WASHINGTON -- One of the five accused Sept. 11 co-conspirators is asking a federal court to place a freeze on his ongoing military trial until the U.S. provides him with improved medical care at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, where he has been detained since 2006.
Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who was held in CIA black sites from 2003 to 2006, has several chronic health problems that his lawyers say are the direct result of three years of abuse under the agency’s torture program and inadequate medical treatment since being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
On Thursday, his legal team will appear in federal court in Washington to urge the judge to halt proceedings at Guantanamo Bay, where al-Hawsawi is facing the death penalty for his alleged involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The 46-year-old Saudi national was diagnosed with hepatitis C when he first arrived at the prison in September 2006 -- a condition his lawyers say he did not have before entering the CIA torture program. Since last year, there have been traces of blood in his urine and low red, white and platelet cell counts in his blood -- all possible signs of cancer. But al-Hawsawi’s lawyers say he hasn’t received any medical tests to know for sure.
The Pentagon would not confirm whether al-Hawsawi had received tests to rule out cancer. "We do not discuss the individual medical records of detainees. With regards to public health screening of detainees, we follow and are in line with CDC and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) guidelines for medical care at detention facilities. Medical screenings are voluntary,” said a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command.
Earlier this year, Abu Anas al-Libi, another U.S. prisoner with hepatitis C, died of complications related to the curable virus while in custody in federal prison in New York. Al-Libi, accused of helping to plan the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, died days before he was scheduled to appear in court. “Mr. al-Libi’s case demonstrates the potential for sudden and deadly progression of hepatitis C,” al-Hawsawi’s defense team wrote in a February court document.
CIA records show that al-Hawsawi also suffers from “chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse.” His lawyers say this is the direct result of “sodomy with a foreign object under the guise of rectal exams conducted with excessive force,” as described in a 528-page Senate report on the CIA’s “rendition, detention and interrogation program.”
Al-Hawsawi now has to use his fingers to manually reinsert prolapsed tissue into his rectal cavity after straining or defecating, his legal team says. When al-Hawsawi appears in court, he has to sit atop a pillow.
The government has denied requests from al-Hawsawi’s lawyers for access to his complete medical records, citing classified information in some of his records.
All of the Guantanamo Bay defense lawyers have the highest level of security clearance and are bound by a protective order to keep classified information secret. But the government wants the defense teams to sign an additional agreement before granting them broader widespread access to classified information. Several of the defense teams have refused to sign the agreement, arguing that it limits their communication with their client and compromises their ability to advocate on their client’s behalf.
Al-Hawsawi’s defense team say numerous letters requesting to speak to his physicians have gone unanswered -- but a U.S. Southern Command spokesman says the prison’s Joint Task Force has no record of such requests.
Thursday’s hearing in Washington comes after several failed attempts by al-Hawsawi’s defense team to compel the military to improve his medical treatment through the military commissions system, the legal apparatus in place to charge some Guantanamo Bay detainees with war crimes.
After last December’s Senate torture report publicized some of al-Hawsawi’s experiences in CIA black sites, his legal team filed an emergency motion requesting medical intervention by the government. Specifically, al-Hawsawi’s lawyers asked for tests to determine the source of blood in his urine, and demanded access to his medical records and a meeting with his doctors.
Military commission Judge James L. Pohl denied the request for intervention three months later, ruling that issues of medical care were outside of his jurisdiction -- prompting al-Hawsawi’s lawyers to turn to the federal court system.
Al-Hawsawi’s lawyers have also sought international help, appealing to the Organization of American States’ human rights commission to require the U.S. to remedy the situation. On July 7, the organization requested that the U.S. adjust its medical treatment of al-Hawsawi to protect his “life, health, and personal integrity,” and gave the U.S. 15 days to respond. As a member of the OAS, the U.S. is beholden to the human rights obligations in the organization’s charter, but the government has yet to submit a response.
The government’s failure to respond to the OAS came as no surprise to al-Hawsawi’s defense team. “The government may have no sense of urgency in providing proper medical care, since ultimately, the goal of the prosecution is to kill Mr. al-Hawsawi,” wrote the defense team in a February court memo shortly before Pohl said he couldn’t force the military to improve its medical care of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
The latest potential holdup to the trial over the Sept. 11 attacks comes as President Barack Obama searches for a way to close the infamous prison within his final 16 months in office. Earlier this month, the Pentagon toured military prisons in South Carolina and Kansas to assess whether they could be a viable place to hold the remaining Guantanamo Bay population. Of the 116 men still in custody, 52 have been cleared for transfer abroad, and another 64, including al-Hawsawi, have been assessed to be too dangerous for release.
Before the Obama administration can legally move Guantanamo Bay prisoners to a domestic facility, the president will need Congress to redraft existing law, which currently prohibits the transfer of any detainee to U.S. soil. While Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said he's open to hearing the White House’s plan, a majority of Republican lawmakers oppose bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to a U.S. prison.