Guantánamo’s Child-Soldier Trial
ANGLO AMERICA, 16 August 2010
by Amy Davidson - The New Yorker
Jury selection has begun at the military-commission trial for Omar Khadr at Guantánamo. Khadr is the Canadian whom we captured when he was fifteen, after a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002; among the casualties in that encounter were Army Sergeant Christopher Speer, who was killed by a grenade, and Khadr, who was shot up and almost dead (but the only only survivor on his side). He has been accused of throwing the grenade that killed Speer, though it’s far from clear that he did. What is not in question is his age at the time, and that he was on the battlefield not because he was some rebellious child but because his father, an Al Qaeda associate who is now dead, sent him there. (Khadr was born in Toronto; I’ve written about his case before.) One reason Khadr has spent eight years—more than a third of his life—in Guantánamo is that he doesn’t come from what most people would call a respectable family, which has hurt him in terms of motivating the Canadian government to get him out of there. But is the niceness of parents the basis on which we decide to imprison teen-agers? And where are our concerns about the rehabilitation of child soldiers when one falls into our own hands? (Michelle Shephard, at the Toronto Star, has a piece on the former general who will be testifying as a medical expert in Khadr’s defense.)
Another thing that’s not in question: at preliminary hearings, a former interrogator acknowledged telling Khadr, then fifteen, that a boy like him might end up gang-raped by “a bunch of big black guys and big Nazis” if he didn’t say what guards wanted to hear. Another described Khadr chained, hooded, and crying. Khadr has alleged that he was tortured. Yesterday, the judge at his tribunal said that statements he made in those circumstances were perfectly admissible. What isn’t admissible, then? And why would a court looking for the truth even want such statements?
Why, really, did the Obama Administration decide that this case was the one to make the subject of the first full-fledged test of military commissions on its watch? A judge in a civilian court might at least have saved the prosecution from itself (morally speaking, if not in terms of getting a conviction at any price). If the Khadr case is a model of what Obama wants to happen in Guantánamo, it’s an ugly one.
The other case in Guantánamo this week was that of Ibrahim Qosi. A jury is being selected for him, too, but only for a sentence—he’s already pled guilty to being a cook for Al Qaeda. (That’s the sort of case we seem, too often, to be trading our moral standing for in keeping Guantánamo open.) The nature of his plea deal is still unclear. Carol Rosenberg, who is in Guantánamo for the Miami Herald (and has been tweeting from the proceedings, with details like Khadr’s immersion in a World Cup soccer magazine), reported that the judge, Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Paul
drew back the curtain a bit on the negotiations by saying that, however long Qosi is held at Guantánamo he would be kept in POW-style communal captivity with other detainees. Failure to do that, she said, would invalidate his conviction.
The 11th-hour wrinkle presented a conundrum for the Pentagon: Prison camp commanders have said that since the Bush-era plea deal of Australian David Hicks, U.S. readings of the Geneva Conventions mean war criminals must be kept apart from ordinary war captives at Guantánamo.
So, one more conundrum for Guantánamo—or just another sign that the Obama Administration still needs to figure out what kind of place it thinks the base is, or ought to be.
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