Seized at 15, Omar Khadr turns 22 in Guantánamo


Omar KhadrToday, Omar Khadr, the sole Canadian citizen in Guantánamo, marks his 22nd birthday in isolation. Seized in Afghanistan when he was just 15 years old, Omar has now spent nearly a third of his life in US custody, in conditions that ought to be shameful to the US administration responsible for holding him, and to the Canadian government that has abdicated its responsibilities towards him.

Under the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which both the US 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.”

As I have discussed at length before, several factors have conspired to keep Omar in Guantánamo; in particular, US allegations (only recently challenged) that Omar threw a grenade that killed a US soldier in the firefight that preceded his capture; a general indifference towards him in Canada, because of the alleged sins of his family (his father, who raised funds for the welfare of the mujahideen of Afghanistan and their families, was reportedly close to Osama bin Laden); and a disregard for the traditional rules of war, in which not only should a child be protected from punishment, but any combatant seized in wartime should be regarded as a soldier, subject to the prohibition on “cruel and inhuman treatment” and interrogation dictated by the Geneva Conventions, and not held as a terrorist, to be brutalized and interrogated at will.

As Omar turns 22, however, it is abundantly clear that his treatment — which includes a heartless disregard for his terrible wounds in the months following his capture, severe isolation in Guantánamo, and prolonged periods of abuse and humiliation — demonstrates a blatant disregard, on the part of the US administration, for the Geneva Conventions. This kind of behavior is reprehensible in the cases of the adults in US custody, and even more grotesque in the case of Omar and the 21 other juveniles (at least), who have been held in Guantánamo throughout its long history, and who have been deprived of the protection not only of the Geneva Conventions but also of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Images from the 2003 interrogations of Omar Khadr at Guantanamo

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

What makes Omar’s case even more shocking is that, because of the nature of the “crime” of which he has been accused (killing a US soldier in wartime), he was chosen by the administration for prosecution in its system of “terror trials” at Guantánamo, the Military Commissions — unrelated to any other form of US justice — that were conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001.

Although Omar was initially charged in November 2005, his case — like that of the other nine prisoners charged — was dismissed in June 2006, when the US Supreme Court ruled that the entire process was illegal, but he was one of the first prisoners to be charged again (with the Australian David Hicks and the Yemeni Salim Hamdan) when the Commissions were revived by Congress later that year.

For the last 15 months, since the first pre-trial hearings were held, the case against Omar has stumbled from one setback to another. Initially, his case was dismissed by the government-appointed military judge, Col. Peter Brownback, because of discrepancies in the wording of the Military Commissions Act (the legislation that revived the process), and in the last year his military defense team, led by Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, and his Canadian civilian attorneys, Dennis Edney and Nathan Whitling, have done everything in their power to persuade the Canadian government to press for Omar’s return, and to persuade the US government to call off his trial.

These have included submissions pointing out the weakness — or illegality — of the government’s claims that the charges against Omar constitute “war crimes,” suitably shocked announcements following the emergence of long-suppressed evidence indicating that Omar did not throw the grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, and a heartfelt plea for the US government not to set a vile precedent by prosecuting a juvenile. “If jurisdiction is exercised over Mr. Khadr,” the defense team explained, “the military judge will be the first in western history to preside over the trial of alleged war crimes committed by a child. No international criminal tribunal established under the laws of war, from Nuremberg forward, has ever prosecuted former child soldiers as war criminals … A critical component of the response of our nation and the world to the tragedy of the use and abuse of child solders in war by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda is that post-conflict legal proceedings must pursue the best interest of the victimized child – with the aim of their rehabilitation and reintegration into society, not their imprisonment or execution.”

Although the administration refused to be swayed by any of these complaints, the path to Omar’s proposed trial has continued to be a bumpy one. In March, Col. Brownback criticized the prosecutors for their slow response to demands to hand over information to the defense team. After ordering them to give Omar’s lawyers a list of all US personnel who had interrogated him in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and to provide them with access to their notes, he postponed the trial’s start date (which was scheduled for May 5) to allow more time for discussions of acceptable evidence, and was promptly dismissed from his job. The administration argued that this was because his appointed tenure had come to an end, but Omar’s lawyers were not convinced.

Even so, his replacement, Col. Patrick Parrish, has also demonstrated his independence, despite initial doubts. In hearings over the summer, Omar’s lawyers submitted a raft of new requests and complaints, calling for independent experts on “false confessions made by juveniles” to be allowed to assess Omar, and accusing Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the Commissions’ legal adviser, of “unlawful command influence” in connection with the removal of Col. Brownback from the case, and his role in “sexing up” (my phrase) the case for Omar’s prosecution.

Brig. Gen. Hartmann had already been excluded by other government-appointed judges from two other cases — those of Salim Hamdan and the Afghan teenager Mohamed Jawad — but although Col. Parrish refused to exclude him from Omar’s trial (and refused to allow independent experts to assess Omar’s mental state), he dealt a third blow to Brig. Gen. Hartmann’s credibility by ruling soon after that, in the case of a conviction, he was prohibited from reviewing the verdict.

Col. Parrish also dealt another blow to the prosecution in Omar’s case by backing a largely overlooked ruling made by Col. Brownback in April, shortly before his departure, in which the now-retired judge demolished a key plank of the government’s case against Omar by striking out part of the language in the “conspiracy” charge against him. Col. Brownback had ruled that the Secretary of Defense lacked the authority to expand the traditional definition of “conspiracy” to include joining an “enterprise of persons who shared a common criminal purpose,” and Col. Parrish agreed, prompting the government to declare that it would appeal to the “Court of Military Commission Review” that it had been forced to establish last summer after Col. Brownback (for Omar) and Capt. Keith Allred (for Salim Hamdan) had thrown out their cases in June.

In a press release, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained the importance of the decision. “The ruling is significant,” he wrote, “because military commission prosecutors lack evidence to link all but a handful of detainees directly with the 9/11 attacks and other major al-Qaeda atrocities.” He pointed out that the short sentence Salim Hamdan received after his trial partly came about partly because prosecutors were “unable to rely on the expansive ‘enterprise’ definition of conspiracy.” Criticizing the government’s decision to appeal, he explained that, because the prosecutors were “[j]ealous of their advantages in military commission litigation, and unable to change the ruling by changing the judge,” they were now turning to the appeals court “in an effort to unlevel the playing field in their favor.”

Reiterating that “Omar’s anticipated trial violates basic international standards for the treatment of children and child soldiers and takes place in a tribunal in which no US citizen can be tried,” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler concluded that the decision to appeal the “enterprise” ruling “plainly show[s] that Omar Khadr is a mere guinea pig for the anticipated trials of real terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged al-Qaeda masterminds.”

Omar Khadr during a pre-trial hearing in May 2008

A courtroom sketch of Omar, during a pre-trial hearing at Guantánamo on May 8, 2008.

With this appeal yet to proceed, Omar’s defense team recently stepped up their efforts to derail the proposed trial. On September 10, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler once more sought permission for independent experts to evaluate Omar, arguing that the prosecutors’ choice, army psychiatrist Chris Peterson, lacks the required expertise, and also suffers from a conflict of interest, given that military medical teams helped devise the interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo. “You’re basically asking the guy to testify against his employer, and that’s a problem,” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained.

As described in the National Post, one of the medical experts chosen by Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler is “a specialist in child soldiers and victims of torture,” and the other “is conducting a study for the army into blast trauma — which is significant in Mr. Khadr’s case because US forces dropped two 225-kilogram bombs on the compound just ahead of the raid by US ground forces.” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained, “Omar’s condition at the time and his ability to recall, to communicate, is something we have no information on. We need to have someone to evaluate him and to evaluate what was actually broken when he was first taken into custody.” He added that he also believed that the experts would be able to assess the extent to which Omar’s upbringing “has affected his current ability to talk about the past or understand his current predicament.” Omar “has provided us with some information, but not the whole picture,” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler added, “and we think that’s something we need in order to be competent and ethical at trial.”

The following day, the Associated Press reported that attempts by Canada’s foreign affairs department to “ensure proper medical care and prison conditions” for Omar were being “stymied” by the US authorities. The documents showed “even simple requests to provide Khadr with a pillow, blanket or sunglasses to protect his shrapnel-damaged eyes and body foundering on apparent security concerns.” The agent who visited Omar, Suneeta Millington, who described how shrapnel was “slowly working its way out of Omar’s body,” explained that two pairs of sunglasses were “rejected on the grounds that they might constitute a security risk,” and added, “A number of requests made both by Omar and Canadian government officials either fall through the cracks, go ignored or are not processed in a timely manner.”

At the same time that the Canadian complaints were aired, Omar’s defense team announced another surprise: the existence of another witness to the firefight, in addition to “Lt. Col. W.,” the witness who, in March, was accused of “doctoring a report” to implicate Omar in Sgt. Speer’s death. Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler named the man as Jim Taylor, while admitting that he “could not disclose the government agency or department where Taylor works since it is classified,” and adding that he had not yet met with him “due to instructions from his employer.” He proceeded to explain, as Michelle Shephard described it in the Toronto Star, that Taylor “had written a report — date unknown — claiming more than one occupant of the compound raided by US Special Forces was alive when Speer was wounded.” As the Globe and Mail put it, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler told the court that “there were multiple people alive.”

After another surprise — a potentially damaging admission by the prosecution that, at the time of his capture, Omar had indeed been “a ‘child,’ in need of special consideration” — Col. Parrish, once more chiding the prosecutors for their delays in providing information to the defense, postponed the trial until November 10, after both the Canadian and US elections. The results of either election — or both — may be significant to Omar, but it makes little difference to him today, as he passes his sixth successive birthday in Guantánamo, alone. Historic though his case may be, it’s doubtful whether the ripples of indignation that have been steadily building over the last three years, as his lawyers and other supporters have sought to humanize this lost child, will touch him in his solitude.

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). 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 AlterNet, and the Huffington Post.

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), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 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), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (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), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, 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), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (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), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

16 Responses

  1. Angela says...

    Hi Andy:

    Some of my Canadian friends and I sent a couple of cards to Omar Khadr, one to give him support and another for his birthday. Do you think that they will give the cards to him?

    Please let me know.


  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Angela,
    It’s difficult to know, as the authorities have a reputation for delaying or “losing” correspondence to prisoners. Having said that, however, numerous released prisoners have explained how letters from members of the public did get through, helping to keep their spirits up and letting them know that they weren’t as isolated as the administration intended them to be.
    For other readers’ information, letters to Omar should be addressed to:

    Omar Khadr, #766
    Camp Delta
    PO Box 160
    Washington DC 20053

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

    […] Worthington […]

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And this was Angela’s reply:

    Thanks Andy! In that case, my Canadian friends and I will be sending one more card to him.
    Thanks for caring and keep up the good work and May God Bless You!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    This was a comment from “jjdnyc” in response to my posting on the Huffington Post:

    A superbly written and highly important piece. You are doing great work. Keep it up. This is a travesty and 99% of Americans know nothing about it. Rather, we have Palin mocking Obama in her RNC speech about “worrying about reading them their rights.”

  6. Richard Fawkes says...

    He should be released from prison by way of execution, as he is a murderer.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Hmm, now that’s a constructive suggestion, isn’t it? So anyone who kills anyone in a war situation should be executed, is that it? So long as they’re not Americans, of course, and even without confirmation that the person in question actually committed the murder.

  8. Child Soldier Turns 22 In Guantanamo - Southern Maryland Community Forums says...

    […] Soldier Turns 22 In Guantanamo Seized at 15, Omar Khadr turns 22 in Guantánamo | Andy Worthington Today, Omar Khadr, the sole Canadian citizen in Guantnamo, marks his 22nd birthday in isolation. […]

  9. T-rev says...

    End him. As a Canadian i could care less what they do to him as long as they don’t send him back. He was not in Afghanistan buying ice cream, he was fighting our American allies on the battlefield and not wearing the uniform of a national army. That is a crime of war, and given that he was fighting on behalf of the Taliban, now an enemy of our nation, i will pleased that he is gone. Frankly, some of the views espoused here are so dangerously naive it makes me wonder what else you people could be led to believe.

    We are at war, these Islamic militants would kill us all, if given the chance, and yet the apologists and objectors are still whining like a bunch of college freshmen. If the enemy captured one of our soldiers he would be tortured and executed without so much as a moments hesitation, and you morons ar writing this kid letters… fuck him.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Here we go again. Why is that, every time I post a story about Omar, the bigots come crawling out of the woodwork?
    The issue here is simple: Omar was 15 years old when he was seized. The Canadian and US governments are signatories to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict), which 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.”
    Here’s the Optional Protocol (it refers to juveniles, defined as those under 18 when the alleged crimes took place):
    As I wrote the last time this all kicked off:
    “Have a read, ask the government to opt out of it, and then get back to me.”

  11. Thinking..... says...

    Thanks Andy
    Bigots are annoying creatures. There are many.
    If there were less bigots there would be fewer wars. A thought to ponder. There would a be lot less hate as well.
    Take Care

  12. O.B. says...

    Keep up the good work. As ‘Thinking’ eludes to, Bigots will be Bigots and without them it would be a perfect world, which unfotunately we do not have. Bigotry is also known as ‘Ignorance’, portrayed by those who do not read to exercise their brains and love to absorb the CNN-type propoganda. In the end, Omar is still a child and although he turned 22, this poor sole had his adolescent life halted at the age of 15. Serial killer are given more rights than what Omar and the like are given, and for mr. Bigot “T-rev”, serial killers are not even uniformed, neither are they involved in war! I commend you for doing what we all should be focusing on right now and that is creating Awareness. It’s unfortunate that we cannot do any more to help end the ‘American terrorism’ that is terrorizing the world with their barbaric policies.

  13. anti war libertarian says...

    i have to to agree with t -rex…why is he a bigot? what did he say ? unfortunately the left, as always defends killers that are fighting the west and capitalism….i see no posts defending other young brainwashed fools, who say for example fought with the northern alliance, again the same people who defend this moron are teh same defending pol pot, mengistu. robert mugabe etc……

  14. Tony says...

    Fuck Omar Khadr. I hope he rots in prison. And if he does get sent back to Canada a free man, somebody will kill him (hopefully). Let him cry a little more. What a bitch.

  15. Candy says...

    Sooo sad to hear the responses from some of these ignorant Westerners. U should always ask yourself? If you were in a war zone, under fire would u not defend yourself. All those that are sane most certainly would.. Why are all the American soldiers who voluntarily took themselves over there and killed people in the midst of war not locked away, being humiliated and tortured. Anyone that condones that sort of behaviour towards a CHILD.. Is disgusting and lacks the empathy that distinguishes us from all other animals.. Very, very sad. I will keep Omar in my prayers and will offer all the assistance I can to gain justice for this beautiful young man who has had his life destroyed by the shameful American Govt.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you. You mentioned the empathy that distinguishes us from all other animals, and I couldn’t agree more.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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