In the last week, Omar Khadr, the only Western citizen still held in Guantánamo, has sacked his US lawyers and stated that he will boycott his forthcoming trial by Military Commission, scheduled to begin on August 10. He has also refused to have anything to do with a plea deal that was being negotiated between the prosecution and defense lawyers, which apparently involved him serving five years of a 30-year sentence if he were to plead guilty to throwing a grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier, Sgt. Christopher Speer, on the day of his capture after a firefight in Afghanistan nearly eight years ago, on July 27, 2002.
From a legal point of view, Khadr’s decision to boycott his forthcoming trial appears resolutely counter-productive. Of the three prisoners convicted in the Commissions’ miserable eight-year history (a fourth, Ibrahim al-Qosi, awaits sentencing after a plea deal last week), only one — Ali Hamza al-Bahlul — received a punitive sentence, being sentenced to life in prison in November 2008, after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defense.
Khadr’s rebellion may yet play to his advantage, but before considering that, it is worth recounting how he reached this point, and what his rebellion means.
At the time of his capture, Khadr was just 15 years old. Seriously wounded after the firefight in which Sgt. Speer — and all of Khadr’s companions — were killed, he was then accused of having thrown the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer, even though subsequent accounts have indicated that he was face-down and unconscious under a pile of rubble at the time, and was subjected to interrogations, threats and insensitive and sometimes abusive treatment until his transfer to Guantánamo, soon after his 16th birthday on September 19. 2002. In Guantánamo, the same pattern of interrogations, threats and abusive treatment continued.
Khadr’s abuse as a juvenile, in defiance of international treaties
At no point was Khadr treated as a juvenile prisoner (those under 18 years of age when their alleged crimes take place), caught up in war at the instigation of an adult — in this case, his father, Ahmed Khadr, an alleged financier for Osama bin Laden, who had repeatedly shuttled his family from Canada to Afghanistan and Pakistan during Khadr’s childhood. It was, after all, Ahmed Khadr who bore the ultimate responsibility for letting his son spend time with a group of men who, on July 27, 2002, took him with them when they went to visit colleagues in Ab Khail, a small village outside Khost, where they were subsequently ambushed by US soldiers.
Of particular relevance here is the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted by resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations on May 25, 2000, and entered into force on February 12, 2002. The US ratified the Optional Protocol on December 23, 2002, five months after Khadr was seized, but then spectacularly failed to fulfill its obligations, which includes the agreement that all States Parties who ratified the Protocol “[r]ecogniz[e] the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and are “[c]onvinced of the need [for] the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”
The US also ignored a detailed plan for the care of juveniles in Guantánamo, “Recommended Course of Action for Reception and Detention of Individuals Under 18 Years of Age” (PDF), dated January 14, 2003, which was drawn up by four doctors at Guantánamo, and provided detailed guidance on how juveniles should be treated. The document, which I discussed in an article in October 2008, began by noting, “All efforts should be made to keep those in the pediatric age range [those under 18] from undergoing detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” and pointed out, “People less than age 18 years are emotionally, psychologically, and physically dynamic and complex. If it is determined that they must be detained, then all aspects of their transport, in-processing, and detainment should be specific for this age group.” Much of the rest of the document described, in detail, how juvenile prisoners must be housed and treated, and how to meet their psychological and educational needs.
However, instead of being rehabilitated, Khadr was subjected to the full weight of the oppressive and illegal regime at Guantánamo, and was also abandoned by the Canadian government, which sent interrogators to Guantánamo in February 2003. As his Canadian lawyers, Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney, noted when they released a video of the interrogations in July 2008 (which was provided to them during Canadian court proceedings), 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 “did not ring true,” even though, as we now know, at least two prisoners were killed by US soldiers just months after Khadr was transferred to Guantánamo.
Khadr’s only power – the power to dismiss his lawyers
As a result of all these factors, when two US lawyers, Muneer Ahmad and Rick Wilson of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, finally got to meet him in October 2004, following the Supreme Court’s ruling, in June 2004, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, “[s]ecuring [his] trust did not prove easy,” as I explained in a profile of Khadr in November 2007, “primarily because suspicion and paranoia were built into the fabric of Guantánamo.” Ahmad recalled that, when he finally met Omar, his first thought was, “He’s just a little kid.” In August 2006, an article in Rolling Stone explained, “Omar was gaunt and pale, in a state of everlasting exhaustion, his senses starved by solitude. He had large gunshot-wound scars on his back and chest, and smaller scars over most of his body, several parts of which still held shrapnel.”
Significantly, as Ahmad also explained, although Khadr gradually opened up to them, “reveal[ing] himself to be very shy and curious and, in most ways, still a child, with a child’s sweetness and credulous charm,” he also realized, as Michelle Shephard explained in the Toronto Star on Wednesday, that “the only control [he] could wield in prison was whether he saw his lawyers, and if he would let them represent him. Interrogations and daily routines were non-negotiable. Even hunger strikes were unsuccessful due to Guantánamo’s policy of force-feeding striking detainees.”
In November 2005, just over a year after his first visit from his lawyers, Khadr was charged in the first incarnation of the Military Commission trial system, which, in November 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisors thought would be a useful method for trying terror suspects without due process, using material derived from torture, and, if required, subjecting them swiftly to the death penalty. It didn’t work out that way, of course, In June 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commissions violated the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but they were then revived by Congress, and in February 2007 Khadr was charged again. This time around, proceedings limped on until January 2009, when, on his first day in office, President Obama suspended the Commissions, but by May he had concluded that they ought to be revived with the aid of Congress, and in November last year Khadr was charged for the third time.
As the Commissions have struggled to establish their legitimacy, and have stumbled from one disaster to another, plagued by resignations, internal problems and inconsistencies, and a fundamental misconception that any of the charges faced by the prisoners are recognizable as war crimes, Khadr has repeatedly resorted to the only power he has — the power to dismiss his lawyers — even as those men and women did their best to defend him, both in court hearings and in the media, pointing out that he was a child when seized, that he was tortured, that he did not throw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer, and that the United States ought to be ashamed for even contemplating putting a former juvenile prisoner on trial for war crimes.
Khadr’s defiance and his sense of justice
Khadr’s actions may seem counter-intuitive, and in some ways may be nothing more than a frustrated child in a man’s body lashing out in a manner that reveals the anguish beneath his generally calm exterior. Looked at another way, however, it is easy to understand why Khadr has just sacked his US lawyers (again), and why he believes that the Commissions are rigged and that the US government is incapable of delivering justice in his case. His reasoning permeates the statement he read out in court on Monday, in which he declared:
[Y]our honor I’m boycotting this Military Commission because:
* Firstly the unfairness and unjustice of it. I say this because not one of the lawyers I’ve had, or human rights organizations, or any person, ever say that this commission is fair or looking for justice, but on the contrary they say it’s unfair and unjust and that it has been constructed to convict detainees, not to find the truth (so how can I ask for justice from a process that does not have it or offer it) and to accomplish political and public goals. And what I mean is when I was offered a plea bargain it was up to 30 years which I was going to spend only five years so I asked why the 30 years. I was told it makes the US government look good in the public’s eyes and other political causes.
* Secondly: The unfairness of the rules that will make a person so depressed that he will admit to all[e]gations made upon him or take a plea offer that will satisfy the US government and get him the least sentence possible and l[e]gitimize this sham process. Therefore, I will not willingly let the U.S. gov use me to [fulfill] its goal. I have been used [too] many times when I was a child and that’s [why] I’m here taking blame and paying for things I didn’t have a choice in doing but was told to do by elders.
* Lastly I will not take any plea offer because it will give excuse for the gov for torturing and abusing me when I was a child.
It’s all there: Torture and abuse by the US when he was a child; the refusal by the US authorities to recognize that he was manipulated by those older than him; and a refusal to accept a plea deal that would make the US look good, that would appear to validate an unjust process, and that would involve him confessing to a crime he didn’t commit.
US discomfort, Canada’s shameful history – and why the Harper government needs to act now
I don’t doubt that Khadr’s defiance is mixed with confusion, but it just may be that boycotting his pending trial will force both the American and the Canadian governments to think long and hard about what to do now.
For Barack Obama, the boycott threatens to turn a situation that is already problematical into one that is beyond contemplation. When Ali Hamza al-Bahlul refused to mount a defense and was convicted in the dying days of the Bush administration, no one cared, but in Khadr’s case it is different. As Michelle Shephard explained on Wednesday, his status as a child soldier “has already made many in Washington uncomfortable,” and a decision to boycott his trial may make it “politically untenable.” Jennifer Turner, a researcher who was observing Khadr’s hearing for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Shephard by email, “Politically, it’s a nightmare. Instead of restoring the rule of law, Obama would be presiding over the one-sided prosecution of a child, taken to a conflict zone by his family and mistreated for years in US detention.”
Even more pertinently, Khadr’s boycott may finally provoke action from the Canadian government, which, throughout this whole sordid story, has behaved appallingly. Despite signing the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict on July 7, 2000, and advocating on the world stage for the rights of child soldiers from other countries, the government has persistently refused to call for the return of Khadr to Canada, and has, over the years, faced mounting condemnation in the courts.
In April 2005, critics of the government’s stance in Canada were appalled when William Hooper, the assistant director of operation for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, admitted that the information obtained from Khadr’s interrogation at Guantánamo had been shared with the US authorities, without any attempt having been made to ascertain whether it would be used in a case involving the death penalty, and in July 2008, when Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney released the video of Khadr’s interrogations by Canadian agents, they were able to do so because, on May 23, 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the government had acted illegally, contravening Article 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” and ordered the videotapes released.
A month later, on June 25, 2008, there was more trouble for the government, when Mr. Justice Richard Mosley of the Federal Court of Canada ruled (PDF) that a report from a visit to Khadr in March 2004 by Jim Gould of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, which nonchalantly mentioned how Khadr had been subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation for three weeks before his visit, “in an effort to make him more amenable and willing to talk,” constituted a breach of the UN Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions.
In April 2009, the Federal Court of Canada revisited the case, reiterating that Khadr’s rights had been violated, and concluding that the government had a “duty to protect” Khadr and should request his return to Canada as soon as possible. In August 2009, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, and in January 2010, in another unanimous 9–0 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada also upheld the ruling, concluding:
The deprivation of [Khadr's] right to liberty and security of the person is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The interrogation of a youth detained without access to counsel, to elicit statements about serious criminal charges while knowing that the youth had been subjected to sleep deprivation and while knowing that the fruits of the interrogations would be shared with the prosecutors, offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.
The Supreme Court stopped short of ordering the government to seek Khadr’s return, accepting, lamely, that it was up to senior officials to ascertain how to balance foreign policy requirements with the need to respect Khadr’s constitutional rights. Predictably, given its past behavior, the government decided that Khadr’s rights counted for nothing, prompting another round of litigation. Last week, Mr. Justice Russell Zinn gave the government seven days to come up with a list of ways in which they intended to protect Khadr’s rights, but on Monday, as Khadr prepared to deliver his statement in Guantánamo, the government filed another last-minute appeal.
Whether evasion on the part of the government is endlessly possible remains to be seen, but it now seems likely that, with Khadr’s boycott looming, the Obama administration may finally seek to exert pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As Michelle Shephard explained on Wednesday, such has been the Canadian government’s aversion to dealing constructively with Khadr’s case that government officials were not even involved in the discussions regarding a plea deal, meaning that the whole arrangement of serving five years of a 30-year sentence “was never guaranteed.”
Khadr may not have known this when he sprang his surprise on his latest lawyers, but, as Dennis Edney explained, “The deal was dependent on a number of things, including whether Canada would take him. And Canada was never at the table.”
With a chronic travesty of justice looming, it is time for Canada to sit at the table with the Americans, and to work out how to secure Khadr’s release without the embarrassment of a war crimes trial. Unlike every other Western citizen, Omar Khadr has been spurned for too long by his home country, and it is time for Stephen Harper to secure his return, and to bring to an end the desperate defiance, born of frustration and isolation, of a former child prisoner who has lost a third of his life in an experimental prison outside the law.
Andy Worthington is the author of 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).
And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Predictable Chaos As Guantánamo Trials Resume (July 2009), David Frakt: Military Commissions “A Catastrophic Failure” (August 2009), 9/11 Trial At Guantánamo Delayed Again: Can We Have Federal Court Trials Now, Please? (September 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari (October 2009), Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! (November 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), Rep. Jerrold Nadler and David Frakt on Obama’s Three-Tier Justice System For Guantánamo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (November 2009), Chaos and Confusion: The Return of the Military Commissions (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Lawyers Appeal Guantánamo Trial Convictions (February 2010), When Rhetoric Trumps Good Sense: The GOP’s Counter-Productive Call for Military Commissions (March 2010), David Frakt’s Damning Verdict on the New Military Commissions Manual (May 2010), Prosecuting a Tortured Child: Obama’s Guantánamo Legacy (May 2010), The Torture of Omar Khadr, a Child in Bagram and Guantánamo (May 2010), Bin Laden Cook Accepts Plea Deal at Guantánamo Trial (July 2010).
[...] that he will boycott his forthcoming trial by Military Commission, scheduled to begin on August 10. (more…) [...]
A few comments from Common Dreams:
This is a fine article about an outrageous situation. There are Canadians who have protested against Khadr’s treatment for years, but we are, unfortunately, in the minority. Lately there’s a sign things are shifting in Khadr’s favour, as journalists in the mainstream media finally speak out.
Note the article by Lawrence Martin of the (generally conservative) Globe and Mail:
Now’s the time to step up the pressure on the lawless Harper government.
Basic question: how could self-defense be a war crime?
Smarter wrote, in fine satirical vein:
Aw, c’mon: he’s a terr’ist f’ Chris’ sake! – Stop whining and get him executed, e.g. by a passing drone. (Why don’t ‘the good guys’ use those in Guantanamo?)
He’s obviously too dangerous to merit a lawyer, not to mention a trial. If he had an ordinary trial he might blow up all of Manhattan. Because his friends in the up to 500 strong al-Qaeda (100 in Afghanistan and 3-400 in Pakistan, according to Pentagon) might book flights and come on over to the vulnerable USA and bring explosives and blow up New York. However small, the chances of that are overwhelming. Omar Khadr is sure to keep in secret contact with the al-Qaeda, from his well-supplied room in Guantanamo. No chances can be taken with such people. He’s probably trained to kill by staring.
Khadr was fighting for the wrong side in a war where his pals were formerly on the “right” – Pentagon-wise – side. Summary death is the only answer for those making that mistake. No pardon. Children are the worst, because they can grow up to keep fighting for a long time. Childhood is no excuse. Better kill than sorry.
Are you f*kin stupid Andy? Wish i was “trained to kill by staring” … i’d stare at you all day/night.
[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, KhadrandCC. KhadrandCC said: If you've never read Andy's writing on Guantanamo, this is a good place to start! http://fb.me/BKPTrZho [...]
The plight of Omar Khadr is an indictment of not only the proto-fascist Harper government, but also of Canadian civil society generally. If there really was a serious progressive movement in Canada, Khadr would be free. There isn’t and he remains in Guantanamo
Here are a few comments from Facebook:
Yusuf Mohammed Abdullah wrote:
Brave Guy, Absolute Respect to him, he towers above his accusers, and why do they decide to start trial 10 Aug The Day before Ramadan Begins. My prayers are with him, I feel almost ashamed that I cannot do more. You are doing excellent work Andy.
Earwicga Amber replied:
Because everybody is on holiday Yusuf so there will be less people listening to the media, and less media people to report on the case. And good old Islamophobia of course.
Willy Bach wrote:
Thanks Andy for the grim and sordid fact of this case. Canada joined the rest of the acolyte nations that lowered their standards to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US Empire project. More politicians who have a very low rating in moral fibre and who should be disgraced and thrown from office.
So, I should already have added Canada to the list of shamed nations that ought to have a very public discovery of documents and high level inquiry. Please, someone, take Omar Khadr home to his parents. He may need a whole lifetime to recover from the wounds of torture.
We Will Not Cooperate.
That’s what it looks like.
My friend Kabuli, who is having problems accessing the site to make comments (anyone else experiencing this?), sent the following message:
In spite of having read a lot about the inhuman and unconstitutional ‘justice’ system of the Bush-Obama tandem, again and again I keep getting profoundly shocked when you point your search light on yet another anomaly:
How on earth could someone possibly be sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment for throwing a fatal grenade at an armed soldier in what tends to be termed a ‘war zone’? If we followed that logic, German or Japanese or Soviet military commissions would still be busy trying the hundreds of thousands of civilian or para-military resistance members from the six years of Second World War, from virtually every country in Europe and many other continents! Or American ones trying Vietnamese ones.
Incidentally, they also were termed Senegalese-, Polish-, French-, Birmese-, communist- or other ‘terrorists’, which ‘legitimised’ torturing and/or summarily executing them …
How can a deal be made based on an imaginary 30 years sentence, as Omar Khadr so pointedly remarked himself? How can a presumably innocent person be ‘offered’ 5 more years in hell, when he already spent 8 ones there?
I’m not even attempting to go into the facts of his age, alleged physical incapacity to perform the ‘war crime’ he is accused of and all the sordid rest.
I fully understand his refusal to legitimise such a perverse travesty of ‘justice’ by actively participating in it, his refusal to provide any arguments to his torturers to clear themselves of their responsibility for his suffering. His decision to let stark injustice be publicly known to be just that: stark injustice without any attenuating circumstances, to use what may well be his last chance to be heard at all by the outside world, to hang on to the only thing that they cannot take away from him and that is the key to retaining his human dignity : the truth.
A decision probably born from the despair of a young man who does not even remember what it was like to be treated like a human being, but also an act of tremendous courage, like a crippled man casting away his crutches, to face this ordeal all alone.
May the Canadian government finally live up to its own example in the case of another of its citizens, Maher Arar, who eventually was officially cleared and — at least financially — compensated for his unlawful rendition and torture-by-procurement in Syria.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: