Troops force alleged al-Qaida commander into Guantánamo war court

Restraint chairs at the ready outside the war court on June 9, 2014 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a photo cleared for release by the U.S. military.
Restraint chairs at the ready outside the war court on June 9, 2014 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a photo cleared for release by the U.S. military.

Prison guards forced an alleged al-Qaida commander into court strapped into a restraint chair Monday, and the U.S. military imposed a blackout on the Iraqi captive who complained of painful, bloodied hands and wrists.

At issue was one that has periodically dogged pretrial hearings in the case of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi since 2014: A female soldier was added to his escort guard force Monday morning — and the captive invoked an Islamic prohibition against being touched by women other than close family.

“I do not call for violence,” Hadi told the judge. “It’s all about touching by the female. It’s a very famous teaching of Islam. Nobody can deny it.”

At one point judge Marine Col. Peter Rubin offered to bring a Navy medic to court after Hadi sought a recess, declaring: “You can see the blood in my hands and my wrists.” The judge also said he might consider having the captive unshackled.

But none of this could be seen via the video feed the war court provides to reporters, troops and victims both at this remote U.S. Navy base and at viewing sites along the U.S. East Coast. In a deviation of war court policy of showing whomever is speaking, video technicians focused on the judge at all times while Hadi and his lawyers protested from the defense table.

A war court observer, retired Marine Lt. Col. Scott Cooper, said he could see no sign of blood or shackles as he peered into the courtroom through triple-pane glass from a spectators’ gallery at the rear. Cooper, a former Prowler pilot in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who now works for Human Rights First, said Army guards wheeled Hadi into the court with both wrists strapped to the arms of the chair. A guard eventually released one arm, and Hadi could be seen sipping water, and adjusting his microphone to speak to the judge.

One of Hadi’s lawyers, however, said that on close examination in a holding cell behind the court the captive “had blood on his right elbow and arm” as well as “scrapes and bruises on his left arm.” The lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Aimee Cooper, no relation, added that Hadi’s “left forearm appeared to be swollen and bruised.”

Hadi didn’t look beaten up, the commander said, but was scraped up like a child who fell and slid across a road or sidewalk. She added that her team was seeking medical records, photos of his injuries and return of his bloodied garment.

Hadi, who goes by the name Nashwan al Tamir, was charged in June 2014 with war crimes punishable by life in prison as the alleged commander of forces that killed U.S. and foreign allied troops in 2002-04 wartime Afghanistan.

There was no immediate explanation for the partial video blackout. The chief prosecutor has consistently said embarrassment to the government is no justification for withholding information at the war court whose motto is Fairness * Transparency * Justice.

The prison spokesman, Navy Capt. John Filostrat, declined to describe the extent of Hadi’s injuries citing a “policy not to discuss individual detainee health issues.”

Defense attorney Brent Rushforth, a civilian who was a Pentagon lawyer during the Jimmy Carter administration, told the judge that he considered the episode a violation of his client’s “deeply held religious beliefs.” He said his team would seek a writ in federal court to abate the military commission proceedings over the female guard issue.

The issue first arose in October 2014 after a National Guard unit arrived at the Camp 7 prison, where former CIA captives described as devout Muslims are kept, and added women to the escort teams. Lawyers for both Hadi and the five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks tied up the courts with extensive litigation that cast it as a clash between a heartfelt religious sentiment and the right of women to do most of the same jobs as male soldiers.

Both judges for a time banned female guards from touching the captives as they came and went from court and legal sessions but ultimately returned women to escort duty. Hadi’s lawyers said, however, that Monday marked the first time that a woman actually turned up on a Hadi war court escort team comprised of soldiers who shackle and handle captives to the door of the court.

It also came just days after the prison newsletter, The Wire, did a cover story on the teams and use of the tackle-and-shackle technique known as a Forced Cell Extraction. The article, “Seeking Perfection,” showed how black-helmeted troops in black-padded gear force a captive from a cell and then strap him into a restraint chair.

“The Battalion Augmentation Team Internal Response Force makes sure that unruly detainees are not a harm to themselves, other detainees or the guard force,” the article said.

Rubin inherited the case on Nov. 1, after Hadi’s first judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, ruled that the war prisoner had no right to invoke a religious protection in the female guard issue. Rubin told the captive that nobody meant disrespect, but the guard force was doing its job, regardless of gender.

In 2015, a case prosecutor cast Hadi’s insistance that he be touched only by men as an al-Qaida conspiracy that had harmed morale at Guantánamo secretive prison that houses former CIA black site captives.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg