Courts & Crime

He reportedly aspired to be a 9/11 hijacker. Now he’s in a Guantánamo cell with just a prayer rug and Quran.

Ramzi bin al Shibh poses for the International Red Cross at Guantánamo in an undated photo.
Ramzi bin al Shibh poses for the International Red Cross at Guantánamo in an undated photo.

Ramzi bin al Shibh, the alleged deputy plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks is being held in an isolation cell with only a prayer rug and Quran — no bed, no running water, and only access to legal material for an hour a day — as punishment for protesting conditions in his Guantánamo confinement, his attorney said Saturday.

Bin al Shibh, 45, has for years claimed that somebody is causing his cell to vibrate and making noises in a campaign of sleep deprivation reminiscent of his 2002-2006 abuse in CIA custody. Prosecutors dismiss the complaint as untrue. A U.S. military doctor at one point treated him as delusional.

"He's in really, really bad shape," the Yemeni captive's capital defense attorney Jim Harrington said, adding that he's been on a water-only hunger strike since he was moved into a disciplinary cell April 12 at Camp 7, the housing for former CIA black site prisoners at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Jim Harrington, attorney for Ramzi bin al Shibh, speaks to reporters at Camp Justice, the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo in April 2014. CAROL ROSENBERG

"They've really, really made it much worse, much more akin to what he was subjected to in the black sites," Harrington told McClatchy. "He's clearly being re-traumatized right now."

Bin al Shibh allegedly aspired to become one of the suicide hijackers. But U.S. diplomats in Germany and Yemen four times denied him a U.S. visa. So he is instead accused of helping al-Qaida operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed organize the attacks from Hamburg, Germany, that killed 2,976 people in New York, at the Pentagon and on an airplane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bin al Shibh told his attorneys in recent meetings that, as part of his punishment, he has no bed, no mattress, and only gets one hour a day access to a single legal bin of materials to prepare for the hearings.

Guards have also restricted his access to his legal mail, Harrington said, meaning he gets material from his lawyers for just one hour a day and must return it, with any response inside of that hour.

Miami Herald Trial Guide

At the prison, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos would not respond to the attorney's claim because "I cannot comment on the status of a particular detainee."

But she said "isolation is not a disciplinary measure" because the U.S. military at Guantánamo conducts "detention operations in line with Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions." Past prison spokesmen have said there is no such thing as isolation at Guantánamo because captives can shout at each other through the walls or slots in their prison doors.

In general, the prison has a disciplinary matrix for bad behavior, with guards taking away so-called comfort items based upon the seriousness of an infraction.

But Harrington said some of the punishment violates the trial judge's orders governing access to legal materials, and are likely to come up at the next pretrial hearing at Guantánamo from April 30 to May 4. In past hearings, Bin al Shibh has been so disruptive that the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, ejected him from court four times in two days.

Bin al Shibh told his legal team that he is apparently being punished for shouting at his guards, at one point scratching the lens of his cell’s monitoring camera and for putting stones in his toilet to cause another captive's toilet to overflow.

Camp 7 is a two-tier, two-block prison of 28 cells with a command center that tracks captive movements by cameras and communicates with them through an intercom system, according to court testimony and documents obtained by the Miami Herald.

Now, if Bin al Shibh wants to wash or flush a toilet he has to ask that running water be restored.

Guards have also threatened that if Bin al Shibh continues to misbehave he'll be confined to a padded cell. Harrington said the guards did not tell the Yemeni this directly, but instead notified his block leader, an uncharged captive known as Abu Zubaydah, who passed the word.

Guantánamo prison's psychiatric ward does have a padded cell, Leanos said, but it only would be used by direction of "a medical professional .... as medically necessary for the safety of the detainee."

Bin al Shibh, Mohammed and three other defendants could face the death penalty if they are convicted at trial, for which no start date has been set.

Carol Rosenberg: , 305-376-3179@carolrosenberg

Related stories from McClatchy DC