”
Lawyers for Nashiri have asked a Pentagon-paid consultant on the case — Dr. Sondra Crosby, who specializes in treating victims of torture — to attend Nashiri’s scan or scans.
At the Department of Defense, spokesman Sakrisson declined to say whether the military had leased a less claustrophobic open MRI. “The Office of Military Commission provided an MRI machine that is capable of carrying out the specific tasks requested by the defense team,” he said.
These tests are being described as forensic, for trial preparation. The base hospital spokeswoman has declined to say whether the Navy doctor responsible for base health care, Capt. John C. Nicholson, has any interest in using the equipment for diagnostic purposes during its four-month stay.
Nicholson’s hospital got a CT scanner for use by both prisoners and base residents soon after the Pentagon opened the war-on-terror prison in January 2002. Today there are 41 war prisoners and about 5,500 residents, about half of them U.S. military personnel and their families, who must travel to the United States if a local doctor orders an MRI study.