Today, please spare a thought for Omar Khadr, the only Canadian citizen in Guantánamo, who was seized in Afghanistan on July 27, 2002, when he was just 15 years old. Omar is 24 years old today, and has grown, physically, into a man during the eight years and two months he has spent in US custody, first at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and, since October 2002, at Guantánamo. At heart, however, he remains a child, whose youth has been stolen from him by the US authorities responsible for detaining him, and by the Canadian government, which has refused to demand his return.
Today, however, I don’t want you to reflect particularly on the abuse to which he has been subjected throughout his detention, or on the US government’s shameful refusal to rehabilitate him, rather than punishing him, as required by its obligations under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which includes the agreement that all States Parties who ratify 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.”
Today, I don’t want you to reflect particularly on the Canadian government’s shameful refusal to demand his return to his homeland, despite severe criticism by the Canadian courts, or on the Obama administration’s shameful refusal to cancel his scheduled trial by Military Commission, on war crimes charges that — even if the allegations are true — are not war crimes at all, as Lt. Col. David Frakt, the military defense attorney for another former child at Guantánamo, Mohamed Jawad (who was released last August), has explained.
Instead, I want you to think only about Omar, and to reflect on how, although he now looks like a man, he has in fact been thoroughly deprived of the formative experiences that shape a young man — of the opportunities to learn, to experience life, to forge new friendships with those of his age.
On Saturday, I attended “Eid Without Aafia,” an event to raise awareness for the plight of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist facing a life sentence in the United States next week, after a trial that failed to address claims that she was held and abused in US custody for over five years as a CIA “ghost prisoner.” As part of the event, I was honored to be asked to conduct a discussion about Guantánamo, and conditions for prisoners held in the “War on Terror,” with former Guantánamo prisoners Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed.
While we were discussing the treatment of children in US custody — with reference to two of Aafia Siddiqui’s children (who also disappeared without explanation for up to seven years) — Ruhal and Shafiq spoke about Omar, whom they knew from Guantánamo, and both men pointed out how disturbing it was that he was held, how disturbing his wounds were, and how, although he was growing up physically while they knew him, he remained a child, and his life — and the lives of the other 21 juveniles held at Guantánamo throughout its history — had been stolen from him far more severely than was the case with other prisoners.
No country that dares to call itself civilized should tolerate holding anyone as a prisoner in an experimental prison whose rationale — as formulated by the Bush administration — was to establish a policy of indefinite detention, and to facilitate coercive interrogations outside the scrutiny of the US courts. To do this to a child is unconscionable, and the very least the Obama administration, and the government of Stephen Harper, should do before Omar’s trial by Military Commission resumes on October 18, is to arrange for him to be returned to Canada, to begin filling in the blanks in those eight long and lost years of his life.
POSTSCRIPT: To be strictly accurate, I realize that this article is a day late, as Omar’s date of birth is actually September 19, 1986, but I hope my slight calendrical confusion can be excused.
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.
On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:
Andy, I certainly honour the plight of Omar and the strength he has shown in the face of great injustice and spiteful treatment.
Of course, the USA and allies pay lip service to the protection of children in combat. Hey, that stuff is is only meant to apply to African war lords. In Laos the US happily used children of the Hmong and Yao ethnic groups and saw up to 90% of them slaughtered. They were poorly trained and knew no fear and so risked their lives for the USA with nothing gained.
In Nicaragua a former Sandinista commander told me that the USA recruited children to fight for them. These children were sometimes abducted at gunpoint. Similar things happened in El Salvador and in every secret war led by the CIA. They get away with it every time, so they never learn to respect human rights.
The only thing about the Geneva Conventions is the belief that the USA ever respects these international laws.
Spencer Spratley wrote:
The Pentagon has said Khadr’s age is not a factor in his prosecution for war crimes since the Military Commissions Act does not specify a minimum age for trial. So, if you’re 10 years old and the military prosecutor thinks you possess the wisdom and maturity to know what you’re doing, get ready for trial.
As the world’s most well-known child soldier, Ishmael Beah, has said of the Khadr case:
“You can’t say that one person’s life is more valuable. So, if a 15-year-old kid in Sierra Leone, in Congo, in Uganda, in Liberia, if they kill somebody and shoot somebody in the war it’s fine, but as soon as that kid kills an American soldier … they are no longer a child soldier, they are a terrorist.”
Michael Ratner wrote:
This is one of the outrages that demonstrates the bankruptcy of Obama. Trying a child soldier before a military commission with evidence from torture. This should have been a no brainer–none of the usual excuses about congress etc.
This was my reply:
Absolutely, Michael. Thanks for the comments. It’s so deeply depressing that, under Obama, we not only get the trial of a tortured child as the centerpiece of the third attempt at justifying the disgraced Commissions, but we also get administration officlals whining to the mainstream media that they’re “alarmed” by negative responses to the trial, and are upset that this is “undermining their broader effort to showcase reforms that they say have made military commissions fair and just”:
Thank you for this reminder Andy, God Bless.
Richard Parker wrote:
If the US wasn’t so bloody arrogant, this case would be put down on its government’s list of indictable war crimes.
Amanda Goode wrote:
Negativity in the press? That’s what alarms them?
This was my reply:
Yes, incredible eh, Amanda? They know that what they’re doing is wrong, but they only care if someone else perceives it, and makes some noise about it. I don’t want Bush-era machismo back, but at least they straightforwardly wanted to imprison children and tell the world that they weren’t bothered if anyone got sniffy about it. What can you say about Obama administration officials? That they’ll stitch you up in a phoney war crimes trial and then perhaps apologize afterwards, while locking you up and throwing away the key?
[…] rules of war, and we certainly expect others to comply with it. After all, we are prosecuting Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay for war crimes. We did sentence Dr. Aafia Siddiqui to 86 years in prison, that […]
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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