Omar Khadr: The Guantnamo Files

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When is a child
not a child? Apparently, when he is Omar
Khadr
, a 15-year-old Canadian who was shot in the back after
a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002. Omar has been in U.S. custody
ever since, first at a prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan,
and for the last six years in Guantánamo. Disturbingly, he
has never received any treatment befitting his status as a juvenile
– someone under the age of 18 when the crime he is accused
of committing took place – even though the United States is
a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict),
which stipulates that juvenile prisoners “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.”

Shamefully,
the United States is not the only country to turn its back on the
Optional Protocol in the case of Omar Khadr. As his lawyers never
tire of pointing out, Omar is the only citizen of a Western country
still held at Guantánamo, in part because the Canadian government
has persistently failed to exert sufficient pressure on U.S. authorities
to secure his return to Canada. This is particularly shocking, because,
as well as also being a signatory to the Optional Protocol, the
Canadian government has been a pioneer when it comes to the rehabilitation
of child soldiers from other countries (Sierra Leone, for example).

Sadly, Canada’s
disregard for Omar’s fate stems largely from his family background.
His father, who was killed in a firefight in Pakistan in October
2003, was a fundraiser for the mujahideen who had fought the Soviet
Union in Afghanistan, and was also close to Osama bin Laden, and
he regularly ferried his entire family – his wife, his daughter
and his four sons, including Omar – to Afghanistan and Pakistan
as they were growing up. Nevertheless, the rules on the treatment
of juveniles are clear, and they do not include opt-out clauses
based on condemning children for the sins (or perceived sins) of
their family. In fact, the opposite is true, as the Protocol’s
recognition of “the special needs of those children who are
particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities”
demonstrates.

In Canada’s
defense, it is obviously difficult to secure the release of prisoners,
like Omar, who are regarded as so significant by the U.S. administration
that they have been put forward for trial by Military
Commission
(the much-criticized system of trials for “terror
suspects” that was conceived in the Office of Vice President
Dick
Cheney
in November 2001). Even so, it took the Canadian government
many years to fulfill its most basic obligations to Omar, by sending
officials to visit him in Guantánamo on “welfare visits.”

At first,
as was revealed this summer, the Canadians who visited Omar in Guantánamo
were largely unconcerned with his welfare. As the result of a decision
in May by the Supreme Court of Canada and a decision in June by
the Federal Court of Canada, videotapes were released
showing his interrogation by representatives of Canada’s Air
Force Office of Special Investigations, which visited Omar in February
2003, when he was just 16.

The release
of the tapes was a PR disaster for the Canadian government, as they
showed Omar displaying his wounds, weeping uncontrollably, and pulling
at his hair in despair, while the interrogators remained largely
indifferent to his suffering, quizzing him about his father and
al-Qaeda, and noting afterwards that his allegations of torture
at the U.S. prison in Bagram, which have subsequently been verified
by numerous sources, “did not ring true.”

The Canadian
“welfare visits”

Last week,
however, the Canadian government was shown in a more positive light
when Michelle Shephard of the Toronto
Star
wrote an article drawing on reports of eight “welfare
visits” by representatives of the government’s Foreign
Affairs Department – one in 2006, two in 2007, and five this
year – which were made public by Omar’s Canadian lawyers,
Dennis Edney and Nathan Whitling, as part of their lawsuit against
the federal government, and were aimed at forcing the government
to demand Omar’s repatriation.

As Shephard
reported, Omar’s “incarceration in 2006 and 2007 was some
of the worst he faced,” as he was isolated in Camps 5 and 6,
modeled on blocks in maximum-security prisons on the U.S. mainland.
As a result, his lawyers “worried he was suicidal.” Shorn
of interaction with other people, and of any kind of emotional,
psychiatric or medical support, he had become paranoid, believing
that his American lawyers were working for the U.S. government.

He also complained
about the quality of the food (a recurring complaint), and about
health problems that were not being addressed, including the authorities’
refusal to give him sunglasses, even though he is blind in his left
eye because of shrapnel, and his vision is “gradually deteriorating
in his right eye because of a piece of shrapnel embedded in the
eye’s membrane,” and stated that he “would like to
see the interrogators again because they give him books, magazines,
crayons, movies etc.” Although he also recognized that there
was “a risk in meeting with the interrogators” because
“they can exploit information they get out of him,” he
regularly referred to the privileges – “whole piles of
chips; candies etc.” – that prisoners who were cooperating
in their interrogations received.

He also stated
that he “feels the guards hate him,” and, in a sign that
the lack of psychiatric care was having a profound effect on him,
reported that “he sleeps a lot but it is messed up. He sleeps
during the day and is awake during the night. He still has nightmares
about the events in Afghanistan and his father.” In a sign
of the severity of his isolation, a member of staff, whose name
was redacted, “suggested that the [Canadian] Prime Minster
inquire about Omar’s solitary confinement with President Bush.”

By the time
of a visit in August 2007, Omar’s situation had clearly improved,
as he had been moved to Camp 4, the only part of the prison with
communal facilities, where the privileged prisoners slept five to
a room, the doors to their “pods” were open in the daytime,
and they were allowed two hours of recreation every day. The visitor
noted that Omar had “been sleeping well since he has been doing
more activities,” but he still complained of medical neglect,
and it was also obvious that he was still not receiving psychiatric
support, as he stated that the nightmares were returning, and that
they “were identical as before: Captivity, running, trauma
of Afghanistan. He dreams of his father as well.”

Throughout
the rest of the visits, from November 2007 to June 2008, the reports
include examples of a handful of privileges that clearly meant a
lot to Omar. He had become an avid reader, for example, and thought
that Harry
Potter and the Deathly Hallows
was “the best book he
had ever read.” There were also poignant interludes, such as
the time that the screens were taken off the perimeter fence during
Hurricane Noel, and the prisoners “could see their surroundings,
the hills and the ocean.” “I could even see cars moving
around, it was great,” Omar said, adding, “This is really
a very beautiful place.”

There were
also clear examples of his immaturity – pre-trial hearings
for his Military Commission proceeding were taking place at this
time, but he found them “boring” – and many moments
of pointless obstruction on the part of the authorities, such as
when he was prohibited from keeping “flexible pens in his cell”
(unlike the prisoners who were cooperating in their interrogations),
so that he could not “write and draw when he wants to.”

In addition,
the visitor in March this year remarked on her inability to understand
why he was prevented from having, “inter alia, a pillow, an
extra blanket, Velcro shoes, [an] Origami book and sheets, flexible
pens and a warm covering for court,” where, it was noted, the
room was “freezing cold.” A partial – and stupefying
– reply came in April, when the visitor was told that “pillows
were only handed out as incentives for detainees being interrogated
and that since Mr. Khadr had lawyers and was no longer subject to
interrogation, he was not eligible for one.”

Above all,
however, what leaps out from the reports is the fact that Omar’s
desire for education is not being met by the authorities. Although
his Canadian visitors were regularly bringing him books on English,
math and science, he was often struggling to study without supervision.
The only classes belatedly provided (for prisoners in Camp 4 only)
were basic English (which was useless for Omar) and classes in Arabic
and Pashto, but as the visitor in April noted, “Although there
is a classroom … there are currently no teachers.”

What the Guantánamo
doctors proposed

But while
these are fascinating reports, what has not been remarked upon is
another document, filed alongside the reports of the “welfare
visits” on the Star’s Omar
Khadr
page, which serves as a succinct condemnation of the administration’s
policies towards juvenile prisoners at Guantánamo –
not just Omar, but the 21 other prisoners that the Pentagon’s
own records reveal were also juveniles at the time of their capture.
Entitled “Recommended Course of Action for Reception and Detention
of Individuals Under 18 Years of Age,” this document (PDF),
dated 14 January 2003, was put together by four doctors at Guantánamo,
and was clearly an adaptation of an earlier document, as it includes
passages deleted or amended by the authors, relating to its specific
use at Guantánamo.

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 Guantanamo 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.”

The rest of
the seven-page document spells out these requirements in painstaking
detail. Several sections are of particular interest: one which explains
“Residence Specifications,” and others laying out the
educational and nutritional needs of juvenile prisoners. The doctors
advised, for example, that juvenile prisoners should be provided
with “a primary living space with a minimum space of 20ft by
30ft,” that their beds should have a thick mattress, several
sheets and two blankets, that an “open, outside recreation
area,” measuring at least 50ft by 50ft, should be “easily
accessed from the primary living space area,” and that they
“should be allowed to play in the recreation area a minimum
3 hours per day.” That added that, if more than one juvenile
is held, “Limited, closely observed interaction … would likely
be allowed.”

When it came
to the educational needs of juvenile prisoners, the doctors advised
that a “designated educator should be assigned to each pediatric
detainee for a minimum of 4–6 hours per day for educational
pursuits,” and that, outside these times, a psychiatric technician
should be assigned “to assist in socialization and other constructive
activities.” They also advised that interpreters should be
available 24 hours a day, and that they should be “present
on site to maximize communication and to minimize confusion of the
pediatric detainee to his/her circumstances,” and also advised
that a pediatrician or family physician, a pediatric psychiatrist/psychologist,
a social worker (“experienced with children”), an audiologist,
a speech therapist, a development pediatrician, and an occupational/physical
therapist might also need to be available, and concluded that all
personnel “should refrain from wearing military uniforms and
utilize appropriate civilian attire.”

And finally,
the doctors advised that a nutritionist “should be available
for evaluation of each pediatric patient and implementation of a
nutritional plan,” and that a “minimum of three well balanced
meals and two snacks should be made available to all paediatric
detainees daily in order to facilitate normal growth and development.”

“These
are not children”

Clearly, as
is demonstrated by Omar’s history in Guantánamo, the
doctors’ recommendations were ignored by those higher up the
chain of command, despite their obvious enthusiasm for the plans.
As they wrote at the very start of the document, under the heading,
“Objective,” their assumption was that the “Recommended
Course of Action” would become a “SecDef directive”
(a directive from Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense). Although
they noted that their advice regarding educational programs was
“more onerous than GCIII [the Geneva Conventions] requires
for pediatric detainees fifteen and above,” because “GCIII
only pertains to children under the age of fifteen,” they can
have had no idea that, with the exception of three Afghans aged
between 11 and 14 at the time of capture, who were given some kind
of appropriate treatment before their release in January 2004, none
of the other juveniles received any benefit from their advice.

As far as
the administration was concerned, the age of the Guantánamo
prisoners was completely irrelevant. This was confirmed by Donald
Rumsfeld at a press conference in May 2003, after the story first
broke that juveniles were held at Guantánamo, when he stated,
“This constant refrain of ‘the juveniles,’ as though
there’s a hundred children in there – these are not children,”
and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
added that they “may be juveniles, but they’re not on
the Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league
team, and it’s a terrorist team, and they’re in Guantánamo
for a very good reason – for our safety, for your safety.”

Today,
as two of the former juveniles – Omar Khadr and the Afghan
Mohamed
Jawad
– face trials by Military Commission, the administration’s
disregard for the Geneva Conventions remains as clear as ever –
and its disdain for the Optional Protocol, with its requirement
to rehabilitate children caught up in war, is so pronounced that
it has never even been mentioned. Instead, the gulf between the
doctors’ recommendations and the administration’s actions
demonstrates, with an appalling clarity, what happens when a rogue
administration, devoted to unfettered executive power, refuses to
be bound by the law.

What makes
this conclusion particularly bleak is that Omar, described by the
military as “non-radicalized” and a “good kid,”
has stated that he is “in Guantánamo because of his
family,” and that he “wants to train for a job which will
allow him to play a useful role in society by helping others,”
but has also “expressed concerns about having spent his formative
years (in reference primarily to his time in Guantánamo Bay)
surrounded by only adults, some of whom he saw as good and some
as bad.” Or, as another military figure put it, “extended
detention in Guantánamo [runs] the risk of turning him into
a radical.”

October
22, 2008

Andy
Worthington is the author of
The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in
America’s Illegal Prison
(published by Pluto Press).
Visit his website.

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