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The U.S. is preparing to transfer a man suspected of being a 9/11 hijacker from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon announced that this comes after a review board recommended Mohammed al-Qahtani be transferred so he can be treated at a rehabilitation and mental health care program for extremists in Saudi Arabia. New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg joins.
For more on Al Qahtani and the remaining detainees, I spoke with New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg who has covered Guantanamo bay and the prisoners there since 2002.
Why is the repatriation of al-Qahtani such a big deal?
Because he's been described for so many years as the 20th hijacker. The man who would have been the 20th hijacker in the September 11th attacks and because there is still residual sense that if he was intended for that mission, there should be some way to put him on trial and there simply is not.
He's had charges brought against him before and then dropped and then brought against him again. What is the sort of legal standing aside from this repatriation?
He's held, as what I like to call it, a forever prisoner, he's held as a detainee in the war on terror. A law of war prisoner, essentially a U.S. category for a prisoner of war that was created after the September 11th attacks, that said, as long as we are engaged in that war, we can hold people that we believe came off that battlefield. And because there's nobody to surrender on the other side, there's no formula for ending that war. This periodic review board takes a look at the cases and decides who can be sent away, sent home or sent to resettlement somewhere else with little to no risk of them becoming a future danger to the United States. And that's what happened with Mr. Qahtani over the summer.
So how did they determine that he was no longer a risk to somebody in the United States? That part of the reasoning was his mental health? What is his mental health and what does that have to do with it?
Long before he ever tried to enter the United States, when he was a young man in Saudi Arabia, he had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He also had traumatic brain injuries, so he had an existing mental illness by the time he came into our custody and after which we tortured him, we tortured him, the United States military for about two months in some, really despicable ways at Camp X-Ray. And after that, he became unchargable because the evidence against him was tainted. And furthermore, somebody who is that ill who's that incompetent could not be charged. So the basis for which the decision that he could be let go, that his dangerousness could be mitigated, was the opinions of two doctors. Most importantly, a chief medical officer, a Navy captain whose position was recently created by Congress to take a hard, independent look at the cases of the forever prisoners down there and see what their health status is and whether Guantanamo can care for them. Part of the decision making here is that he's so sick he's not getting better, and that detention center doesn't have the mental health capacity or the cultural capacity to care for him.
Was that the same reasoning that existed when we held on to him and as you say, we tortured him? But didn't we know about his mental state then?
Actually, we did not. The emergence of the adolescent diagnosis and the brain injuries that occurred when he was a young man emerged through court proceedings taken on by his lawyers who got a hold of his health records in Saudi Arabia. You know, there had been an understanding that the man was mentally ill because of what we had done to him. And it's no doubt that the torture made it worse. The torture damaged him more. But he arrived in U.S. custody as a damaged person, so it would have been an open question based on that diagnosis, whether he was triable in the first place.
Does this have any bearing on the remaining men at Guantanamo?
I think the lesson here is that they're taking a much more forensic look at the health conditions of these men and that they've been able to do that because Congress created this Navy position of a medical officer who's independent of the prison camp. And they're deciding that whether aging sickly, in some instances, men can be held there, should be held there and can be treated there. The doctor who looked at it for the Navy said there were three outcomes for Mr. Qahtani. He would succeed in killing himself. He'd die of old age there and maybe not even of old age of some of his illnesses that he has existing. Or he'd go home to care where the same two outcomes might occur. I mean, he is a very sick man. And his outcomes as a human being aren't good anywhere.
Carol Rosenberg of The New York Times. Thanks so much.
Thank you. Hari.
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