GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Confined alone in his Guantanamo cell nearly around the clock, a Yemeni prisoner and former driver for Usama bin Laden has begun to break down mentally and cannot focus on preparing for his upcoming war-crimes trial, his attorneys say.
Lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan asked in a motion ahead of pretrial hearings beginning Thursday for his military tribunal to be halted until his living conditions improve.
"I do not believe that Mr. Hamdan will be able to materially assist in his own defense if his conditions do not improve," wrote one of his civilian attorneys, Andrea Prasow.
Hamdan has been imprisoned on this isolated U.S. Navy base in southeastern Cuba since May 2002. He faces a possible life sentence if the tribunal convicts him of conspiracy and supporting terrorism.
His lawyers say he is held in a "regime of isolation," with no access to fresh air for as many as 23 hours a day. During a recent monthlong period, they say, he had only two recreation periods.
A Guantanamo spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, said Wednesday that he could not comment on specific allegations. But he said all detainees receive a minimum of two hours of recreation each day.
"He's treated like everybody else," Haupt said.
Hamdan currently is in Camp 5 — one of two maximum-security prisons that hold the majority of Guantanamo's 275 detainees in individual, solid-wall cells.
As a group of reporters toured Camp 5 this week, several prisoners in one cellblock shouted and pounded on the walls. Covers had been placed over the narrow windows on their doors and a Guantanamo spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Ed Bush, said the inmates were acting out because they knew that meant journalists were visiting.
Hamdan occupied a communal living camp reserved for the best-behaved prisoners until December 2006. Since moving to an individual cell, his attorneys say, he has shown symptoms of deteriorating mental health including hopelessness, anxiety and poor memory.
A psychologist who spent 70 hours examining him for the defense team, Emily Keram, said he shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and could be at risk for "suicidal thoughts and behavior."
Defense lawyers say Hamdan, who U.S. military records show is about 37, faults them for not getting him out of the maximum-security prison. In their meetings, he has difficulty focusing on anything else, according to the court filing.
Hamdan was captured in a car carrying two surface-to-air missiles by Afghan troops in November 2001 and turned over to U.S. forces.
He was first charged more than three years ago. But his prosecution has been delayed by legal challenges, including one he filed that went to the Supreme Court and resulted in the striking-down of the original rules for military tribunals in 2006.
He is one of four detainees who have been charged under a new tribunal system. So far, no one has actually been tried at Guantanamo. Australian detainee David Hicks avoided trial last year with a plea bargain that returned him to his homeland to serve a jail sentence.