Some at Guantanamo too sick to keep locked up
MIAMI — Tarek El-Sawah is in terrible shape after 11 years as a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, a fact even the U.S. military does not dispute.
During his time in captivity, the weight of the 55-year-old Egyptian has nearly doubled, reaching more than 420 pounds at one point, and his health has deteriorated as a result, both his lawyers and government officials concede.
Lawyers for El-Sawah, and the doctors they have brought down to the U.S. base in Cuba to examine him, paint a dire picture — a morbidly obese man with diabetes and a range of other serious ailments. He is short of breath, barely able to walk 10 feet, unable to stay awake in meetings and faces the possibility of not making it out of prison alive.
“We are very afraid that he is at a high risk of death, that he could die at any moment,” said Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason, a military lawyer appointed to represent him.
Details about the condition of El-Sawah, who has admitted being an al-Qaida explosives trainer but is no longer facing charges, are emerging in a series of recently filed court motions that provide a rare glimpse into the health of an unusual prisoner, and a preview of arguments that may become more common as the Guantanamo Bay prison ages into a second decade with no prospects for closure in sight.
He’s not the only one of the 164 prisoners at Guantanamo who is seriously ill. Last week, a judge ordered the release of a schizophrenic Sudanese man who spent much of the past decade medicated in the prison psych ward. His lawyers argued he was so sick, with ailments that also included diabetes, that he couldn’t possibly pose a threat and therefore the U.S. no longer had the authority to hold him. The judge’s ruling came after the government withdrew its opposition to his release.
There’s also a Pakistani prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, with a heart condition serious enough that the government brought a surgical team and a mobile cardiac lab to the U.S. base in Cuba to treat him, at a cost of $400,000. He ultimately refused the treatment because he didn’t trust military medical personnel.
In addition, two prisoners have died from natural causes — one from a heart attack, the other from cancer. And several detainees have raised medical complaints related to their participation in a long-running hunger strike, which had dropped to 17 prisoners as of Monday from a peak of 106 in July.
“There are a whole slew of people with a whole slew of serious health problems,” said Cori Crider, a lawyer for the British human rights group Reprieve who has been meeting with Guantanamo prisoners for years.
U.S. officials say Guantanamo prisoners get excellent medical care, saying proudly that it’s equivalent to what troops receive. There are more than 100 doctors, nurses and other professionals treating “a constellation” of illnesses, said Navy Capt. Daryl Daniels, a physician and the chief medical officer for the detention center. He says no one is in critical condition at the moment.
El-Sawah has received letters of recommendation from three former Guantanamo commanders, a rare, if unprecedented, string of endorsements.
In one letter, retired Army Maj. Gen. Jay Hood called him a unique prisoner who was “unlike the violent Islamic extremists who formed much of the population at Guantanamo.” Another, Rear Adm. David Thomas, noted his “restricted mobility due to obesity and other health issues” in recommending his release.
Most striking is a letter from an official whose name and job title are redacted for security reasons. He spent several hours a week with the prisoner over 18 months at Guantanamo and says El-Sawah has been “friendly and cooperative” with U.S. personnel. “Frankly, I felt Tarek was a good man on the other side who, in a different world, different time, different place, could easily be accepted as a friend or neighbor.”