MIAMI (AP) — A Palestinian not seen publicly since his 2002 capture by the CIA launched a brutal interrogation program may soon make his first appearance in a U.S. courtroom.
Abu Zubaydah, who CIA agents once sought to be kept incommunicado for the rest of his life, has been called as a witness by Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the defendants in the Sept. 11 war crimes case, to back up allegations of mistreatment inside a high-security unit at Guantanamo Bay.
Abu Zubaydah could testify, along with a prisoner from Somalia who has also never been seen in a public forum, as early as next week in a pretrial hearing at the U.S. base in Cuba.
James Harrington, a lawyer for Binalshibh, said that Abu Zubaydah is expected to support his client's allegations that prisoners inside the unit known as Camp 7 are subjected to noises and vibrations inside their cells intended to keep them awake and disoriented, similar to the sleep deprivation they were subjected to as part of the interrogation program they endured in a network of overseas CIA prisons. The military denies the allegations.
"He's experienced the same kind of thing that Ramzi has with the noises and vibration," Harrington said in an interview Wednesday.
The potential Abu Zubaydah court appearance, which could get postponed or canceled, would be significant because of his back story. His capture in Pakistan prompted the CIA under President George W. Bush to create an interrogation program, now widely viewed as torture, in the belief that he had information about al-Qaida that he had not already provided to the FBI. That belief was false, according to a report released by the Senate intelligence committee in 2014.
Abu Zubaydah, 45, has never been charged with a crime or appeared before a judge despite efforts by his lawyers to challenge his detention. His lawyers have even asked the government to charge him so they could at least get him into court.
"I think it's a huge deal if for nothing else to observe what he's like as a person, which is pretty gentle and normal," said Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University who represents the man.
The CIA believed that Abu Zubaydah — whose formal name is Zayn al-lbidin Muhammed Husayn — was one of the most senior figures in al-Qaida when he was captured. He is now described in U.S. documents as a "well-known al-Qaida facilitator." His lawyers deny he was a member of the terrorist organization. The Senate report documented a litany of harsh treatment that included being water-boarded 83 times in a month.
The treatment was so harsh, according to the report, that CIA officers sent a cable to their bosses seeking assurances that Abu Zubaydah "will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life," unable to recount it.
In addition to wounds sustained during his capture, Abu Zubaydah received a serious head injury from a mortar shell fighting in Afghanistan in 1992 and suffers severe memory loss as a result.
Harrington has also called Guleed Hassan Ahmed, a prisoner from Somalia, as a witness. He also has never been charged nor been seen in public. The testimony of both men is expected to be limited to the issue of conditions inside Camp 7.
"He has been brought in to describe the conditions in Camp 7," Denbeaux said. "Ramzi has said the conditions in Camp 7 are mirroring some of the milder forms of torture in other places."
Binalshibh has complained about the noises and vibrations for years. Military officials have repeatedly denied that anything is being done to disturb him or his sleep inside the top-secret Camp 7. Prosecutors have suggested in court that he is making it up as they have sought to keep the issue from disrupting a case that has been hit by repeated delays and is still likely years from going to trial.
The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, issued an order directing the military to cease any deliberate noises or vibrations without determining whether any, in fact, have occurred. Binalishibh says the issue persists and keeps him from participating in his defense, making it a potential legal issue for the court to address. Harrington says the judge has the authority to require an independent monitor inside Camp 7 or even halt the Sept. 11 case if he believes Binalshibh.
Whether anything is going on in Camp 7 now remains an open question. Binalshibh, who has been diagnosed with psychological problems while in custody, as well as Abu Zubaydah were subjected to intensive sleep deprivation while in CIA custody prior to being taken to Guantanamo in September 2006.