Lawyers argue Guantánamo captive so sick he should go home

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth is pictured in his office in this Nov. 23, 2005, file photo in Washington.
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth is pictured in his office in this Nov. 23, 2005, file photo in Washington. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ibrahim Idris is an obese, diabetic, schizophrenic Sudanese man who has mostly lived at Guantánamo’s psychiatric ward since he got to the U.S. terror prison in Cuba on the day it opened.

 U.S. military intelligence has profiled him as an al-Qaida insider. But even his fellow prisoners don’t want him around, according to court records, because he behaves bizarrely — wears his underwear on his head, whispers to himself, is delusional.

 Now his New York lawyers are arguing a novel twist in a war-on-terror habeas corpus petition at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Rather than ask Chief Judge Royce Lamberth to judge what Idris did or did not do before he got to Guantánamo, they argue he’s too fat, too crazy and too physically sick to be a danger in the future. So Lamberth should send him home.

The 14-page petition, backed by medical reports from the prison, does not even address U.S. military claims that Idris was captured in the company of other al-Qaida combatants, that he probably was at Tora Bora after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Instead, the brief invokes U.S. Army regulations that recommend repatriation of POWs who are so sick they can’t recover. Plus, they note, the Geneva Conventions require a war prisoner be sent home if his mental or physical fitness “have been gravely diminished.”

Jennifer Cowan, who has been Idris’ court-appointed lawyer since 2005, explains it this way: “If you’re so sick that you can’t return to the battlefield, there’s no basis for holding you.”

Idris, she notes, “has multiple illnesses. He has mental illnesses, which are severe, physical illness that’s long-standing, and nobody thinks he’s going to recover from any of those. It’s not like he has a cold.”

For its part, the Defense Department won’t comment on the case because it’s in litigation, says Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale. Government lawyers have until July 15 to respond.

The suit was filed the same day the U.S. Southern Command released a report that found Guantánamo guards and medics broke their own medication and observation rules in the September suicide by a Yemeni captive named Adnan Latif. The military said Latif, also a frequent resident of the prison’s psych ward, overdosed on hoarded anti-psychotic drugs a day after he was put into a disciplinary cell. Unlike Latif, Idris has refused psychiatric medications for years and, according to his attorney, has not had discipline problems.

Idris, who is in his 50s, stood five feet seven inches and weighed 206 pounds at Guantánamo on Jan. 12, 2002, prison camp court records say. A day earlier, a Navy petty officer photographed the first 20 captives to arrive at Camp X-Ray inside a cage of chain-link fence, shacked and on their knees. Since then, Idris has packed on at least 50 more pounds and hasn’t stopped eating, according to his lawyers, even amid a widespread hunger strike at Guantánamo that has grabbed the headlines.

 In 2009, an Army psychiatrist whose name is expunged from the court record, diagnosed Idris as suffering from “schizophrenia, disorganized type.” The doctor, an Army lieutenant colonel, advised the federal court in Washington that Idris was so mentally ill he couldn’t work with his lawyers, so delusional he couldn’t separate his life at the prison from “his internal fantasy world.” And the doctor advised the court that the Sudanese captive was diagnosed as having a mental illness within weeks of getting to Guantánamo.

His medical records also show him as a “morbidly obese” diabetic with related circulatory and blood-pressure problems.

Leaked Guantánamo documents, obtained from Wikileaks, show the military profiled him for years as an al-Qaida insider who worked as a Sudan-based courier for Osama bin Laden before he moved to Afghanistan.

But as late as 2008 a military intelligence report made no mention of his mental illness, or frequent psych ward hospitalization as the prison considered his “intelligence value” to the United States seven years after his capture. The report simply called his health “fair,” cast him as a “low threat” prisoner, meaning he was compliant with his guards. It advised against his release, in part, because he “resisted cooperation with interrogators and remains largely unexploited” — meaning he had yet to spill any al-Qaida secrets.

If released, it warned, he was likely to threaten the United States or its interests.

To questions of whether he could not be used by the enemy, strapped into a bomb belt and dispatched as a suicide bomber, Cowan points to an email her firm got from a Justice Department lawyer in March.

Idris, it says, careens between “periodic lucid episodes” and “disorganized behavior such as wearing underwear on his head, whispering to himself … laughing and singing out of context.” Other captives had grown weary of him, so he was at the prison hospital being treated for a foot infection.

Plus, across nearly a dozen years at Guantánamo, his court records show, he has heard voices, suffered crying jags and nightmares — but he has never been suicidal.

“Disorganized” is an aspect of his schizophrenia, according to the report, meaning he is unable to carry out routine activities.

Recently, when his attorneys arranged a call to speak with him from New York, guards took him to a room and sat him before a telephone. The receiver was off the hook, his lawyers were waiting on the line.

He just sat there, too confused to put the phone to his ear.

“He’s not capable of the complex thought processes, which would be necessary to do any sort of day-to-day activities,” Cowan says, “let alone any more of that.”

 So, the motion says, it’s time to send him home to a family that will care for him in a country that has little resources or commitment to mental healthcare, meaning he won’t get any better.

It’s unclear how the Obama administration will respond to the argument. Three years ago, a federal task force approved Idris’ repatriation to his homeland “subject to appropriate security measures.” But Congress has blocked all administrative releases. Absent a court order, Idris can’t go anywhere.

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