An Egyptian-born teacher imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the past 31/2 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 Afghanistan.
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 medical care.
"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 injured more."
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.