The trial of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr that was due to begin at the notorious detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on November 10 was postponed until January 26, 2009. Guantanamo has come to symbolize the worst of American attitude toward the rule of law. Khadr, now 22 years old, was captured in Afghanistan on July 27, 2002 when he was only 15 and therefore, a child soldier. There was a firefight in the village of Ayubkhel in eastern Afghanistan between a group of attacking American soldiers and five Afghans inside a house on that fateful day. Omar is accused of throwing the grenade that killed sergeant Christopher Speer during the firefight. Omar’s father, Ahmed Saied Khadr, had taken him to Afghanistan when he was a child.
He is the only Western citizen still held by the Americans at the notorious torture camp; all others—British, Australians, Germans, etc—have been released through the intervention of their respective governments. The United Nations, several human rights organizations, lawyers and even the US Supreme Court that ruled last June that no detainee, however serious the allegations against him, can be denied habeas corpus (the right to challenge in court his/her detention without being told what the charges are), have denounced the military tribunal as failing to meet even the minimum standards required to deliver justice.
The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, has not been moved by these arguments to intervene and secure the release of a Canadian citizen from this hell-on-earth. He insists that the military tribunal is a properly constituted forum and he has repeatedly said he sees no substitute for it. Many legal experts have interpreted this to mean that Harper has essentially denounced the Canadian judicial system itself. He also continues to repeat that Khadr is charged with very “serious offences”. True, but being charged with certain offences is not the same as being guilty, a difference that is perhaps lost on Harper who is an ideological soul mate of US President George Bush.
The circumstances in which Omar was captured needs recounting. On that fateful day in July 2002, when American soldiers arrived in Ayubkhel village, they were informed that armed men had been sighted there. On the outskirts of the village, they found a mud house. Peeping through cracks in the door, they saw some children playing in the yard while five men with AK-47 rifles resting beside them, were seen chatting. The Americans attacked the house and then called in air support to bomb the house. It was virtually destroyed.
When the shooting stopped and it was presumed that everyone inside the house had been killed, the Americans went in to search the place. It was during this search that someone in the house threw a grenade that killed Speer. Further shooting followed and the person who had thrown the grenade was killed. A badly wounded Omar lay face down when he was shot twice in the back, the bullets piercing his frail body. His left eye was shattered while his right eye was badly injured with pieces of shrapnel embedded in his face and body. An on-site report prepared by a “Colonel W” stated that the person who had thrown the grenade was killed yet this report was later altered to accuse Omar of throwing it. He was also charged with spying, participating in a conspiracy and supporting terrorism.
Following his capture, the badly wounded 15-year-old Omar was moved to Bagram Airbase that had already gained notoriety as a torture chamber. It was at Bagram that sergeant Joshua Claus had beaten an Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar Khan, to death in April 2002. Claus was later court-martialed and given a five-month sentence for the cold-blooded murder of an innocent Afghan cab driver. Claus is also reported to have tortured Omar at Bagram.
Omar’s interrogations began soon after he regained consciousness. While unable to walk because of his grave injuries, he was taken to the interrogation cell on a stretcher. Subjected to sleep deprivation, withdrawal of pain medication, lack of medical treatment for his life-threatening injuries and physical and psychological torture were some of the techniques used to break him and force him to talk. He was also threatened with rendition to Egypt where he would be raped. He was told a particular Egyptian soldier, Askaria raqm tisa (Soldier number 9), had gained notoriety for raping young boys. Court documents show that interrogators had also used attack dogs against Omar while a hood was placed over his face. The dogs would scratch his already bruised chest with gaping wounds that were reopened with their sharp claws. Guards frequently taunted him as a "killer" and "terrorist".
It was in early 2002 that US Justice department officials, Bush’s legal counsel and later Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and numerous military officials from the Pentagon under directions from Donald Rumsfeld rewrote the manual on torture. They dismissed the Geneva Conventions as irrelevant and not applicable to detainees in US custody, whether at Bagram, Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. The US has become the first country in the world to try a child soldier for war crimes, despite being a signatory to the UN Protocol on the treatment of Child Soldiers. US officials also eliminated such barbaric practices as cutting prisoners’ ears or nose, or even breaking their limbs from the category of torture. Sleep deprivation was also not torture, they insisted. Only infliction of pain that would lead to organ failure or death was classified as torture.
One of the persons involved in narrowing the definition of torture was colonel Lawrence Morris. He is now the lead prosecutor in Omar’s case at the military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. Interviewed by Terence McKenna of the Canadian television station, the CBC, for a documentary that was broadcast on October 15, colonel Morris was adamant that Omar was not tortured even though an American soldier, Damien Corsetti, who had participated in torturing Omar, admitted doing so in the documentary. Corsetti was so remorseful that he regretted even joining the US military. Morris, however, insisted that Omar was not tortured and that he was certain Omar was “guilty” of throwing the grenade that had killed Speer.
Omar’s American appointed lawyer, lieutenant commander William Kuebler, has dismissed the grenade allegation pointing to the initial on-site report that was later altered. He also pointed to the fact that grenade shrapnel found on Speer’s body and other injured US soldiers involved in the firefight were from American-made grenades, not Russian ones used by the Afghans. American soldiers admitted that they had also thrown grenades during that fight; if so, it means Speer was killed by a grenade thrown by an American soldier. Further, that Omar was not the only survivor during that fight.
In October 2002, Omar and other detainees were flown to Guantanamo Bay after being kept without food or water for three days, ostensibly to obviate their need to use the toilet on the 16-hour flight. All prisoners were shackled in painful positions with their hands tied behind their backs and chains wound round their necks and ankles, to prevent their movement during the flight. Their feet were chained to the floor of the plane. Under such conditions, people's limbs go numb; when taken off the flight and unable to walk, American guards kicked and punched them.
Guantanamo Bay brought more horrors. Apart from the killer and terrorist taunts, Omar was thrown into isolation for prolonged periods, stretching into months. The cell measured 10 feet by 6 feet, with a crate functioning as a toilet. Sometimes, his cell temperature was kept so low that he would nearly freeze; at other times, they would increase it so much that it would be boiling hot. If his interrogators did not like the answers he gave, he would be made to stand for hours, chained to the cell gate with his face hooded. At other times, he would be tied in the fetus position with his hands and feet tied together and left curled up on the cell floor. Food and medication were deliberately withheld and with his wounds still raw and some of the metal shrapnel pieces still embedded in his body slowly making their way out of the skin that is excruciatingly painful, he would be left in great pain. On one particular occasion his interrogators tied him to the floor in such a painful position and for so long that he urinated on himself. When the guards discovered this the next morning, they poured disinfectant over his entire body and then they dragged him like a mop to clean the floor.
Statements extracted under such conditions from a 15-year-old boy are being presented in the military tribunal at Guantanamo to try him on charges of murder and terrorism. Further, the tribunal has deliberately withheld information from Omar’s defence lawyers making it difficult to prepare a proper defence. More shameful is the attitude of the Canadian government that has abandoned him to a kangaroo court whose primary purpose is not to establish the truth but to secure a “conviction”.
While both US presidential candidates have said they would shut down Guantanamo Bay if elected, Omar’s ordeal is not likely to end soon. He is the victim of America’s rage over 9/11 and it must punish somebody, anybody, including a young boy found in the wrong place at the wrong time.