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Torture in Guantánamo: Mohammed Al Qahtani

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and
provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.

-- From a White House Memo for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies;
SUBJECT: Transparency and Open Government

This month sees the tenth anniversary of Guantánamo as we have come to know it, and the U.S. Government is still trying to restrict access to the island prison camp from the public. I understand that the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) had filed a FOIA complaint yesterday in federal court on behalf of Mohammed al Qahtani, seeking public disclosure of videotapes and photographs relating to his treatment at Guantánamo, where he is still being held. The treatment of Mr. al Qahtani was the subject of my book Torture Team, which I started writing six years ago and which was published three years ago. He has not been charged of any crime, but is apparently being held indefinitely. That is, by any standard, an extraordinary and deplorable situation. This is all the more so since, in January 2009, a senior official appointed by President Bush's Administration confirmed that charges against him were dropped because he had been tortured.

Mr. al Qahtani's lawyers have been able to review some of the tapes that show aspects of his treatment. Yet President Obama's administration continues to resist all efforts to disclose them to the public, despite a professed commitment to transparency and open government.

It is appropriate to recall his treatment. In November 2002, Mr. al Qahtani was held in severe isolation for over three months; he was subjected to a "special interrogation plan." A Defense Department investigation of his mistreatment found, among other things, that:

On 06 Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was forced to wear a woman's bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of the interrogation.

On 17 Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was told that his mother and sister were whores.

On 20 Dec 02, an interrogator tied a leash to the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan's chains, led him around the room, and forced him to perform a series of dog tricks.

On one occasion in Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was forced to stand naked for five minutes with females present. This incident occurred during the course of a strip search.

For 48 days, Mr. al Qahtani was subjected to intense sleep deprivation, allowed to sleep for no more than four hours a day. When he did manage to sleep, he was often awoken with water being poured repeatedly on his head. He was subjected to forced nudity and sexual and religious humiliation. He was compared to a pig and rat. Dogs were used to induce fear in him.

This mistreatment left Mr. al Qahtani physically and psychologically broken. In November 2002 -- before he had even been subjected to the worst forms of torture -- an FBI agent reported that a prisoner later identified as Mr. al Qahtani was "talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, [and] crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end." Mr. al Qahtani's weight fell from 160 pounds to 100 pounds, and he was hospitalized twice after coming close to death during his interrogation. In January 2009, as I have noted, it was conceded that Mr. al Qahtani's treatment amounted to torture. There has been no accountability for the acts of torture, and not even an investigation of the kind required by the 1984 Torture Convention, that the United States led the world in adopting.

The functioning of any democratic society rests on the foundation of a decently informed population. Without access to the videotapes and photographs -- and a solid understanding of the scope of the abuse to which he was subjected at Guantánamo -- the processes of accountability are undermined, and the prospects for changing inappropriate policies are limited. Words on a page can convey to some degree the nature of Mr. al Qahtani's experience, but a single image will convey far more. That was made clear in respect of Abu Ghraib, the images of which followed the adoption of policies honed at Guantánamo and applied to Mr. al Qahtani. It is time to end the cover-up of one of these most shameful of episodes.

Ten years after the arrival of the first detainees at Guantánamo, and two years after the government explicitly acknowledged that Mr. al Qahtani was tortured during his detention, we are all entitled to see for ourselves what happened, and to form a view about what should be done to prevent it from happening again, and elsewhere.

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