This has been a very poor week for American justice. On Monday, the Obama administration secured a plea deal in the trial by Military Commission of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was seized by US forces in July 2002. As a result, the United States has become the first supposedly civilized country since the Second World War to secure the conviction of a former child prisoner, even though, under the terms of the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which the US ratified in December 2002, signatories are obliged to “[r]ecogniz[e] the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and are to ensure “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.” To make it absolutely clear, the Optional Protocol deals with the treatment of juvenile prisoners — those who are under 18 at the time that their alleged crimes take place.
In addition, the crimes to which Khadr admitted as part of his plea deal — murder in violation of the laws of war (for apparently throwing a grenade that killed Delta Force Sgt. Christopher Speer), spying, material support for terrorism, conspiracy and attempted murder — are only war crimes in the United States, as the result of decisions taken by the US Congress in 2006, and revived by the Obama administration in 2009. According to this absurd and unjust scenario, Khadr is “an alien unprivileged enemy belligerent,” who did not have “any legal basis to commit any war-like acts” at all. As I explained in a recent article:
[T]his is exactly the sort of twisted argument used by the Bush administration to hold men and boys without rights and to pretend that they had been by-passed completely by the Geneva Conventions, when in fact anyone captured in wartime must be given the minimum baseline protections of Common Article 3. Pretending that certain types of combatants have no rights — and are “enemy combatants,” or, in Obama’s words, “alien unprivileged enemy belligerents” – is exactly the mindset that led to the vile conclusion that prisoners seized in the “War on Terror” could be tortured and abused, and were, essentially, something less than human.
The final problem, as succinctly identified by Dennis Edney, one of Khadr’s long-term Canadian civilian lawyers, is that there is not necessarily any correlation between what Khadr actually did back in 2002, and what he conceded to doing as part of his plea deal. Explaining why Khadr accepted a plea deal, having previously refused to accept the charges against him, Edney said it was a “very, very difficult” decision, and one which he “made only because Canada agreed to repatriate him after a year,” as the Associated Press described it, adding that Edney had explained that it “came down to a choice” between an “illegal” trial “and going home — and he chose the latter.” He insisted, however, that he stood by his client’s prior protestations of innocence regarding the death of Sgt. Speer. “We have reviewed the evidence … We have looked at the circumstances and it’s our clear opinion that Mr. Khadr is an innocent man, that Mr. Khadr was put into a hellish conflict and continues to remain in this hellhole that has a record internationally of abuse,” Edney said.
Although the plea deal is secure, the Obama administration has been obliged to weather a storm of international criticism — including a complaint by Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN undersecretary-general responsible for children and armed conflict, who stated on Thursday, in a letter delivered to Guantánamo (PDF), that Khadr’s case “is a deep concern for all of us in the international community working on the issue of children and armed conflict.” She added, “In every sense Omar represents the classic child soldier narrative, recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely understand,” and urged the Commission “to consider international practice — practice supported by the US Government — that Omar Khadr not be subject to further incarceration but that arrangements be made for him to enter a controlled rehabilitation program in Canada.”
Nevertheless, Khadr’s trial has moved on to a sentencing phase, in which evidence is being submitted in the courtroom at Guantánamo this week by both the prosecution and the defense, before a seven-member military jury will deliver its own sentence. As I explained in another recent article, because “the details of Khadr’s plea deal have not been made public, this strange formality (which involves a sentence without a trial) will only mean anything if the jury delivers a less severe sentence than the one negotiated in secret.”
In its first attempt to persuade the military jury to deliver a harsh sentence to Khadr, the prosecution began by calling on a controversial psychiatrist, Michael Welner, to describe Khadr’s mental state. Welner, who “interviewed Khadr for about eight hours over two days this summer, but told the court he had spent 500-600 hours on the case,” as the Toronto Star explained, seized headlines on Tuesday with his lurid descriptions of how Khadr was an al-Qaeda “rock star” who had “been marinating in a radical Islamic community” in Guantánamo. “He is devout. He is angry,” Welner said. “He identifies with his family, which has radical leanings. He is not remorseful and he is not westernized although he is very articulate and smooth.” Welner also said, “He’s highly dangerous. He murdered. He has been part of al-Qaeda. And we’re still at war.” As the Miami Herald described it, Welner also claimed that Khadr’s family “had the ‘stardust’ of proximity with the bin Ladens,” and that, at Guantánamo, although Khadr was the youngest prisoner, “his elders confer on him the honor of prayer leader.”
As Michelle Shephard explained in the Toronto Star, Welner became “increasingly agitated” as one of Khadr’s lawyers, Air Force Maj. Matthew Schwartz, “challenged his credibility,” saying he had delivered “hours and hours of hearsay-filled testimony,” but it was not until Thursday that the contentious nature of Welner’s work was revealed, when Shephard explained that “[p]art of his assessment relied on the research of Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels,” the author of Among Criminal Muslims, who has called the Qur’an “a criminal book that forces people to do criminal things,” and has claimed that “massive inbreeding within the Muslim culture during the last 1,400 years may have done catastrophic damage to their gene pool.”
In contrast to Welner’s testimony, the defense team secured testimony from Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the former top military legal adviser at Guantánamo, who, as the Associated Press put it, stated that Khadr was “a model prisoner, respectful and helpful to military personnel.” Speaking by video link from Afghanistan, where he is currently stationed, Capt. McCarthy, who “said he could not recall ever before testifying for the defense in a sentencing hearing,” explained that Khadr was “not one of the ‘radical’ detainees who assaulted guards,” and sometimes “served as a mediator between Guantánamo officials and prisoners to help quell tensions.” Capt. McCarthy stated, “Mr. Khadr was always very respectful. He had a pleasant demeanor. He was friendly.” He also directly contradicted Welner, telling the military jury that “he believes Khadr has the potential to be rehabilitated in part because of his age,” and made a point of criticizing the decision to prosecute a former child prisoner. “Fifteen-year-olds, in my opinion, should not be held to the same level of accountability as adults,” he said.
Another contentious part of the prosecution’s case has involved calling on Tabitha Speer, Sgt. Speer’s widow, and Delta Force Sgt. Layne Morris, who was blinded in one eye during the firefight. On Wednesday, Sgt. Morris spoke briefly about how his injury obliged him to retire from the military, and how “the ‘stability’ he once gave his four children wasn’t there when he returned home to Utah,” as the Toronto Star described it.
On Thursday, Tabitha Speer, who was left with a young daughter and a baby son when her husband died, told Khadr, “You will always be a murderer in my eyes.” Drawing on a passage in the “Stipulation of Fact” that Khadr signed as part of his plea deal (PDF), she told the military jury that Khadr “had the choice to leave with the women and children before the firefight broke out at the al-Qaeda compound where he lived, but chose instead to stay and fight US forces,” as Reuters described it. “Everybody wants to talk about how he’s the victim, how he’s the child. I don’t see that,” she said. “He made a choice. My children had no choice [and] didn’t deserve to have their father taken by someone like you.”
This was obviously powerful testimony, and led to an apology on Khadr’s part. “I am really, really sorry for the pain I have caused you and your family,” he said (in a statement reproduced here), adding, “I wish I could do something that would take that pain away.” As the Globe and Mail described it, he also said that he “carried no anger in his heart,” had learned from reading Nelson Mandela that “you won’t gain anything from hate,” and believes that “Love and forgiveness are more constructive, they will bring people together and solve lots of problems.”
Without wishing to sideline the suffering of the family of Sgt. Speer, or of Sgt. Morris, their testimony is only relevant in the vision of war conjured up by the US government, in which Khadr, as an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent,” was engaged in illegal combat and can legitimately be viewed as a “murderer” and as someone who refused to leave the compound with the women and other children because he “knowingly and voluntarily” stayed (as the “Stipulation of Fact” described it), whereas, as a juvenile, he cannot be held accountable for his actions.
As someone who despises war, I do not wish to see anyone die, either in combat or in any other circumstances, but war produces casualties on both sides, in firefights like the one that led to Khadr’s capture, and the death of Sgt. Speer, as well as in the countless bombing raids that have led to an almost unthinkable number of civilian deaths, and using the testimony of Tabitha Speer and Sgt. Morris only reinforces the unacceptable opinion that, post-9/11, fighting against US forces is in and of itself a crime.
It is not, and as Omar Khadr’s sentencing phase continues, the focus should remain on the injustice of prosecuting a former child prisoner for invented war crimes charges, and not on the spurious opinions of hysterical psychiatrists or — however distressing — the suffering of soldiers and their families. With respect, the ongoing travesty of Omar Khadr’s conviction is about fundamental notions of justice that have been thoroughly undermined and betrayed from the moment, last November, that the Obama administration chose to proceed with Khadr’s trial by Military Commission, and nothing should be allowed to obscure that uncomfortable truth.
Note: The courtroom sketches above are by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, and are reproduced courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.
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.
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), Defiance in Isolation: The Last Stand of Omar Khadr (July 2010), Omar Khadr Accepts US Military Lawyer for Forthcoming Trial by Military Commission (July 2010), A Letter from Omar Khadr in Guantánamo (July 2010), Bin Laden Cook Expected to Serve Two More Years at Guantánamo – And Some Thoughts on the Remaining Sudanese Prisoners (August 2010), Lawlessness Haunts Omar Khadr’s Blighted War Crimes Trial at Guantánamo (August 2010), No Surprise at Obama’s Guantánamo Trial Chaos (September 2010).
[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington and Anna Dan-Lehrer, skdadl. skdadl said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: In Omar Khadr’s Sentencing Phase, US Government Introduces Islamophobic “Expert” and Irrelevant Testimony: http://bit.ly/8Y1H52 [...]
On Facebook, Mui J. Steph wrote:
One correction. Dr. Welner is not merely hysterical. I think the man is an intellectually dishonest, self-promoting non-doctor. When he made a statement (paraphrase), “Khadr is not one of the recalcitrant patients who throws feces,” I was pretty shocked how anti-mental health that is coming from someone is supposedly a psychiatrist. If he’s referring to the ill prisoner from Yemen, that’s not “recalcitrant”, it’s *ill*. In fact, everything that comes out of Welner’s mouth sounds more like a film script than a doctor, because it’s all very anti-psychiatry as well as islamophobic.
And then they are parading a grieving war widow around (& probably manipulating her into believing a 15 year old caused her problems) — alongside Welner, the freak, *as if* this was a circus. It’s disgusting. Obama should be ashamed of himself.
Well put, Mui. Thanks. Shame and disgust is the order of the day.
With a weapon or with a grenade in his hands, a child continues being a victim of the war and not a soldier. This child was Omar Khadar . The exact truth is that this child could never choose take part freely in this war, he made it forced by the powerful influence of his father and of his Islamic culture, therefore this child never had really another alternative. It is a juridical aberration the fact that a Military Court judges a child, as if he was an adult and a soldier.This is unproceeding, is a tremendous violation to the most basic human rights, is absurd and ilegal. It is a coward and hysterical measure, and an insult to the intelligence of every decent MAN. It is the protitución of the Law and of the Justice to support a child and now to the young person prisoner of hostage to obtain information of him. If the authorities want to order a hard message to the terrorism: with the whole violence of the war that this child has suffered in his body and in his spirit, more his adolescence and youth ruined by the privation of the freedom and the humiliations of nine years of prison, it is more than sufficient. We gain nothing, not neither for our reason, nor for our safety, and not by no means at all in favour of the peace, with the revenge of demonstrating to the Islamic ones that we can be sadistic and cruel with a child or a young person.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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