Lawyers Fear for Marri's Sanity

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri is obsessed with the noise variations in an industrial fan, the buzzing of fluorescent lights overhead and the preparation of his dinners. He has stuffed his air vents with food to prevent what he believes are noxious fumes from streaming into his cell, and he worries at times that his lawyers are part of a government conspiracy against him.

The only person currently held as an "enemy combatant" on U.S. soil, Marri has been accused of being a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda, but he is not charged with any crime. After 6 1/2 years of confinement -- the past five in a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. -- Marri's lawyers argue that his isolation has degraded his mental state and that years of being held incommunicado have left him unable to help in his own defense.

Marri's captivity in an often-forgotten part of the U.S. military detention system, outside the established legal process at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, raises the legal question of whether the United States can hold him without trial under those conditions until the end of the "war on terror," as the government has argued in court.

In court papers and interviews, Marri's lawyers vividly describe their client's struggle to improve his conditions and his fight against the insanity that psychologists say can follow long-term solitary confinement.

Though Marri's living situation has improved substantially, with the addition of a personal library and a computer, his family and lawyers wonder whether his psyche can hold up long enough for him to collaborate in legal measures meant to secure his release.

"Mr. Almarri has been confined in virtual isolation at the Brig for more than 1,700 days, suffering egregious abuses during much of that time," Marri's lawyers wrote in court papers filed recently in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. "His prolonged isolation and other unlawful conditions of confinement are irreparably harming his health and safety, endangering what remains of his psychological resilience, and jeopardizing his ability to participate meaningfully in his . . . defense."

The Pentagon says Marri has been moved into a unique form of detention with more privileges and concessions than almost anyone held in U.S. high-security prisons. Justice Department lawyers have argued in court papers that Marri's detention is "safe and humane" and provides "him with a number of accommodations and privileges rarely seen in military detention of enemy combatants."

Though held alone and without contact with other detainees -- all of whom are U.S. service members convicted of crimes -- Marri has a 1,000-square-foot dayroom with cable television and recently was given access to a computer. He also can read books from an approximately 400-volume library, including religious texts; has his own exercise equipment; and can read articles from USA Today and a local newspaper, except for news about the counterterrorism effort, along with magazines such as Men's Fitness and PC World.

"We have made a deliberate effort to be sensitive to the fact that he does not interact with other detainees," said Alan Liotta, principal director of the Pentagon's office of detainee affairs. "We knew that this was different, so we have tried to make sure that he has had opportunities along the way that may not be available to others detained as enemy combatants by the Department of Defense."

It is clear that the government thinks Marri is a dangerous man with ties to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. He was arrested after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and accused of posing as a graduate student in Illinois while acting as a "sleeper agent" and preparing for follow-up attacks. He had returned to the United States on Sept. 10, 2001.

Initially charged with federal crimes, Marri was moved into military custody in 2003 after President Bush determined him to be an enemy combatant and an immediate threat to U.S. security. Of particular interest to U.S. authorities were Marri's alleged contacts with Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who is accused of being a paymaster and travel facilitator for al-Qaeda and is scheduled for arraignment before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay this week.

Marri also had allegedly stored on his computer speeches by bin Laden and information on chemicals that could be used as weapons.

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