Even torture fails to bring a single 9/11 suspect to trial

May 20, 2008

WASHINGTON — For weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when images of twisted metal and smoldering debris still filled television screens and the wail of bagpipes at firefighters' funerals sounded day after day, there was one face that seemed to embody the terror.

It was that of Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the suicide hijackers.

Seven years later, if we were to seek a portrait that is emblematic of the way the United States has tried — and failed — to bring those responsible for the heinous plot to justice, we would have to produce a photograph of Mohammed al-Qahtani.

If such a photo were made public, it likely would show a battered man with signs of diminished mental capacity, a man who authorities concede was so badly abused — those outside the Bush administration call his treatment torture — that he will not be tried by a military commission with other alleged plotters of the 9/11 attacks.

The Pentagon dropped charges against Qahtani, conceding that most of the evidence it has came from Qahtani's own coerced statements, made after abusive interrogations.

"He's in very poor condition mentally, and I would say even physically," says Gitanjali Gutierrez, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing Qahtani in other pending cases.

She said she could not be specific about his condition because the notes she took during her last visit with him at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have yet to be declassified.

For years, military and law enforcement authorities have considered Qahtani the "20th hijacker" after it came to light that he had been stopped by a suspicious immigration inspector at the Orlando, Fla., airport in August 2001 and refused admittance to the United States. Following the attacks, he was caught up in the international sweeps and brought to Guantanamo, where the Bush administration has held hundreds of men it suspects of terrorist ties — without trial or charge, and without showing evidence against them.

No case that details Qahtani's supposed role in the 9/11 plot ever has been presented. But the record of his abuse at the hands of American military interrogators is well known.

The 84-page log of his interrogations, posted on the Center for Constitutional Rights' Web site, reveals that he was deprived of sleep and kept in extreme isolation. He was subjected to forced nudity in front of female interrogators, forced to bark like a dog and dance with a mask on his face, held in stress positions for long periods and placed in tight restraints for months.

We are months away from the seventh anniversary of the attacks that stunned humanity — and sent the United States on a path to two wars — without having brought to justice a single individual alleged to be directly implicated in the crimes.

Qahtani is still considered an "enemy combatant" and so can be held at Guantanamo under the Bush administration's unique theory that it may hold whomever it wants for as long as it wants during the war on terrorism. American taxpayers pick up the bill for his care and that of about 270 other detainees still at the facility. It is a burden from which the next president may bring us relief, but not absolution for having condoned the unconscionable.

Marie Cocco writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Send e-mail to mariecocco@washpost.com.


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