By John Ryan | February 23, 2023 | News & Features, Guantanamo Bay
Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba – A medical doctor on Thursday testified to the continuing effects of multiple assaults Abd al Rahim al Nashiri suffered at the hands of the CIA nearly two decades ago, including medically unsound rectal feeding and sodomy by a broom stick.
“He experienced these as painful sexual assaults or rapes,” Dr. Sondra Crosby, a consultant on al Nashiri’s defense team, testified.
The lead defense lawyer, Anthony Natale, called Crosby in support of his team’s efforts to suppress incriminating statements al Nashiri made to FBI and NCIS agents in early 2007, after his arrival on Guantanamo Bay from CIA custody.
In a critical pretrial motion pending before the judge, Army Col. Lanny Acosta, lawyers claim that the past torture by the CIA taints these statements. Prosecutors contend al Nashiri participated in the 2007 FBI sessions voluntarily. Al Nashiri faces a possible death sentence for his alleged role in planning the attack off the coast of Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000, killing 17 sailors and injuring many more.
The defense team hired Crosby as a consultant in 2013 in the hopes her experience working with torture victims would assist its efforts to communicate and build trust with al Nashiri. Crosby is a professor of medicine at Boston University and regularly treats refugees and asylum seekers as part of her clinical practice. She has also consulted with other legal teams for Guantanamo Bay detainees who have protested their confinement through hunger strikes.
Under direct examination by Natale, Crosby said that al Nashiri took months to open up in 2013 about the rectal abuse. She said that he had great difficulty describing what was done to him, often relying on “hand gestures.” She said that al Nashiri “instructed her to not bring up the subject again.”
Al Nashiri told her that personnel at a CIA black site stripped him naked, shackled him at his feet and ankles, bent him over a chair and inserted liquid food into his anus. He described another incident in which personnel inserted a broom stick into his anus while he was naked with his arms shackled above his head.
She told Natale that parts of al Nashiri’s descriptions were corroborated by the U.S. Senate’s summary report of the CIA interrogation program released in December 2014 and later by discovery produced to the defense team by the government in the course of the litigation over the black sites.
Natale and his witness spent most of the hour-long testimony discussing the rectal feeding, with Crosby at times reviewing CIA cables that documented al Nashiri’s treatment. She said the CIA reporting shows that al Nashiri was fed rectally in May 2004 by means of an endotracheal tube after refusing five meals over three days. She said that the extent of his meal refusal did not meet the internationally recognized standard of a hunger strike that would warrant nutritional intervention.
At one point, Natale handed Crosby an endotracheal tube so that she could demonstrate how the device is typically used to help an individual breathe. Crosby said that the CIA reporting shows that personnel at a black site used the device to rectally infuse al Nashiri with Ensure for 30 minutes, then left the tube in for an additional 10 minutes.
Crosby testified that medical science had debunked the potential benefits of rectal feeding by the 1930s. She said that 95 percent of digestion is completed by the time food moves through the small intestine, and that nutrients are not absorbed in the rectum or colon.
“It’s not a two-way street,” Crosby said.
Crosby testified that al Nashiri suffers from complex PTSD, anxiety, vertigo, abdominal pain, and a range of gastro-intestinal and musculoskeletal problems. She said his symptoms are consistent with those of other victims of "male sexual assault."
One of the prosecutors, Navy Lt. Tess Schwartz, conducted a brief cross-examination from the court’s remote hearing room in Northern Virginia. Crosby confirmed in this questioning that it’s possible al Nashiri may have already had some digestive health issues prior to his arrival in CIA custody in 2002.
Al Nashiri was not in court for Crosby’s testimony. He spent the afternoon in a holding cell within the court complex that can receive an audio and video feed of the proceedings.
The government has acknowledged that the CIA interrogations were coercive. However, they claim that the subsequent FBI-led interrogations on Guantanamo Bay in early 2007 were sufficiently attenuated from the prior abuse to render them non-coercive. In these sessions, FBI agents told al Nashiri that he would not be returned to CIA custody.
Annie Morgan, a civilian lawyer on al Nashiri’s team, said after court Thursday that al Nashiri experienced “very specific triggers” prior to his FBI interrogations that “brought him back to” the sexual trauma of the rectal feeding. Morgan said that her client believed he could be returned to CIA custody “and that everything that happened to him could happen to him again.”
Last year, the defense team called the lead architect of the CIA’s interrogation program, Dr. James Mitchell, in support of their suppression motion. The former CIA contract psychologist testified to personally waterboarding and inflicting other abuses on al Nashiri during his time at CIA black sites. Mitchell’s partner in the CIA program, Dr. Bruce Jessen, is scheduled to testify in the next pretrial session, scheduled for April.
Natale’s team has also previously questioned the FBI and NCIS agents who conducted the 2007 interrogations of al Nashiri on Guantanamo Bay. Defense lawyers claim that coordination between the CIA and these agents further confirm a taint that undercuts the government’s position that statements given on Guantanamo were sufficiently attenuated from those given at black sites – thus warranting suppression of the statements. Prosecutors have used these witnesses to portray al Nashiri's 2007 sessions as cordial and voluntary.
Judge Acosta has told the parties he intends to make significant progress in the remaining pretrial matters prior his retirement set for the end of September. He has not set a trial date in the case, which dates to the November 2011 arraignment.
In addition to the 2007 confessions, the government hopes to use at trial more than 100 statements from Yemeni witnesses interviewed by U.S. law enforcement in the months after the attack. Acosta is using significant parts of this two-week session to resume witness testimony from the federal agents who obtained the statements in Yemen. Acosta will eventually rule on the admissibility of each of these hearsay statements, which the defense is challenging as unreliable.
About the author: John Ryan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Lawdragon Inc., where he oversees all web and magazine content and provides regular coverage of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not at GTMO, John is based in Brooklyn. He has covered complex legal issues for 20 years and has won multiple awards for his journalism, including a New York Press Club Award in Journalism for his coverage of the Sept. 11 case. View our staff page.