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Katy Stone

Guantanamo war court hears testimony from alleged al-Qaeda commander's neurosurgeon

There are currently 40 detainees still held at Guantanamo prison camp [Sylvie Lanteaume, Getty]

Date of publication: 8 January, 2019

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Dispatches from Guantanamo: Alleged al-Qaeda commander Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi has been suffering from a spinal condition and chronic back pain. On Monday, the war court heard from his neurosurgeon.
Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - A new pre-trial military hearing for alleged al-Qaeda commander known as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi began on Monday at the Guantanamo military commissions court.

Proceedings focussed on establishing the viability of the trial, given the defendant's back condition, which previously required the court to place a hospital bed in the courtroom.

Hadi, 57, has undergone five spinal surgeries at the base hospital since September 2017, and had to be escorted into the courtroom in a wheelchair, from where he transferred to a padded rehab chair, pillows behind his back and a Quran on the desk.

Wearing a white prison uniform, hospital socks, a blue-ish scarf and white skull cap, Hadi sat up straight, readjusting his position every couple of minutes to stretch out his back.

The court heard from his neurosurgeon via video link, who gave testimony on the defendant's health condition, previous surgeries and possible follow-up treatment.

Hadi was captured in Turkey in 2006, and has been held at Guantanamo since 2007.

He is accused by the US government of having directed, organised, funded and overseen a series of attacks on US and coalition forces, and civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2002 and 2004,
 as part of al-Qaeda's campaign against the US military following its invasion of the south-central Asian nation.

The Iraqi native of Mosul has two new lawyers on his defence team, Navy Lieutenants Dahoud Askar and Charles Ball. They were sworn in by presiding military judge, US Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Libretto, and a new attorney-client relationship was formed.

The accused also accepted Pentagon-paid civilian Susan Hensler as his new lead defence counsel before the court.

Hadi and his new legal team had met for an hour before the court proceedings began, and he had taken Percocet, an opiate painkiller, to alleviate his back pain before coming to court. 

Progress in Hadi's case has been slow, in part due to his ill health.

The detainee, who claims his real name is Nashwan al-Tamir, has been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and chronic back pain. At the 6-9 November 2018 session, the commission had to be recessed on its first day because he was experiencing muscle spasms.   

Hadi subsequently met with his neurosurgeon, who concluded his health had improved since his last surgery, but that the process of transporting him from his cell to the courtroom may exacerbate his pain, and that being required to stand, lie or sit for long periods may also cause some pain.

As a result, the government took the unusual step of placing a hospital bed in the courtroom, allowing Hadi to lie down, recline in the bed, sit in his hospital chair or stand with the assistance of his walker.

The courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base Military Commission [DoD]

Proceedings resumed two days later on 9 November, but after just 19 minutes, the defendant felt a back spasm coming on. The court was once again recessed, and Hadi was given a sedative and time to rest in the courtroom with the lights dimmed.

In Monday's open session, defence counsel Hensler noted that Hadi had found this to be "degrading and quite humiliating" and requested that in future, his bed be moved out the courtroom, or a barrier put in place, which Judge Libretto agreed to take into consideration.

In the afternoon session, Hadi's neurosurgeon - testifying via video link - was questioned by both the defence and the prosecution about his condition.

Follow up questions from Judge Libretto established that other treatments that may help ensure Hadi is well enough to go to court could include acupuncture, a TENS unit, that sends vibrations across the skin, or trigger point injections into his muscle.

On Tuesday closed court hearings are taking place, with open sessions tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Friday and Monday. A trial date is yet to be set.

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