An Egyptian-born teacher imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the past 3 1/2
years recently convinced the U.S. military that he is not an enemy combatant,
but rather what he said he was: a pro-democracy English teacher swept up when
the military seized fighters and suspected terrorists from the battlefields of
In newly declassified records of statements to his attorney, Sami Al-Laithi
said that as a result of his detention at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo
Bay, he is now confined to a wheelchair with two broken vertebrae. He said military
personnel and interrogators stomped on his back, dropped him on the floor and
repeatedly forced his neck forward soon after his arrival at the prison.
He said he has been denied an operation that could save him from permanent paralysis
and is being held at Camp V, a maximum-security wing of isolation cells reserved
for the most uncooperative and high-value inmates, while he awaits transfer.
Al-Laithi's account of his treatment comes as the Bush administration moves
to downsize the military prison, negotiating agreements to transfer as many
as 400 of the 510 Guantanamo detainees to other countries. A small number of
those to be transferred are detainees whom the military has found not to be
enemy combatants. Others were judged to be enemies who tried to harm the United
States but are of little current danger -- or intelligence value -- to the military
as it tries to combat terrorism.
Military interrogators have told Al-Laithi they may return him to Egypt, the
birth country he fled 17 years ago, where he believes he will be imprisoned
and tortured for his past criticism of rigged elections there. Al-Laithi, 49,
would prefer to be sent elsewhere, including Pakistan or Afghanistan, where
he lived for most of his adult life.
A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo, declined
to discuss Al-Laithi's case and said the Defense Department does not discuss
transfers until they are completed. He said the department "operates a
safe, humane and professional detention operation" and provides state-of-the-art
"Each detainee receives expert medical attention and treatment, if necessary,
throughout detention," said Lt. Col. James Marshall, deputy director of
public affairs. "This medical care is often better than what detainees
would receive in their home countries."
Al-Laithi's case came before a U.S. military tribunal in May, when it ruled
he was not an enemy combatant. He remains at Guantanamo until authorities decide
where to send him. His attorney, Clive A. Stafford Smith, wants him to get medical
care for his spinal injuries, to be removed from Camp V and to have his prison
medical records turned over. Smith said he hoping that the declassified statements
will bolster Al-Laithi's case.
"This is barbarism," Al-Laithi said of his treatment in the statement.
"Why, even if I was guilty, would they do this?"
"I am in constant pain," he continued. "I would prefer to be
buried alive than continue to receive the treatment I receive. At least I would
suffer less and die."
Al-Laithi said he was teaching English and Arabic at Kabul University when
American troops began bombing Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, and was picked
up by the U.S. military in Pakistan while trying to flee the assault. Soon after
he was transferred to the prison in Cuba.
It is not disputed that Al-Laithi walked into Guantanamo and now must use a
wheelchair. What is in question is the reason. Al-Laithi traces his disability
to a day soon after his arrival at the prison when he was beaten by U.S. military
personnel while at the prison hospital.
"Once they stomped my back," Al-Laithi wrote. "An MP threw me
on the floor, and they lifted me up and slammed me back down. A doctor said
I have two broken vertebrae and I risk being paralyzed if the spinal cord is
Laithi said his neck is also permanently damaged because Emergency Response
Force teams at the prison repeatedly forced his neck toward his knees. He said
the military also forced a large object into his anus on what his lawyer called
the "pretext" of doing a medical exam.
"I know most prisoners had Americans put their fingers up their anuses,
but with me it was far worse -- they shoved some object up my rectum,"
he wrote. "It was very painful."
According to his attorney's account, a prison spokesman, when asked last month
about Al-Laithi's back condition, responded that the fractured vertebrae were
the result of a degenerative disease.
A department spokesman said yesterday that officials could not discuss Al-Laithi
or the cause of his injury but noted that the prison often cares for detainees'
preexisting conditions and injuries.
A spokeswoman for Amnesty International, which last week criticized U.S. efforts
to try to transfer detainees to countries with a known record of torture and
abuse, said any plan to transfer Al-Laithi or others to Egypt is unconscionable.
"They'd rather have them in detention in a country where there'll likely
never be heard from again," said Jumana Musa, Amnesty's director of advocacy
for domestic human rights. "It seems to be an effort to keep them from
suing and to keep their cases and claims underground." Claims that detainees
received serious injuries from their captors are becoming common, she said.