No Justice for Omar Khadr at Guantánamo


Exactly two years ago, when I began writing a weekly column for the Future of Freedom Foundation on Guantánamo, torture and other crimes and abuses committed as part of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” I focused on the story of Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, and the news today that he has accepted a plea deal, and has agreed to an array of charges relating to terrorism and murder in exchange for a reported eight-year sentence, does nothing to diminish the profound sense of unease — and of warped justice — that has plagued Khadr’s case for the last eight years.

In that article, written while Khadr was enduring interminable pre-trial hearings for a planned trial by Military Commission under the Bush administration, I analyzed an important, and almost completely overlooked document regarding the treatment of juvenile prisoners at Guantánamo — those under 18 at the time their alleged crime took place.

That document, “Recommended Course of Action for Reception and Detention of Individuals Under 18 Years of Age” (PDF), prepared for the Pentagon by four doctors at Guantánamo, was dated January 14, 2003, three months after Khadr arrived at Guantánamo from Bagram, and just three weeks after the Bush administration ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The Optional Protocol 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.”

Compare this with my explanation of the doctors’ report two years ago:

The doctors’ document 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 pointing 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.” They added, as a stark warning, “Exposure of pediatric detainees to adult detainees will have a high likelihood of producing physical, emotional, and psychological damage to the pediatric detainee. As such, all activities of the pediatric detainee, prior to and including detention, should be isolated by sight and sound from the adult population of detainees.”

As a result of the US ratification of the Optional Protocol, and the doctors’ recommendations, Khadr should, therefore, have been rehabilitated as a juvenile (having been influenced by an adult — in his case, his father, a reported fundraiser for Osama bin Laden, who had taken him to Afghanistan as a child), or, at the very least, held separately from the adult population at Guantánamo, and provided with education and psychological care.

Of course, the Bush administration ignored its international obligations, and the advice of its own doctors, choosing instead to subject Khadr — and the majority of the 21 other confirmed juvenile prisoners at Guantánamo — to experimental detention and interrogation techniques, with no distinction made between adult and juvenile prisoners.

Moreover, in May 2003, when the story broke that child prisoners were being held at Guantánamo, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that they were “not children,” and the administration’s disdain for the rights of juvenile prisoners was such that Khadr and another juvenile prisoner, Mohamed Jawad, were put forward for trial by Military Commission. These special courts, conceived for trying dubious “war crimes,” were initially intended to accept evidence obtained through the use of torture, and to deliver the death penalty after trials that were noticeably lacking in any recognizable form of due process or adherence to established military law.

Khadr was charged in the first incarnation of the Commissions, ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006, but after Congress brought them back to life in the fall of 2006 he was charged for a second time, and was followed, soon after, by Jawad, who may have been no more than 14 years old when he was seized after a grenade attack in Kabul in December 2002.

When President Obama came to power, one of his first acts was to suspend the Commissions, but by May 2009 he had softened his opposition to the much-criticized trial system, and last summer the Obama administration worked with Congress to revive them yet again. In the meantime, Jawad was released, after his lawyers established that he had produced a false confession to Afghan forces on the day of his capture, while being threatened with torture, but last November, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that five prisoners would face trials by Military Commission, Khadr was one of the first five names put forward.

If the Bush administration didn’t care that he was a child on capture, the Obama administration was not so sure. In leaks to major media outlets throughout this year, officials complained about the negative publicity surrounding the first planned trial of a juvenile for war crimes since the Second World War, culminating, in August, with officials whining to the New York Times that complaints about Khadr’s trial were “undermining their broader effort to showcase reforms that they say have made military commissions fair and just.”

This latter claim was deeply suspicious, as Lt. Col. David Frakt, defense attorney for Mohamed Jawad and another Guantánamo prisoner, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, explained in April this year that, although Khadr is charged with murder in violation of the law of war for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier, “there is no evidence that he violated the law of war in doing so.”

Lt. Col. Frakt proceeded to explain how first the Bush administration, then Congress, and then the Obama administration had confused lawful and unlawful targets during wartime, and I explained the result of the administration’s hypocrisy and confusion in an article at the time of the officials’ complaint to the New York Times:

Given that the Obama administration chose to ignore both of these criticisms in proceeding with Khadr’s trial, the complaint aired to the Times by anonymous officials — that “No one intended the Khadr case to be the first trial under the revamped system,” as Charlie Savage described it — is frankly reprehensible, as it involves the explicit recognition that the entire trial is unacceptable, and would only be acceptable if it could have been hidden behind the coat tails of a more prominent case — one, for example, that involved recognizable allegations of terrorism.

The outcome, predictably, was a feverish attempt to cut a deal to prevent a full-blown trial from going ahead, reducing Khadr to the role of a pawn in a face-saving game of extraordinary cynicism. Attempts to secure a plea deal were first made in summer, which were sabotaged by Khadr, and were then submerged after his defense lawyer was taken ill and proceedings were suspended, but as today’s trial date approached, the horse-trading resumed with a vengeance.

According to media reports over the last few days, Khadr was offered a plea deal giving him an eight-year sentence (one more year at Guantánamo, plus seven years to be served in Canada) in exchange for a confession to some or all of the charge against him, but as Dennis Edney, one of his Canadian civilian lawyers, explained on Sunday, “All I can tell you is there’s [a] trial tomorrow, and there’s no deal in place as of this particular moment.” Edney added, “Consider the circumstances he’s in: There’s not much choice Omar Khadr has. He either pleads guilty to avoid trial, or he goes to trial, and the trial is an unfair process.”

As Michelle Shephard reported in the Toronto Star, Edney also “hinted that Khadr was still conflicted,” stating, “He has a tough time rationalizing … why he is singled out to be on trial Monday. Where are the rest of those so-called bad guys?”

Edney did not speak specifically about Canada’s role, although several news outlets reported that, on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Lawrence Cannon, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, to talk about the Khadr case, and, allegedly, “to press the Conservative government into repatriating” Khadr. Cannon, however, remained tight-lipped about the conversation, reflecting another aspect of Khadr’s manipulation as a pawn, in this case by the government of his home country.

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 Canadian government persistently refused to call for his repatriation, even though Canada’s Supreme Court had repeatedly stated that the government acted illegally in sending interrogators to interview Khadr at Guantánamo in 2003, and violated his rights under Canadian law.

With this track record, it would have been unsurprising if Khadr was unwilling to trust his home government even to accept the terms of a plea deal, and this must, of course, have been a deeply disturbing position in which to find himself. As a final reminder of hypocrisy, however, it is difficult to beat a comment about child soldiers made just six weeks ago by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a Security Council debate on Somalia, which was picked up on by former US interrogator Matthew Alexander in an article in the Huffington Post. Ambassador Rice stated:

The United States strongly condemns the use of children … to pursue violent agendas. We call upon all parties to immediately release all children within their ranks, to halt child recruitment, and to provide for the proper reintegration into civilian life of former child soldiers.

No wonder Omar Khadr, the victim of rank hypocrisy from both the US and the Canadian governments, feels “singled out,” as that is exactly what has happened to him, and the plea deal announced today does nothing to indicate that justice has actually been served. Although the exact details of the deal have not yet been revealed, it seems clear that one thing they will involve is Khadr’s agreement that he will not appeal the terms of his confession, leaving unchallenged a number of otherwise legally questionable charges.

As the Globe and Mail explained, these included his acceptance of the charge that “he was an ‘alien, unprivileged, enemy belligerent,’ unqualified therefore to shoot back or engage in combat hostilities with US or other coalition forces,” and that he was guilty of “murder in violation of the laws of war,” both of which are charges that should shame the United States.

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.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on The Public Record and Uruknet.

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).

16 Responses

  1. Canadian Driftwood « red says...

    […] Harper’s government continues to play hard to get. As Worthington wrote today: [S]everal news outlets reported that, on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are some comments from Facebook:

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, yes, a disgraceful show trial as you predicted. This is another blot on the Obama regime, when they could have admitted previous wrongs, they chose to compound them at Omar Khadr’s expense.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Regular correspondent Susan Hall was one of many readers prevented from accessing my site through a repeated problem with the server yesterday. She wrote:

    No, I cannot connect with your site Andy. The whole case makes me sick. I have heard that Pres. Obama wanted to run this case through fast so it didn’t get more attention. This week in the US the only thing the US has been seeing on the regular news stations is junk. Commercials of Senator Bennet’s little girls being cute & nothing about the 1,000’s of innocent people being shot down & now documented by WikiLeaks nor about the case of a 15 yr. old being abused until he confesses to a crime.

    So UNJUST and vile, that a child is tortured, threatened with rape. What would any of the legislators children say if they were threatened with sex abuse, then tortured, & held in solitaire for TEN YEARS? WHAT WOULD OBAMA’S GIRLS & BENNET’S GIRLS DO IN THIS SITUATION? Pres. Obama said today we needed to break the model of bulliyng, but he has strengthened it to a degree that only he and Pres. Bush could have done as an ADULT COMMANDING ALL MANNER OF ABUSE ON A CHILD. He nor those who follow him are interested in a safer & less violent world for ALL our children.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the heartfelt response, Susan. I’m sorry you can’t access my site just now. I’ ve been having server problems all day, sadly, just when I wanted people to be able to read about Wikileaks’ Sam Adams Award, and Omar Khadr’s suspicious plea deal. But I guess there’s never a good day to be offline with such relentlessly bad news nearly all the time.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Kashmiri wrote:

    Can’t wait to access your site, Andy. I have been waiting for your post on this issue.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    I’m really starting to think the Canadian government is pretty sleazy. As a U.S. citizen I try not to be judgmental. We really don’t have any moral authority. But with the videotaped illegal interrogation, the reports of Cannon, sounding like he was running from H. Clinton, among other things. . . I just don’t like it. It’s disgusting. This is a 15/23 yr old Canadian citizen, not matter how nutty his parents may be.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Luke Brandt wrote:

    Andy’s excellent work is online atm Let’s not beat about the bush — we are dealing with a coterie of outlaws, and (with some noble exceptions) a colluding supine judiciary ..

    Agree with Susan, a disgrace to any notion of common fairness and decency. What can you do when the greatest country on earth is also an outlaw state. It’s dispiriting that the only saving grace is that we are free to discuss how bad things are.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jeffrey Kaye wrote:

    One of the most depressing tales in a long, long time. And that’s saying something…

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Meenakshi Sharma wrote:

    Thanks Andy..could not log on the site but thank you for exposing the brutality of Guantanamo…and WikiLeaks report coming out..all this should shame America who loves to criticize every other nation for violation of Human Rights!!

  10. Carlyle Moulton says...

    No worse than one would expect from the US “justice system” and President Obama.

    By now it is obvious, Obama is far worse than Bush and I never expected anyone to outdo Bush for lawless evil..

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Hmmm interesting that there is no Congressional hearing on alleged US warcrimes…article shared!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Zaynab Khadr wrote:

    Thanks Andy…It’s also very disgracefull that the Canadian government, which is equally to blame, still pretends that it did nothing wrong…it makes me sick

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Carol Anne and Zaynab.
    And Zaynab, I hope that, despite this travesty of justice, you will finally be able to see Omar again in the not too distant future.

  14. The Progressive Mind » In Omar Khadr’s Sentencing Phase, US Government Introduces Islamophobic “Expert” and Irrelevant Testimony :: :: informazione dal medio oriente :: information from middle east :: [vs-5] says...

    […] 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 […]

  15. miriam12 says...

    Thank you Andy for your excellent article….I’ve forwarded and twittered the hell out of it….so outrageous this story….that ANY child suffer 10% of what Khadr has suffered is irreconcilable….but here, please read this item from Canadian writer about the criminal betrayal by Canadian govt of Khadr.. I’ve forwarded to him your article above. we are all sickened by the cruel criminal betrayal of Khadr…..which also brings to mind that other recent insanity in NY….the trial of Dr. Affia Siddiqui. The ‘judge’ in that court ruled her incompetent to stand up and speak for herself –she too has suffered in all ways….from her 5 yrs incarceration in Bagram’s black hole….to her ‘extradition” thru Haqqani to New York…(why?? and how?? Pakistani delivered her to New York and “briefed” Judge Berman on her ‘crimes”…pre-trial.!! and Berman banned all “foreign” journalists (read brown skinned) from his court…they had to go to a separate (but equal?) room with CCTV that barely kept up with the evidence and discovery portions…as camera was fixed on witness stand. She was sentenced to 86 YEARS in Fort Worth’s hell hole called CARSWELL which used to be a USAF b52 is a Feder “medical” prison for 1500 women….who are drugged abused and 100 + have died there in recent years due to neglect abuse and over drugging and worse. THIS is “justice”?? Orwell would vomit….Kafka weeps….and we can only write and express our outrage…/msa

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Miriam. Good to hear from you, and I share your outrage, of course. I’ve been hearing some terrible things about Carswell recently, as you mention in your message.

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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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