As law students working on the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, we know that his release is a matter of humanity, not of opinion.
“We tortured Qahtani.” As law students working on The case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, it remains shocking to us that more than 10 years after this damning admission from a senior US government official – the only one of its kind in the so-called “global war on terror” – Mohammed remains behind bars.
Our client is languishing in the famous prison our government opened in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 19 years ago. Mohammed spent more than half of his life there. We begin our legal careers with the unusual job of challenging US imprisonment without trial. As our country awaits the Biden administration, we remember the 2008 Obama-Biden ticket broken promise to shut down the offshore prison. Finally, this promise must be honored: Mohammed must be released and Guantanamo closed.
Mohammed’s case is unusual because there is no dispute that the US government tortured him mercilessly. But what is less well known is that he has lived with mental health problems since childhood. At just eight years old, Mohammed was thrown from a car in an accident and suffered a head injury causing severe cognitive decline. As a teenager, he began to experience paranoia and auditory hallucinations, common symptoms of schizophrenia. In 2000, just a year and a half before his capture, he rushed into moving traffic in Mecca, resulting in hospitalization for an acute psychotic break. The US government has yet to question whether it was aware of Mohammed’s pre-existing mental health issues at the time he tortured him.
For 50 days, from November 2002 to January 2003, US military interrogators kept Mohammed in solitary confinement while beating him, forced him to assume painful “stress” positions, exposed him to high temperatures. extremes, heartbreaking music and a lack of dogs. They forcibly shaved off his hair and beard. They woke him up at 4 a.m. everyday and interrogated him until midnight. They forcefully administered fluids intravenously and refused to let him use the toilet until he urinated on himself. They made him dance. They made him collect the trash with his hands. When the torture brought Mohammed to the brink of cardiac arrest, interrogators took him to the hospital and continued to interrogate him in the ambulance. The doctors made sure that Mohammed did not die so that the torture could continue.
In Mohammed’s own words: “I had no idea of the time that was passing, no definition to mark it… I was all alone in the world. I couldn’t find a way to stop the torture. Since his torture, Mohammed has shown severe signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
We are young millennials and student lawyers who have come back to these cruel facts time and time again. None of us was over 10 years old when the first group of men was forcibly brought into Guantanamo. When Mohammed was the age we are now, our own government tortured him, while he suffered from severe mental illness. He is now living with worsening symptoms of PTSD, schizophrenia and major depression, which cannot be treated while he remains at Guantanamo. Just like his torture, his continued incarceration is a stain on the conscience of this country.
In March 2020, a federal judge ordered the U.S. military to obey domestic law and create a panel of U.S. and foreign doctors to examine Mohammed and determine whether he should be repatriated to Saudi Arabia for psychiatric treatment. Predictably, the government attempted to appeal this order, but the appeals court dismissed the appeal, leaving the lower court order pending. Yet Mohammed remains in jail and the government has made no effort to facilitate the independent medical examination.
As Mohammed’s legal lawyers, we reiterate our demand for early release. The Biden administration could release Mohammed tomorrow if they wish. At a minimum, the government should have him screened quickly and repatriated to Saudi Arabia, to receive the treatment his illness needs and finally be close to his family. We have learned all too well in law school that litigation takes time, a commodity that Mohammed quickly runs out of.
As young lawyers in training, we enter the profession with the painful knowledge that the law is being used to lock up people like Mohammed, who are declared disposable in the name of national security. We refuse to accept the limitations of the law. For us, this case is morally simple: the United States must free Mohammed and close Guantanamo, once and for all.
Sonya Levitova, Ayah Zaki and Joshua Asch, former student lawyers at CLEAR Clinic, are the co-authors of this article.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.