Unusual accommodation at Gitmo war court: A hospital bed for an al-Qaida suspect

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 photo taken June 19, 2014.
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 photo taken June 19, 2014.

Military judges have made certain accommodations to accused war criminals here. But Friday, for the first time, the military placed a hospital bed inside the court.

Troops moved the standard style hospital bed from the prison to the war court at Camp Justice. Then they brought an alleged al-Qaida war criminal to court in an ambulance for a brief pretrial hearing, which straddled a two-hour recess to let the Iraqi captive sleep off painkillers.

Abd al Hadi al Iraqi underwent five spine surgeries in eight months at Guantánamo, starting in September 2017, and has rarely made it to court since. A new judge in the case, Marine Lt. Col. Michael Libretto, attempted to hold a hearing on Tuesday but had to recess after just 30 minutes when the captive suffered back spasms that impaired his breathing. He was was medicated with multiple opiates and then taken to the prison acute care unit.

On Friday, Libretto got through the basics of a new-judge hearing: Letting defense lawyers question him on his background to probe for possible bias before the judge, based in Parris Island, S.C., declared himself conflict-free and capable of presiding in the case.

First, however, he asked Hadi how he was doing. “I feel like my head is going to explode, my entire body is strained and stretched,” the 57-year-old captive replied about 10 minutes into the hearing from a cushioned rehabilitation chair. Before it started he was upright in the hospital bed, wearing a white prison uniform, skullcap and hospital socks but moved to the chair for the proceeding. Then, at Minute 18, defense lawyers declared a spasm was starting and the judge recessed.

Hadi used a walker to get back to the hospital bed, a few steps away, and lay down.

A Navy Corpsman who was watching from the curtained-off victims section of the spectators’ gallery grabbed his field kit, and went inside. An Army major whose specialty is psychiatry was also on hand as treating physician. The court was recessed for more than two and half hours, during which U.S. troops ushered out observers to dim the lights and let Hadi sleep off the opiates — a Percoset before court and a Valium at the recess.

The war crimes hearings have gone on for more than a decade, and judges have made certain accommodations to the captives’ needs. The alleged 9/11 plotters, for example, unfurl their rugs, kneel and pray inside the courtroom during prayer time recesses. A captive who suffered rectal damage during CIA detention sits on a pillow. Some of the accused terrorists don paramilitary attire for their hearings. But never before has a hospital bed been brought inside court.

At one point the judge read from a recent medical opinion that said Hadi “healed appropriately” from his five surgeries, the hardware U.S. surgeons put in his spine were fixed and stable — and back spasms are not unusual. Given his age and history, according to the judge’s reading of the opinion, “the accused may never improve beyond the current condition.”

Legal arguments were on the docket, mostly focused on constitutional issues. But Libretto said, based on Hadi’s health condition, he limited the hearing to staffing issues. A new defense lawyer, Susan Hensler, was sworn in. Three absent defense attorneys were excused. And Libretto declined to release three others, awaiting more details on why they were leaving or who was coming to replace them.

Hadi, who says his true name is Nashwan al Tamir, is accused of directing and paying insurgents to carry out attacks on U.S. and allied troops and civilians in the post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and dismantle the Taliban. Hadi was captured a decade ago, in Turkey, and in April 2007 was brought to Guantánamo’s clandestine Camp 7 prison for former CIA captives. He was charged at the war court in June 2014, and could face a life sentence if he’s convicted.

More on the case in our exclusive trial guide.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg