Guantánamo judges order secret prison’s medical officer to testify

The path between the court and holding cells at Camp Justice on the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a military-approved June 19, 2014 photo.
The path between the court and holding cells at Camp Justice on the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a military-approved June 19, 2014 photo.

The judges in both of Guantánamo’s death-penalty cases have ordered staff responsible for medical care at the prison’s clandestine Camp 7 prison to testify during December war court hearings — in one instance on how much pain an alleged 9/11 plotter suffered following rectal reconstruction surgery.

Such testimony, if held in open court, could provide a window into the healthcare of the 15 former CIA Black Site captives at the mysterious Camp 7, which according to past war court testimony has its own medical team and a clinic.

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The first testimony should come the week of Dec. 5 in the Sept. 11 mass murder case. Judge James L. Pohl ordered the detention center to provide the medical staff responsible for an assessment that captive Mustafa al Hawsawi, 48, will have no problems attending the hearing.

His lawyer Walter Ruiz, sought a delay, saying the Saudi captive is suffering “excruciating” pain following surgery that repaired his rectum at the Guantánamo base hospital in October. The prosecution opposed the idea, saying medical personnel declared Hawsawi would be fit for court.

Instead, Ruiz said Sunday, the judge ordered Hawsawi to court with Khalid Sheik Mohammed and three other alleged accomplices — and ordered the senior medical officer as well as other “medical personnel” to testify on the Saudi’s post-operative recovery. Pohl, an Army colonel, also ordered the U.S. military to give defense lawyers Hawsawi’s medical and prison records since his Oct. 14 surgery, Ruiz said.

‘Hawsawi was brutally sodomized, his rectum shredded and his very insides dislodged,’ says attorney in court filing.

Before Pohl ruled, Ruiz said in a filing that the already slight Hawsawi lost 13 percent of his weight after surgery, was suffering severe pain, constipation, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, sleeplessness and overall weakness. “The prosecution’s medical cronies hide behind their anonymity and speak without any accountability through their prosecutorial mouth pieces,” he wrote.

In the other capital case, Judge Vance Spath ordered Camp 7’s senior medical officer as well as the prisoner commander or his stand-in to testify the week of Dec. 12 on the question of whether the alleged mastermind of al-Qaida’s 2000 bombing of the USS Cole should be allowed to spend nights at the war court compound during hearings.

Attorney Rick Kammen, the death penalty defender for accused terrorist Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, calls the trip between Camp 7 and Camp Justice traumatic for Nashiri because of the captive’s “untreated Complex PTSD” — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It causes him to vomit, the lawyer wrote. The judge has also ordered an MRI study of his brain. But the military has yet to deliver a magnetic resonance imaging machine to Guantánamo.

Nashiri’s prosecutors had opposed the request for testimony, accusing Nashiri’s lawyers of trying to “rummage through the security protocols” of the prison, “a well-maintained and safe facility.”

Such testimony, if held in open court, could provide a window into the medical care of the 15 former CIA Black Site captives at the mysterious Camp 7.

Nashiri, 51, is accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s Oct. 12, 2000, suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole at Aden, Yemen, that killed 17 sailors. He was held for four years in secret CIA prisons, including at Guantánamo, before President George W. Bush ordered his 2006 transfer to the U.S. military for trial by military tribunal.

In their request, Nashiri’s lawyers invoke expert testimony that the Saudi was sexually, physically and mentally tortured in his years under CIA custody, as well as a military medical diagnosis of PTSD to explain why the trip between court and the prison is traumatic. Declassified reports show Nashiri was interrogated with waterboarding, a revving power drill and threats to his mother.

The agency also subjected him to “rectal re-feeding” for going on a hunger strike — a tactic his lawyer has called tantamount to rape.

“The government shall ensure both witnesses are available to provide testimony for the December 2016 hearing,” Spath, a colonel, wrote in a ruling released Friday that did not name either the “Senior Medical Officer responsible for the accused’s care” or Joint Task Force commander, Navy Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke.

Clarke should still be on the job running the Detention Center Zone of 60 war prisoners and about 1,900 troops and staff members. The Pentagon named Clarke's successor on Friday but he is unlikely to take over until January at the earliest.

No trial date has been set in either case. Pretrial issues currently involve what information the former CIA captives, or their lawyers, are entitled to see. Prosecutors have provided a portion of the evidence to the judge, seeking approval of substitutions of the original material.

At the war court compound known as Camp Justice, defendants are kept in steel cells at the Expeditionary Legal Complex, a barbed-wire-topped fenced compound masked by green fabric. Each cell has a bunk, a toilet and sink and monitor that can show adjacent court proceedings. Beyond the barbed wire, some lawyers and court staff sleep in an adjacent trailer park and reporters bivouac in a crude tent city.

The $12 million Expeditionary Legal Complex provided by the Pentagon, including the video of the judge from the seat used at trials by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and separately accused USS Cole bomber Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.

Hawsawi’s lawyers link his rectal damage to his treatment in CIA custody as well, noting that an unclassified portion of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the spy agency’s secret prison program showed allegations that the captive was subjected to rectal exams with “excessive force.” At some point before his 2006 transfer to Guantánamo, Hawsawi had a “medical emergency” that the agency considered for treatment in a foreign hospital, the report said

In his court filing Nov. 18, Hawsawi attorney Ruiz was particularly critical of a reference — apparently in a yet-to-be released prosecution filing — to Hawsawi’s procedure as “elective surgery,” held on a Friday night at the base hospital hours after the last pretrial hearing in the 9/11 case.

“Mr. al Hawsawi was brutally sodomized, his rectum shredded and his very insides dislodged,” wrote Ruiz, a Navy Reserve commander. “This corrective surgery is the long-overdue legal and moral obligation of our government, and that obligation extends to affording an appropriate amount of time to Mr. al Hawsawi to fully recover.”

Additional Reading

▪ About the USS Cole bombing case, a primer

▪ About the Sept. 11 trial, a Who’s Who Guide

▪ Click here for more Miami Herald Guantánamo coverage.