A “war on terror” nightmare

August 23, 2010

The "trial" of Omar Khadr--a 15-year-old when he was captured--is spotlighting the Obama administration's embrace of Bush-era policies, writes Nicole Colson.

OMAR KHADR was just 15 years old when he was captured by the U.S. military in 2002 during the war on Afghanistan.

He was seriously injured at the time--shot twice in the back, blinded by shrapnel. Khadr was shipped to the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay soon after his 16th birthday, where--after he was threatened with being gang-raped to death during one of his many interrogations--he allegedly confessed to being a member of al-Qaeda and throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

Yet despite this documented mistreatment at the hands of the U.S, despite his being a minor when he allegedly committed criminal acts, and despite having spent eight years in the hell of Guantánamo, Khadr has now been put on trial by the Obama administration.

He is the first person since the Second World War, according to the New York Times, to face a trial in a military tribunal for acts committed as a minor. Khadr has pleaded not guilty to five charges including murder, conspiracy and spying. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.

Omar Khadr
Omar Khadr (Khadr family)

Khadr's case is one of many at Guantánamo that expose the worst aspects of the U.S. "war on terror."

In a ruling made public on August 20, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, the judge in Khadr's case, ruled that a "confession" by the then-15-year-old boy, a Canadian national, wasn't coerced.

This despite the fact that Khadr was forced to listen to an Army interrogator's tale of gang rape. Former Sgt. Joshua Claus--an Army interrogator who was subsequently court-martialed for abusing detainees--testified at a May pretrial hearing that he tried to soften Khadr up with the story of an Afghan captive who was sent to an American prison and raped by "four big Black guys."

According to Parrish, however, "While the accused was 15 years old at the time he was captured, he was not immature for his age."

But as Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, an Army lawyer for Khadr, said in his opening statement, "It is only after that story is told to Omar Khadr that he admits to throwing anything. He told them what they wanted to hear."

As Jennifer Turner of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program summarized the situation:

It boggles the mind that the military judge could find that Khadr was not coerced and gave these statements to interrogators voluntarily.

Khadr, then 15 years old, was taken to Bagram near death, after being shot twice in the back, blinded by shrapnel and buried in rubble from a bomb blast. He was interrogated within hours, while sedated and handcuffed to a stretcher. He was threatened with gang rape and death if he didn't cooperate with interrogators. He was hooded and chained with his arms suspended in a cage-like cell, and his primary interrogator was later court-martialed for detainee abuse leading to the death of a detainee. During his subsequent eight-year (so far) detention at Guantánamo, Khadr was subjected to the "frequent-flyer" sleep deprivation program, and he says he was used as a human mop after he was forced to urinate on himself.

THE UNITED Nations said last week that Khadr's trial may not be legal under international law and could set a dangerous precedent for child soldiers worldwide. "Juvenile justice standards are clear," Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations special envoy for children in armed conflict, told Reuters. "Children should not be tried before military tribunals."

Adding to the insanity of Khadr's trial is the fact that prosecutors recently succeeded in removing the only potential juror who thinks Guantánamo should be closed. They claimed that his "negative" views of Guantánamo Bay and military commissions might prejudice him.

The seven remaining military officers serving as jurors either believe the prison camp should stay open, have served in Iraq and Afghanistan or have lost friends there, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. None appears to believe that the U.S. uses torture.

Such glaring biases at Khadr's tribunal seem to be of no concern to the Obama administration, however.

As Turner noted, "Though President Obama promised that coerced evidence would not be used against detainees in the military commissions, [the ruling in Khadr's case] suggests that as a country, we stand for abusing a 15-year-old teenager into confessing, and using those confessions against him in an illegitimate proceeding."

In his opening statement at Khadr's trial, the prosecutor declared, "This trial is about holding an al-Qaeda terrorist accountable for his actions and vindicating the laws of war."

Except, of course, that the U.S. has repeatedly violated the "laws of war"--the Geneva Conventions and other international law--by continuing to hold Khadr this long, not to mention subjecting him to torture and a military tribunal.

Furthermore, if Khadr did throw a grenade at U.S. troops who had invaded Afghanistan, it's hard to see how that can be considered "terrorism"--as opposed to, say, war. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald commented:

[W]hat is most striking to me about this case is this: how can it possibly be that the U.S. invades a foreign country, and then when people in that country--such as Khadr--fight back against the invading army by attacking purely military targets via a purely military act (throwing a grenade at a solider, who was part of a unit ironically using an abandoned Soviet runway as its outpost), they become "war criminals," or even terrorists, who must be shipped halfway around the world, systematically abused, repeatedly declared to be one of "the worst of the worst," and then held in a cage for almost a full decade (one-third of his life and counting)?

It's hard to imagine anything which more compellingly underscores the completely elastic and manipulated "meaning" of "terrorist" than this case: In essence, the U.S. is free to do whatever it wants, and anyone who fights back, even against our invading armies and soldiers (rather than civilians), is a war criminal and a terrorist.

IN RECENT arguments before the judge ruled on allowing Khadr's "confession" into evidence, defense lawyer Jon Jackson asked the judge to "[t]ell the world that we actually stand for what we say we stand for."

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, millions of people felt like they had sent a message to the world--repudiating the worst excesses of the Bush administration's "war on terror," including torture, military tribunals and the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo.

As a candidate, Obama renounced all those things and declared that he would close Guantánamo. Yet today, his administration is prosecuting Khadr by military tribunal, and there is no end to Guantánamo in sight.

Obama's broken promise on Guantánamo is old news. It was supposed to be closed immediately--then we were promised it would be shut down within a year. More than a year and a half since he took office, the prison camp is still home to 176 detainees.

One of those 176 people is Adnan Abdul Latif, an emotionally ill detainee at Guantánamo, despite the fact that the Pentagon recommended he be released as early as 2004, admitting in a report that he "is not known to have participated in combatant/terrorist training."

Latif's lawyer David Remes told the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg that Latif has spent long periods of his captivity in the camp's psychiatric ward after repeated suicide attempts. He has covered himself in excrement, thrown blood at his lawyer, swallowed shards of metal, and tried to eat glass in dozens of self-harm episodes. "He sees death as his only way out," Remes said.

Obama has also backtracked on his criticism of military tribunals and his promise that detainees would be tried in civilian courts, with all the legal protections they entail. In many ways, Obama has "out-Bushed" the Bush administration, maintaining many of the worst Bush-era civil-liberties-shredding measures.

Such flip-flops and backtracking have left many on the left feeling profound disappointment--while only emboldening the right. Consider, for example, Obama's recent remarks about Cordoba House, the proposed New York City community center wrongly referred to by the right as the "Ground Zero Mosque."

After weeks of failing to issue any statement, despite a cascade of ugly anti-Muslim statements from the right, Obama finally delivered a strong defense of religious freedom. "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said. "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Yet the very next day, Obama "clarified" his remarks, saying "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there."

As The Daily Show's Jon Stewart commented, it was like revising Obama's campaign slogan to: "Yes we can...but should we?"

Obama could have made a forceful statement against anti-Muslim racism, but he caved to political "pragmatism" instead. And, sadly, that's par for the course for the Obama administration.

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