Alleged al-Qaida commander needs more spine surgery; next Guantánamo hearing in doubt

Guantánamo Navy base hospital on Oct. 13, 2016.
Guantánamo Navy base hospital on Oct. 13, 2016.

A high-value detainee at Guantánamo needs a second spinal cord surgery, this one on his neck, a medical procedure that his lawyers say will likely mean cancellation of next month’s war court hearing in the case of an Iraqi man accused of commanding the al-Qaida army in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Pentagon-paid lawyers for Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, 56, said they got notice Thursday night that the man who calls himself Nashwan al Tamir will undergo neck surgery next week, Sept. 19 or 20. They were told he would be unable to see anyone on his legal defense team for four to six weeks following surgery. His next war court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 2-6.

Earlier this month, as Hurricane Irma was headed Guantánamo’s way, the captive became incontinent, and the war-on-terror prison scrambled a special neurosurgery team to the base in southeast Cuba to conduct emergency surgery on Hadi’s lower back — a procedure that, according to doctors consulted by defense attorneys, was clearly necessary months ago based on a January CT scan.

Guantánamo’s 41 war-on-terror captives are forbidden by law from being brought to the United States for any reason. So the small base hospital has to import medical expertise rather than med-evac captives for complex treatment as it does for any other resident on the base of about 5,500 people.

READ MORE: Doctors beat Irma to Guantánamo to operate on alleged war criminal’s spine

Hadi’s attorneys describe next week’s surgery as an emergency operation; a letter he wrote them this week said he was advised, absent some urgency, that he would require 6 to 12 weeks of recovery from the lower back operation before the neck surgery. His lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Aimee Cooper, said she was notified Thursday evening that he would be unable to speak with his legal team for weeks — in person or by phone — because neck surgery had been scheduled.

Hadi was formally charged with war crimes in June 2014. The case is still in pretrial hearings as prosecutors continue to disclose some evidence to his lawyers, who are contesting the legality of some aspects of the war court created by George W. Bush. Hadi, who fled service in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army in the 1990s, is accused of directing and paying insurgents to carry out attacks on U.S. and allied troops and civilians during the post- 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and dismantle the Taliban.

GUIDE: About the war crimes trial of the alleged al-Qaida commander

No trial date has been set. His judge, Marine Col. Peter Rubin, has asked for an update on Hadi’s health condition by Sept. 21, and set a light agenda for the October session — four discovery motions, an expert request and Hadi’s lawyers’ request to suspend all proceedings, according to Cooper, “until he’s competent and healthy to stand trial.”

“He obviously can’t prepare,” she said, “if he can’t meet with his lawyers.”

Cooper said the first surgery had left a numbness in his left side, and he wrote his lawyers Sept. 11 that he was able to only walk a few feet, “with the assistance of others, holding him up.” His lawyers said he also related that, sometime before the hurricane swept past, Hadi was moved from the remote U.S. Navy base’s community hospital back into the Detention Center Zone and kept at a small prison clinic.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson said, as of Friday, the hearing was still on the war court calendar for next month. “Any requests for delay, medical or otherwise, would only come after an appropriate motion has been filed and ruled on by the military judge,” he said by email.