“Screwed up” and “abused”: Omar Khadr’s Canadian interrogations at Guantánamo

15.7.08

As the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrates, a photo is worth a thousand words — even if, as Errol Morris’ newly-released documentary Standard Operating Procedure demonstrates, those words are sometimes what the viewer wishes to see, rather than what actually happened.

A still from the interrogation of Omar Khadr, February 2003There is, therefore, enormous excitement in the media about the first ever release of images from interrogations in Guantánamo: seven and a half hours of footage (highlights available here in a ten-minute version) from interrogations of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight with US soldiers in Afghanistan in July 2002.

In February 2003, when he was still only 16, Omar was visited by representatives of his home country’s Air Force Office of Special Investigations. As has already been widely reported, the video footage from these interrogations — released to Omar’s Canadian lawyers, Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney, as the result of a decision in May by the Supreme Court of Canada and a decision in June by the Federal Court of Canada — shows Omar displaying his wounds, weeping uncontrollably and pulling at his hair in despair.

Despite the excitement, however, documents relating to these interrogations have been available for the last six days, and it’s my belief that they demonstrate the confusion of a desperately lonely imprisoned child without any of the dubious voyeurism that the images bring, whilst also allowing a useful distance from which to appreciate the general coldness and indifference of the interrogators. As Whitling noted in an email accompanying the documents’ release, “The documents paint a picture of a victimized and exploited boy.”

The Canadian representatives interrogated Omar for four days, and in three separate documents relating to the sessions they ran through the lines of questioning they pursued, which were mainly to do with his family history and his knowledge of al-Qaeda. Omar’s father, who funded orphanages in Afghanistan, was also friendly with Osama bin Laden, and Omar and his three brothers spent much of their childhood in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on occasion sharing a compound with the bin Laden family.

Absent from these reports, however, is any detailed questioning relating to Omar’s supposed crime — the killing of a US soldier during the firefight in which he was captured, the veracity of which has only recently been exposed to scrutiny. Also missing are the odd flashes of humanity that can be gleaned from the videotape, when, for example, one of the interrogators attempts to calm Omar, who is clearly distraught, by saying, “I know this is stressful.”

These human touches are, however, overshadowed by the interrogators’ general indifference to Omar’s plight. As Whitling and Edney noted when they released the documents, although Omar was clearly “suffering from severe emotional problems connected with his detention and interrogation, crying heavily on more than one occasion,” the Canadian officials “dismissed his claims of abuse on the flimsiest of pretexts,” writing, in one of the reports, that his allegations of torture at the US prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, which have, of course, subsequently been verified by numerous sources, “did not ring true.”

The interrogators were also indifferent when Omar broke down after describing how he was severely wounded in one eye during the firefight that led to his capture. One report relates, “Khadr stated, ‘I lost my eyes,’ indicating that when he was shot, it affected his vision. Khadr put his head back in his hands and cried heavily. The interrogators left him at this point.” On another occasion, another report states, “Khadr has not received any letters from family since being detained. The interviewers then provided Khadr with a letter, which had recently arrived at Camp Delta. The letter was from his grandmother in Canada. Khadr was left alone to review the letter. Khadr was watched using a video monitor and a one-way piece of glass. Khadr appeared to cry while reading the letter. Tears were coming from his eyes and he was rubbing his eyes and nose.”

This might not be quite so worrying if Omar was an adult at the time of his capture and interrogations — although it would still raise uncomfortable questions about Canadian complicity in the US detention of a Canadian citizen in worryingly novel circumstances, held neither as a Prisoner of War protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as a criminal suspect facing a regular trial.

Given Omar’s circumstances, however, it directly contravenes the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which both the United States and Canada are signatories, which stipulates that juvenile prisoners — defined as those accused of a crime that took place when they were under 18 years of age — “require special protection.” The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities”, and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

Clearly, these requirements have not been fulfilled in Omar’s case, and the Canadians’ complicity in Omar’s detention and interrogation also, of course, make a mockery of the Canadian government’s insistent mantra — that it would not intervene in Omar’s case since it had received assurances from the United States that Omar was being treated humanely — which, as Whitney notes, “has now been proven to have been an attempt to misinform the Canadian public.”

Also included in the documents released by Whitling and Edney, although not featured in the videotapes, are notes from a second visit with Omar, by Jim Gould of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, in March 2004. In a summary of the visit by R. Scott Hetherington, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Division, Gould, who regarded himself as “an amateur observer of the human condition,” described Omar as “a thoroughly ‘screwed-up’ young man,” adding, pertinently, “All those persons who have been in positions of authority over him have abused him and his trust, for their own purposes. In this group can be included his parent and grandparents, his associates in Afghanistan and fellow detainees in Camp Delta and the US military.” Significantly, Gould also noted that, as during the visit in 2003, Omar “recanted all previous statements, including his confession to having thrown the grenade that killed the American soldier.”

Despite being rather patronizing about Omar, Gould’s statement included riveting details of the US military’s treatment of Omar, explaining that, “in an effort to make him more amenable and willing to talk,” the authorities had placed him on the “frequent flyer program,” the euphemistic name for a program of prolonged sleep deprivation. “For the three weeks prior to Mr. Gould’s visit,” the report continued, Omar “has not been permitted more than three hours in any location. At three hour intervals he is moved to another block, thus denying him uninterrupted sleep.” Gould was also told that Omar would “soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks” and would then be interviewed again.

Although Gould was critical of Omar’s US interrogator, noting that he “seemed to be trying to intimidate Omar or force Omar to talk rather then trying to cajole him into cooperation,” he was unconcerned about the prolonged sleep deprivation, noting, nonchalantly, that Omar “did not appear to have been affected by three weeks on the ‘frequent flyer’ program.” Four years later, however, on June 25, 2008, Mr. Justice Richard Mosley of the Federal Court of Canada thought differently, and ruled that this treatment constituted a breach of the United Nations Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. As Nathan Whitling noted, without elaboration, “The Canadian government did not attempt to appeal this decision.”

The most distressing anecdote from Gould’s report, however, which, bizarrely, he portrayed as an example of Omar “hav[ing] some feelings,” followed a session with an interrogator from the Department of Defense, who had shown him a photo of his family, only for Omar to deny that he knew anyone in the picture. “Left alone with the picture and despite his shackles,” the report continued, “Omar urinated on the picture. The MPs cleaned him, the picture and floor and again left him alone with the picture — after shortening his shackles so that he couldn’t urinate on the picture again. But, with the flexibility of youth, he was able to lower his trousers and again urinated on the picture. Again the MPs cleaned up and left him alone with the picture on a table in front of him. After two and a half hours alone and probably assuming that he was no longer being watched, Omar laid his head down on the table beside the picture in what was seen as an affectionate manner.”

This is an example of Omar “hav[ing] some feelings”? In my world, which I hope you share, it shows a horrendously isolated and abused teenager displaying mood swings that are symptomatic of extreme mental disturbance.

As Dr. Eric Trupin, who has conducted extensive research on the effects of incarceration on adolescents, explained in 2005 after reviewing the results of mental status tests administered by Omar’s US lawyers, which followed three years of interrogations that began as soon as Omar was captured, and which had a cumulative effect that the Canadians either could not or would not consider:

The impact of these harsh interrogation techniques on an adolescent such as O.K. [Omar], who also has been isolated for almost three years, is potentially catastrophic to his future development. Long-term consequences of harsh interrogation techniques are both more pronounced for adolescents and more difficult to remediate or treat even after such interrogations are discontinued, particularly if the victim is uncertain as to whether they will resume. It is my opinion, to a reasonable scientific certainty, that O.K.’s continued subjection to the threat of physical and mental abuse places him at significant risk for future psychiatric deterioration, which may include irreversible psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as a psychosis with treatment-resistant hallucinations, paranoid delusions and persistent self-harming attempts.

For more on the background to Omar Khadr’s story, and his abuse in US detention, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, Anti-war.com, AlterNet, ZNet and CounterPunch.

11 Responses

  1. vallan says...

    I have three children and the youngest is 16. This infuriates me. My heart bleeds for this helpless young man. He has no one to defend his side and I’m sickened at the US and Canadian governments. Your both no better than the terrorists.

  2. Muslims Against Sharia says...

    Lt.C. Ralph Peters on Omar Khadr Gitmo Tape: “We Should Have Killed That Punk on a Battlefield where it was legal to do so!”

    Watch video at http://muslimsagainstsharia.blogspot.com/2008/07/ltc-ralph-peters-on-omar-khadr-gitmo.html

  3. “Screwed up” and “abused”: Omar Khadr’s Canadian interrogations at Guantánamo | freedetainees.org says...

    [...] By Andy Worthington [...]

  4. mullah cimoc says...

    ameriki him so the big hero and tough guy when to torture the child. am proud mr. tuf ameriki? how many usa soldier the sick brain and danger?

    usa to suffering so much for cruel and the torture. now for ameriki economic to punish and suffering and to fight aztec and maya for land. him whitie man now finish and this the punish for it wicked ameriki to tortured it children.

    also for punish now ameriki him daughtyer just full slut take LBT (low back tattoo) to sex with every man even it gang member. but ameriki him no even the ashame. and him son the gay homosexual and him wife lesbian never to love cook food for family.

    not all it ameriki so the wicked but even him to suffer equal with bad ameriki.

  5. Robert Murphy says...

    I am so sick of reading comments from these bleeding hearts about these terrorists being abused. Last week while surfing the net, I came across the video of Nick Berg being beheaded by these people the bleeding hearts are concerned about. I spent 9 yrs in the army and 27 years as a police officer. I have seen many horrific things in my life and have lost a lot of sleep,over it. however nothing bothered me as much as that video. It should be shown to every soldier going to serve on those countrys. They will then know what they are fighting for. The media are responsible for a lot of the bleeding heart nonsence. They should have a look at that video and see one of their own being executed by these animals. See how well you sleep after watching it. You will find it by entering “beheadings by taliban and el quida in Afghanistan.” As Lawrence of Arabia once said “take no prisioners”.

  6. Tulufsa Ohseio says...

    Thank you for supporting the war vs. America. To bring down the real enemy, the Great Satan, infiltrators in the West bringing them down from inside will be needed to spread pro jihadist propaganda like yours. Keep up the “good” fight.

  7. Muslims Against Sharia says...

    Hypocrisy of the “Repatriate Omar Khadr to Canada” Movement

    As soon as the Gitmo interrogation tape of Omar Khadr hit the Internet, the blogosphere was flooded with demands to repatriate him to Canada. This wave is reminiscent of a Soviet campaign to free Luis Corvalán from the “fascist regime” of Augusto Pinochet thirty five years ago. The scenario is strikingly similar. A “victim” held by “fascist regimes” this time run by Bush and Harper, and a public outcry for justice. Except for the fact that Luis Corvalán didn’t kill anyone and didn’t fight for a terrorist group that wants to impose Sharia.

    The “repatriate Khadr” crowd describes him as “a child”, “a kid”, “a boy”, and even “a torture victim”, with no facts to substantiate the torture claims notwithstanding. They complain about Khadr being mistreated, again, without anything to back up their claims. Some of them are outraged about “child abuse.” And they all scream for justice.

    They want justice? OK, let’s talk about JUSTICE. What about justice for Sgt. First Class Christopher J. Speer, who was (according to an eyewitness) murdered by this “child”? What about justice for Tabitha Speer, who is a widow because of this “kid”? What about justice for Taryn and Tanner Speer, who are left without a father by this “a boy”? And what about all those Afghani civilians and NATO troops who are a little bit safer because this “torture victim” is behind bars? How many of these “repatriate Khadr” hypocrites concern themselves with justice for real victims? In literally hundreds of posts, we couldn’t find a single one.

    One would ask, what is the reason for this idiocy? The answer is simple. Ignorance. Complete and utter ignorance. Let’s forget for a second that Omar Khadr killed Christopher Speer. Let’s forget that Khadr’s father was an al Qaeda financier. Let’s forget that Khadr’s family is known for it being al Qaeda sympathizers. Let’s just remember what this “child” was fighting for in Afghanistan.

    This is what Taliban-imposed Sharia looks like in real life: http://muslimsagainstsharia.blogspot.com/2000/07/hypocrisy-of-repatriate-omar-khadr-to.html

    Why don’t all of you, bleeding heart demagogues go to Afghanistan and spend a day in a Taliban-controlled territory? And let’s talk about Khadr when you get back. If you get back.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s so easy to miss the point, isn’t it? Let me spell out the significance of Omar Khadr’s age when he was captured (he was 15 years old):

    Under the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which both the United States and Canada are signatories, juvenile prisoners – defined as those accused of a crime that took place when they were under 18 years of age – “require special protection.”

    The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities”, and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

    That’s rehabilitation, not punishment. If Omar Khadr had been over 18 at the time of his capture we could be having different discussions, involving other difficult questions such as: did he actually throw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer? And if he did, why was he not held as a Prisoner of War under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, and protected from cruel treatment and torture?

    He was not over 18, however. He was a child.

    Here’s the Optional Protocol:
    http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/6/protocolchild.htm
    Have a read, ask the government to opt out of it, and then get back to me.

  9. Raymond says...

    Robert Murphy. “Bleeding hearts?” Surely you jest. Was it not bleeding heart neocon scum who went into Iraq and Afghanistan to bring these poor helpless people freedom & democracy. Was it not the neocons, who before and after all their lies were exposed, decided that they still did a good thing because of their “concern” for the suffering people of the two states? So choose your parrot vocabulary somewhere else. It is not even your terminology.

    p.s. Don’t even bring up Berg because this boy had nothing whatsoever to do with Berg dying. Furthermore, Berg was nothing short of money-hungry, conscienceless mercenary who had no business whatsoever in Iraq and if he was killed by Iraqis, he most certainly does not merit anyone’s sympathy. You comparisons are twisted and the foundations of racists. You are lumping any and everyone muslim into the same pot as the small band of guerillas who beheaded Berg. Stop being a parrot. It is not healthy for your brain.

  10. DhafirTrial » Seized at 15, Omar Khadr turns 22 in Guantánamo says...

    [...] from a video of Omar’s interrogation in 2003 by Canadian agents, which were released this [...]

  11. Ted Lane says...

    Pity the “poor’ bastard who tried to kill his fellow passengers. Instead of 72 virgins he get’s his balls blown off. Tsk Tsk…..PITY PITY

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