Guantanamo Hearings Halted Again After Brain Scan Order

Last week, the judge in the Guantanamo military commission case of accused USS Cole bombing plotter Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, Col. Vance Spath, ordered the pre-trial hearings halted until al-Nashiri receives a brain scan to assess the effects of CIA torture. But the needed MRI machine is in Georgia, and al-Nashiri is stuck at Guantanamo. It’s only the latest in a long string of absurd developments that call into question the validity of the commissions and the prison itself.

The USS Cole bombing happened in October 2000, when al Qaeda targeted the U.S. Navy ship refueling in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen. Al-Nashiri is alleged to be mastermind of the attack, and after 9/11, he was captured, tortured by the CIA, and then sent to Guantanamo in 2006. The U.S. charged him in the Guantanamo military commission in 2011, a deeply flawed military justice system to try detainees for war crimes.

The hearing has been beset with bizarre roadblocks and procedural confusion. Since charges were filed against al-Nashiri, there have been problems with the government possibly spying on his attorneys or listening in on their conversations with their client, Defense Department meddling with the speed of the trials, the government claiming war crimes were committed when no war was taking place, and more. Now the court is attempting to deal with the legal and medical consequences of the CIA torture al-Nashiri experienced. Al-Nashiri’s trial, like that of the 9/11 accused, remains stuck in pre-trial hearings as the judges struggle to iron out these issues.

Meanwhile, federal trials for terrorism suspects have been humming along without incident, most recently the high-profile trial of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – which finished in less than two years. Al Qaeda suspects have also quietly and efficiently been tried and convicted in U.S. federal courts. But Congress and the Obama Administration want to continue the military commissions.

Transferring al-Nashiri to the United States for the MRI is currently impossible, due to Congressional restrictions on transfers to the U.S. for any reason – even medical necessity. While even the previous judge in the al-Nashiri trial told the court last year, “I wish we could do this in DC,” and al-Nashiri’s lawyers have filed motions attempting to move the trial to Virginia, where the Cole is docked, the Congressional restrictions keep the trials and detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Judge Spath’s order must be fulfilled before the trial can proceed. Presumably, the military will have to bring the MRI machine (originally bought for the prison, but then never delivered) to Guantanamo or even transport al-Nashiri to another country for the procedure. This would be another expense for U.S. taxpayers, already footing the bill for the prison – $397.4 million for 2014, more than $3 million per detainee annually. As the detainee population ages and health issues resulting from torture become more pronounced, medical needs become even more expensive, requiring new facilities, specialists, and equipment. The military commissions are also pricey, with the flights for attorneys, witnesses, observers, and victims’ family members costing $90,000 each way for each session.

The complications ensuing from an order for a simple MRI are only the latest example of why the military commission system is an unworkable way to try terrorism suspects. The Guantanamo military commissions system is a bumbling mess of a trial system, set at a remote island far from the United States—and far from justice, too.


Published on April 13, 2015


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