After four emergency spinal surgeries, is alleged terrorist fit to stand trial?

Guantánamo prisoner Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, who says his true name is Nashwan al Tamir, poses for the International Red Cross in a 2014 photo taken for his family, and provided by his attorneys.
Guantánamo prisoner Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, who says his true name is Nashwan al Tamir, poses for the International Red Cross in a 2014 photo taken for his family, and provided by his attorneys.

An Iraqi captive accused of commanding al-Qaida’s army in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks returns to court this week after four emergency spine surgeries in nearly four months. His secret prison cell has been retrofitted with grab bars and other handicapped accessibility devices.

Topic No. 1 when court opens Tuesday: Is Abd al Hadi al Iraqi fit enough to help his lawyers prepare for his war crimes trial? The man, now in his 50s, allegedly led insurgents who resisted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan with roadside bombs, ambushes and other attacks that did not distinguish combatant from civilian. Conviction could carry a maximum life sentence.

The captive, who says his real name is Nashwan al Tamir, hasn’t been to court since August. His lawyers want the judge, Marine Col. Peter Rubin, to suspend the proceedings until the Iraqi is physically well enough to work with his attorneys for more than a few hours at a stretch.

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“He’s not in great shape, but he wants to come to these hearings,” said his civilian, Pentagon-paid attorney, Adam Thurschwell, describing the man as incapacitated by debilitating pain after a few hours of legal meetings.

Late last week, his attorneys said, he came to meetings in a contraption that looked like an upper body brace to immobilize his neck. He was transported by wheelchair and could walk only a few steps with the aid of a walker. He complained of a loss of feeling in his legs and feet — but found relief by sitting cross-legged in a hospital-style recliner chair the prison set up in a cell where lawyers meet captives.

Court filings show he underwent four surgeries since early September when, as a hurricane was headed to this remote base, the Pentagon scrambled a neurosurgery team to stabilize his lower back. Three more surgeries followed, one stabilizing his upper back, another after doctors discovered a blood clot, and the most recent to stabilize screws in his neck.

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Hadi only returned to his prison cell from some sort of hospital setting on Jan. 16, according to a federal court filing. By then, it said, the military retrofitted his cell with grab bars, a handicapped seat atop his cell toilet, a shower and “grip strips” on the floor.

His lawyers say that even before the man charged as Hadi was captured in Turkey in 2006, allegedly trying to reach Iraq on orders of Osama bin Laden, the captive already had degenerative disc disease demonstrated by an MRI and was recommended for surgery.

He got to Guantánamo in April 2007, after 170 days in secret CIA custody and had for years complained of chronic back pain, according to medical records. The pain was mostly treated with Ben Gay — until medical staff feared paralysis.

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Peter S. Rubin at a training conference in a Pentagon photo dated Oct. 31, 2013.

On the eve of the hearing Thurschwell blamed 11 years of U.S. “indifference to his medical concerns and medical needs” for the health crisis. But he declined to comment on the quality of the recent care Hadi has received at the terror prison, which boasts its captives get top-notch medical treatment, just like its troops.

One issue Rubin is being asked to decide this week is whether to order the U.S. government to let Hadi’s lawyers hire a medical consultant to help them better understand what is going on with the alleged terrorist’s spine. Separately, his lawyers have sought federal court intervention in the case.

RELATED: “U.S. deliberately withheld medical care at Guantánamo, federal lawsuit claims”

A federal court filing shows Hadi is this week scheduled to undergo a post-operative examination using a mobile MRI. War court management rented the equipment and had it shipped to this base for a death-penalty case, to determine if another former CIA captive suffered a traumatic brain injury, conditions that could spare him from execution.

Hadi, however, is getting the first known use of an MRI at Guantánamo for medical rather than forensic purposes. Prison medical staff have repeated told reporters that the technology is unnecessary for providing medical care to the 41 war-on-terror captives at the prison. Other base residents go to the United States for their scans, but Congress has outlawed bringing Guantánamo detainees to U.S. soil, even for medical treatment.

So, as a rule, captives are examined by a CT Scan purchased for the base soon after Camp X-Ray opened in January 2002. A Jan. 25 court filing signed by an anonymous doctor who works at the secret Camp 7 for former CIA captives said Hadi’s MRI is being conducted this week “at the request of his Neurosurgical team.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Hadi’s would be the first known use of an MRI at the Navy base. His is to be the first known use for therapeutic purposes. The machine has already been used to examine several other detainees for forensic purposes, following a war court order sought by defense attorneys seeking potential trial evidence.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

About the surgeries

Court records show the captive underwent the following surgeries on the following dates:

Nov. 14, 2017: Cervical spine fused from C3-T2.

Sept. 23, 2017: Removal of a post-operative hematoma in his neck.

Sept. 18, 2017: C304/C4-5/C5-6 Anterior Disectomy and Fusion.

Sept. 5, 2017: Emergency L4-L5/L5-S1 laminectomy after incontinence ensued.