By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008
A federal judge has ordered an independent medical evaluation of a detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, saying he is concerned about the man's deteriorating health.
It is the first time a federal judge has taken such a step in a fight between detainees' attorneys and the Justice Department over the mental and physical health of a handful of prisoners at the facility in Cuba.
The order concerns Ahmed Zaid Salem Zuhair, a Saudi who has been on a hunger strike since June 2005. Despite force-feeding by military personnel, Zuhair's weight plummeted from 147 pounds in December 2007 to as little as 111 pounds in November, court records show.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said he was troubled by Zuhair's weight loss and descriptions of his emaciated condition by his attorneys. Sullivan said he is appointing a medical expert to evaluate Zuhair because he wants to ensure that the detainee can "meaningfully participate" in his lawsuit challenging his detention. Zuhair's lawyers say that the detainee does not trust military doctors and that they need an independent evaluation to better understand his illnesses.
The Justice Department opposed the request.
"I don't want this man to dwindle down to the point where he is further damaged," Sullivan said.
Sullivan ordered Justice Department lawyers and Zuhair's attorneys to come up with a list of doctors who could evaluate the detainee, who was picked up in Pakistan and has been held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. He also ordered the government to turn over Zuhair's medical records to his attorneys.
Lawyers representing Zuhair, 44, said they were pleased by the ruling. "This is a pretty significant crack in the wall of secrecy at Guantanamo," said Darryl Li, a student at Yale Law School who is on Zuhair's legal team.
Justice Department lawyers declined to comment after the hearing.
The ruling was not a complete victory for Zuhair. The judge denied other requests, including one that would have prevented the facility's staff from restraining him when he is force-fed. His lawyers say he does not need such restraints, which are painful.
Scores of the 250 detainees at Guantanamo are challenging their detentions in federal court under a Supreme Court ruling in June that granted them the right to habeas corpus.
Sullivan's order comes as attorneys for a handful of those detainees, concerned about their clients' health, are pressing federal judges to order the government to turn over medical records. The Justice Department has fought the requests, arguing that federal judges do not have jurisdiction.
Sullivan ordered the government on Dec. 8 to turn over to lawyers medical records concerning Ramzi Binalshibh, accused of being one of the plotters of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts ordered the government to give medical records to attorneys for Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, an alleged al-Qaeda member who was subjected to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques while in CIA custody.
Roberts ordered the release of medical records generated during Zubaida's time at Guantanamo Bay, where he has been held since September 2006. Zubaida has complained of repeated seizures and excruciating pain related to an old wound. In ordering the documents' release, the judge agreed with Zubaida's lawyers, who argued that they needed the records to help them challenge his detention.
Other detainees have seen different results. In September, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan denied a request for medical records from the lawyers of Adnan Latif, a 28-year-old Yemeni. Hogan ruled he lacked jurisdiction to order the records produced.
Latif's lawyers are appealing. In court documents and interviews, they contend that Latif weighs about 100 pounds, has trouble keeping down food and has tried to commit suicide. One of his attorneys, David Remes, said in an e-mail that he visited Latif on Dec. 9 and that the detainee was "weak, weeping and barely able to whisper."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.