WASHINGTON — A federal judge has turned back an effort to delay an independent medical review for a Saudi citizen held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center who was so badly mistreated in American custody that he cannot be put on trial.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle late Wednesday rejected the U.S. government's bid to put a hold on a March order that called for an independent panel of doctors to examine prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani at the U.S. base in Cuba.
The Department of Justice has said it intends to appeal the March decision, which was issued by a judge who has since retired. But Huvelle noted in her ruling that, due to his health, the risk of delay to the prisoner "far outweighs" any potential harm to the government from dispatching a team of doctors to evaluate him.
Government lawyers, she wrote, "failed to demonstrate either a likelihood of success on the merits or that the balance of harms weighs in their favor."
Al-Qahtani, who has been held at Guantanamo since early 2002, has long posed a legal dilemma for U.S. authorities. The government says he tried without success to enter the country in August 2001 to join the hijackers who seized four passenger planes in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. forces later captured him in Afghanistan and sent him to Guantanamo. He was then subjected to treatment that was so brutal that the Pentagon legal official in charge of the war crimes tribunals determined that it amounted to torture and he could not be prosecuted. The government has never said what it plans to do with him and his attorneys are seeking to have him returned to his native Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.
The prisoner has been diagnosed with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia, apparently due to a brain injury from a childhood car accident in Saudi Arabia. Huvelle factored this into her decision.
"Mr. al-Qahtani's mental health issues were evident to U.S. government officials when he was first detained at Guantanamo Bay and have been exacerbated by the torture he initially suffered at the hands of the U.S. government and the over 18 years he has spent in detention," she wrote.
Attorneys for al-Qahtani are seeking what's known as a Mixed Medical Commission, consisting of one doctor chosen by the government and two others from neutral third countries, to confirm the health condition of the prisoner. and eventually secure his release to Saudi Arabia for treatment. The Kingdom has agreed to his return.
The government has argued that al-Qahtani can get any medical treatment he needs at Guantanamo and that creating a Mixed Medical Commission, which has never before been provided for a prisoner at the detention center, would set a precedent that would inspire other to seek one as well.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request to comment on Wednesday's ruling.
Ramzi Kassem, an attorney for al-Qahtani, said he thinks the government is worried about what an independent medical panel would conclude about his client.
"They're concerned the mixed medical commission will come back and say he meets the criteria for medical repatriation," said Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York.
In her ruling, the judge noted it would likely take some time to put together a medical panel and dispatch it to the detention center, which has put restrictions on visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic that have brought legal proceedings against other detainees to a standstill.
The U.S. still holds 40 prisoners at Guantanamo, down from a high of nearly 680 in 2003.