Episode at Guantanamo Leaves Family at a Loss

Fahd al-Harbi, left, at home in Medina, Saudi Arabia, with his brother Mishal, is seeking answers and compensation for brain damage Mishal suffered while detained at Guantanamo.
Fahd al-Harbi, left, at home in Medina, Saudi Arabia, with his brother Mishal, is seeking answers and compensation for brain damage Mishal suffered while detained at Guantanamo. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah -- The Washington Post)
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 11, 2007

MEDINA, Saudi Arabia -- Mishal al-Harbi's brain was deprived of oxygen for several minutes on the evening of Jan. 16, 2003, while he was in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As a result, he cannot stand, his speech is slurred, and he has a twitch that periodically causes his head to shake and his legs to jerk.

U.S. authorities say Mishal's brain was damaged when he tried to hang himself at Guantanamo. But his brother Fahd says a beating by prison guards cut off the flow of oxygen, leaving Mishal unable to walk or talk properly. Fahd said his brother needs intensive physical therapy and costly medicine to control his seizures and hallucinations -- side effects of the injury -- and he wants the U.S. government to help pay for them.

Mishal's family says it is seeking not only financial compensation but also concrete answers from the U.S. government -- either an admission that Mishal was injured by guards or proof that he tried to kill himself. But given the intense secrecy surrounding the detainees at Guantanamo, finding out exactly what occurred that day in 2003 appears almost impossible.

"He was just like the rest of his brothers before he left," said Mishal's mother, Hamida Owayid, her head covered with a blue scarf and her feet decorated with henna. "What did the Americans do to him?"

The military prison at Guantanamo opened in January 2002 to house suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters rounded up during the U.S. war to topple the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic militia that ruled most of Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mishal was captured in late 2001 and transferred to Guantanamo a few months later.

Despite widening allegations of detainee abuse, the Pentagon has refused to allow independent monitors and human rights groups into Guantanamo. The International Committee of the Red Cross and, more recently, a few lawyers have been given minimal access, but the Red Cross is not allowed to speak publicly about conditions there.

Because he also has memory lapses, Mishal said, he is not sure how he was injured. But former detainees -- about 400 men have been released from the facility, and nearly 400 remain -- have reported regular beatings, and Fahd said he believes his brother was attacked by guards.

Mishal's devotion to Islam would have prevented him from attempting suicide, Fahd said. "With the strength of his faith, which took him all the way to Afghanistan, it's impossible that he tried to kill himself. He knows that you spend eternity in hell if you do that."

Fahd, 32, has watched over his younger brother since their father died when they were children. Perhaps if he had been more vigilant, he said, Mishal might not have ended up in Afghanistan in 2001. But as a government employee supporting their mother, two younger brothers and a sister with Down syndrome, Fahd was consumed with work and out of town for months at a time.

Mishal dropped out of school when he was 14 and began working odd jobs to help support the family. When he had saved enough money, he bought a used truck and picked up passengers at the airport, his mother said.

In his free time, Mishal played soccer, listened to pop music and sneaked cigarettes, Fahd said.

Then, suddenly, Mishal stopped smoking, a habit that ultra-devout Muslims consider a sin, and replaced his music cassettes with taped Koranic verses and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, Fahd said. About a year later, around June 2001, he disappeared from the family home in Medina, Saudi Arabia. He called a month later, saying he was in Afghanistan and asking for forgiveness from his mother and brother for traveling without telling them.

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