A military judge on Thursday halted proceedings against Ramzi Binalshibh, a self-described key operative in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ordering that he undergo a mental examination and throwing into doubt whether the government will ever be able to prosecute the “high-value” detainee.
More than a decade after the attacks, none of the five accused al-Qaeda plotters in U.S. custody — including the confessed mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed — has been brought to trial, their cases repeatedly stymied by legal problems and political wrangling. The latest delay raises questions about whether the CIA’s handling of Binalshibh while he was in the agency’s secret overseas prisons contributed to his ongoing mental problems.
The judge’s order Thursday followed a series of outbursts by Binalshibh at a pretrial military commission hearing this week at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is another blow to a proceeding that has stopped and started across two administrations. It now may be many months, if not years, before the defendants are tried.
Prosecutors asked the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, to have Binalshibh, a 41-year-old Yemeni, evaluated after he was repeatedly ejected from court for refusing to quiet down and calling the judge and the commander of the detention facility war criminals.
“Until this is completed, there will be no further open hearings in this case,” Pohl said.
The interruption comes as the Obama administration is reviving its effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Officials have recently moved several detainees abroad, including two this week to Sudan, reducing the population at the controversial facility to 158.
The judge scheduled the next hearing at Guantanamo Bay for February, but defense attorneys said it may take a panel of three doctors much longer to complete the review of Binalshibh. The trial for all five defendants cannot move forward until Binalshibh’s status is resolved. His mental competence has been questioned before, and a review that was ordered in 2008, before President Obama took office and suspended commissions, was never finished.
In 2009, prosecutors told the court that Binalshibh was taking “a variety of psychotropic medications used to treat schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder, including Haldol, Abilify, risperidone and Ativan.”
A military medical board in 2008 said that Binalshibh might have a “severe mental disease.”
He is held at Camp 7, a high- security and classified section at Guantanamo Bay. According to court records, he has smeared his cell with feces and broken observation cameras at the complex, which is separate from other parts of the prison.
Binalshibh was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and whisked to a secret CIA prison, where he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” that human rights advocates have described as torture. He and 13 other high-value detainees were transferred to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006.
Binalshibh wanted to die in the Sept. 11 attacks but did not have the chance, according to the 9/11 Commission report. He repeatedly applied for and was rejected for a U.S. visa and instead became a key liaison between hijacker Mohammed Atta and al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan.
Defense lawyers assert that Binalshibh’s health problems began after the CIA captured him in Pakistan in 2002.
“He wasn’t on psychotropic medications or having mental problems prior to his being detained by the CIA,” said Thomas Durkin, Binalshibh’s former attorney. “There was no evidence of any mental issues.”
Between 2002 and 2006, Binalshibh spent time at CIA-
controlled facilities in Afghanistan, Poland, Morocco and Romania, according to former agency officials. In Romania, Binalshibh believed that the CIA was tormenting him by intentionally shaking his prefabricated cell, in the basement of a government building near a railway line, officials said.
A former senior CIA official said that Binalshibh was prone to tantrums and threw food but that there was no evidence that he was mentally unstable at the time the agency held him. He complained so often, one official said, that he earned the nickname Beaker, a Muppets character prone to misfortune.
CIA officials say the detainees received excellent medical care while in the custody of the agency after enduring harsh interrogation. However, an attorney for another detainee and alleged co-conspirator, Walid bin Attash, said his client was missing several teeth and had ringworm when he emerged from a secret CIA prison in 2006.
It’s unclear what prompted prosecutors to make the motion for a competency test. Typically, it is the defense lawyers who ask a judge to determine whether their client is fit to stand trial.
Legals experts said prosecutors might be laying the groundwork to sever Binalshibh from the oft-delayed case so it can move forward. But a prosecutor told the judge Thursday that he had no interest in separating Binalshibh from the other defendants.
The renewed attention involving Binalshibh’s treatment by the CIA comes as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is pushing to make public parts of a report that examines the effectiveness of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.