"This decision by the military judge today does mark the first time that the United States has formally acknowledged the CIA torture program produced profound and prolonged psychological harm," said al-Shibh's lawyer.
A U.S. military judge on Thursday found Guantánamo Bay prisoner Ramzi bin al-Shibh—who stands accused of being a key 9/11 organizer—unfit to stand trial because he suffers from mental illness his attorney says was caused by CIA torture years ago.
Air Force Col. Matthew McCall severed al-Shibh, a 51-year-old Yemeni, from the conspiracy case involving four other defendants who allegedly organized the cell of militants in Hamburg, Germany who hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and flew it into the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Al-Shibh had been charged as an accomplice in the case.
"This decision by the military judge today does mark the first time that the United States has formally acknowledged that the CIA torture program produced profound and prolonged psychological harm," David Bruck, al-Shibh's lead defense attorney, told reporters at Guantánamo Bay on Thursday evening. "This is exactly what the CIA promised would not happen."
McCall's ruling—which does not directly attribute torture as the cause of al-Shibh's afflictions—came after a three-member military "sanity board" diagnosed the defendant with post-traumatic stress disorder with secondary psychotic features and persecutory delusional disorder. This, the board said, renders him "unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against him or cooperate intelligently in his defense."
According toLawdragon editor-in-chief John Ryan:
Al-Shibh has long claimed that the detention facility guard force has subjected him to noises and vibrations, continuing his torture from CIA black sites... In recent years, his lawyers have also claimed that al-Shibh feels stabbing and other painful sensations that he experiences as directed invisibly at parts of his body. The government has denied the allegations.
"The totality of the facts demonstrates an accused who is wholly focused on his delusions," McCall wrote in his ruling, according to The New York Times. "Again and again, he focuses his counsel's work on stopping his delusional harassment, (which) demonstrates the impairment of his ability to assist in his defense."
Military prosecutor Clayton Trivett Jr. acknowledged that al-Shibh is delusional but insisted "he has the capacity to participate" in his defense, and that his refusal to do so is "really just a choice."
Citing al-Shibh's cooperation with his defense team, Trivett added that "this does not look like someone who is incompetent."
While McCall ordered pretrial proceedings to continue Friday for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—the alleged mastermind of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11—as well as three co-defendants, what comes next for al-Shibh is unknown.
All five of the 9/11 defendants—Mohammed, his nephew Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, and al-Shibh—were captured in Pakistan in late 2002 and early 2003 before being turned over to the United States. Hassan bin Attash, who was captured with bin al-Shibh in Karachi, has testified that they were both sent via extraordinary rendition to the notorius "Salt Pit" outside Kabul, Afghanistan, where suspected militant Gul Rahman was tortured to death in November 2002.
Like Rahman, al-Shibh says he was shackled naked to a ceiling in a painful "stress position" for days on end. He was then reportedly sent to Jordan, where one witness told Human Rights Watch he was subjected to "electric shocks, long periods of sleep deprivation, forced nakedness, and being made to sit on sticks and bottles."
Al-Shibh told the International Committee of the Red Cross that he was kept naked and shackled to the ceiling for a week at a black site in Poland, where he was also deprived of solid food for three to four weeks.
According to the CIA's own documents:
The interrogation plan proposed that... al-Shibh would be subjected to "sensory dislocation." The proposed sensory dislocation included shaving al-Shibh's head and face, exposing him to loud noise in a white room with white lights, keeping him "unclothed and subjected to uncomfortably cool temperatures," and shackling him "hand and foot with arms outstretched over his head (with his feet firmly on the floor and not allowed to support his weight with his arms)".
The CIA torture plan also included near-constant interrogations, slamming into walls, hard slaps to the face and abdomen, stress positions, sleep deprivation beyond 72 hours, and the interrupted drowning torture known as waterboarding.
Al-Shibh was also held at a black site in Morocco for three-and-a-half months, where Moroccan agents allegedly tortured him under CIA supervision. Moroccan interrogators videotaped some of the interrogations and handed the footage over to the CIA.
This isn't the first time that torture played a role in derailing the prosecution of an alleged 9/11 plotter. In 2009, Susan J. Crawford, the top George W. Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantánamo prisoners to trial, declared that the U.S. "tortured" Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged would-be 20th 9/11 hijacker, and declined to green light his prosecution.
Col. Stuart Crouch, a Guantánamo prosecutor whose Marine Corps buddy was a pilot on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, refused to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi—who allegedly helped organize the plane's hijacking—because he was tortured.
Additionally, numerous Guantánamo officials have resigned over what they claim is a corrupt military commission system. Former lead prosecutor Col. Morris Davis—who called trials there "rigged from the start"—stepped down in 2007, claiming he was told by top Bush lawyer Jim Haynes that acquittals were unacceptable.
"I now understand that the commissions were doomed from the start. We used new rules of evidence and allowed evidence regardless of how it was obtained."
At least four other military prosecutors—Maj. Robert Preston, Capt. John Carr, Capt. Carrie Wolf and Darrel J. Vandeval—requested to be removed from the military commissions because they also felt that the proceedings were unfair.
In 2021, seven out of eight members of the military jury convened to hear the case against Guantánamo detainee and alleged terrorist plotter Majid Khan recommended total clemency after the defendant testified how he endured torture including rape, being hung from a ceiling beam, and being waterboarded while he was held at a CIA black site in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, Ted Olson—the former Bush administration solicitor-general who then argued against basic legal rights for Guantánamo Bay prisoners and defended their indefinite detention and torture—made a stunning admission, saying the military commissions don't work and should be shut down, and the government should strike plea deals with 9/11 defendants held at the prison.
"In retrospect, we made two mistakes in dealing with the detained individuals at Guantánamo," Olson wrote. "First, we created a new legal system out of whole cloth. I now understand that the commissions were doomed from the start. We used new rules of evidence and allowed evidence regardless of how it was obtained."
Defense and prosecution attorneys had been negotiating a possible plea deal that would have spared the defendants the prospect of execution. However, earlier this month the White House said that President Joe Biden would not approve or deny such a request because he "was unsettled about accepting terms for the plea from those responsible for the deadliest assault on the United States since Pearl Harbor," according to The Associated Press.