Iraqi detainee reported suffering paralysis at Guantánamo

People walk past the guard tower of a camp at the US Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Jan 26, 2017.
People walk past the guard tower of a camp at the US Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Jan 26, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, CUBA (NYTIMES) - A Marine Corps judge Friday (Sept 10) ordered medical staff at the wartime prison to submit an emergency report on an Iraqi prisoner who, according to his lawyer, suddenly suffered paralysis and lost the ability to walk.

The prisoner, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, 60, was discovered to have lost all feeling in his legs Wednesday evening. He has degenerative disc disease and is among the most physically disabled of the 39 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

He has undergone a series of spine surgeries in recent years by Navy medical teams that were airlifted to the remote base.

"He no longer has use of his legs," his lawyer Susan Hensler said on Friday. "He cannot walk even with a walker." Details of his condition emerged in a pre-trial hearing Friday in a case separate from Hadi's: the long-running effort to bring to trial five men who are accused of plotting the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

None of the five defendants in that case showed up to court Friday, and the lawyer for one of them, Mr James G. Connell III, said that his client, Ammar al-Baluchi, had been up all night caring for Hadi and helping get him to the toilet.

A Navy lawyer disputed that Hadi was experiencing "a worsened medical condition". The lawyer testified anonymously by agreement with the judge under a military policy that shields the identities of nearly all detention operation workers at Guantanamo Bay.

The lawyer, a Navy commander, said other detainees were caring for the prisoner because Hadi had refused assistance from a female Navy medic. Defence lawyers said the healthcare worker was a female nurse; Hensler said the issue was not that the nurse was a woman but that she wanted to first examine him rectally, without explanation.

Hadi, who says his true name is Nashwan al Tamir, is accused of commanding Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan that committed war crimes against United States and allied forces in 2003 and 2004. If he is convicted, he could be imprisoned for life.

He was captured in Turkey in 2006 and held by the Central Intelligence Agency as a "high-value detainee", then was transferred to US military custody at Guantanamo Bay the next year.

Even before his capture, according to his lawyers, he had been diagnosed with spine problems and signs of degenerative disc disease. His condition became acute in 2017 when guards discovered him incontinent in his cell. The Pentagon rushed a neurosurgical team to the base before the arrival of Hurricane Irma for the first of five spine surgeries in nine months.

Hadi now relies on a wheelchair and walker inside the prison, and a padded geriatric chair for support in court. Guards also keep a hospital bed inside the courtroom where he has slept when heavy painkillers caused him to nod off.

Hadi's case has highlighted the challenges the Defence Department faces in managing ageing detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

While US troops and other residents of the base are routinely sent to military health care facilities in the US, the Pentagon has had to bring experts and sophisticated medical equipment to Guantanamo for the prisoners because the law forbids their transfer to the US for any reason - not trial or imprisonment or emergency health care.

The US is obliged to provide adequate health care to war captives under the Geneva Conventions. For years, prison commanders have also boasted that the care Guantanamo detainees receive is equal to that it provides US service members, and at times more immediately available because medics are on duty at cell blocks around the clock.

However, in an emergency filing on Thursday, defence lawyers said that Hadi was notified that "specialist treatment was not available for several weeks".

Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Zimmerman, the Marine judge in Hadi's case, noted on Friday in ordering a report that a routine health update filed with the court last week listed "no significant change in the accused's medical status". Military judges have been mostly reluctant to become involved in disputes over detainee medical care, except in instances in which it interferes with the ability of a prisoner to work with lawyers.

US military spokesmen assigned to the prison and US Southern Command headquarters in Miami had no immediate comment on Hadi's condition, including whether the coronavirus pandemic had complicated efforts to care for him. Most detainees have been vaccinated. There have been no known cases of personnel or prisoners becoming infected at the prison.