The United States is about to enter a sad, and quite likely criminal new chapter in its history. Tomorrow the Obama administration will being its first trial of a prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay.
Omar Khadr was only nine when his father, a purported Al Qaeda financier, moved Khadr from Canada to Afghanistan and put him to work helping his Al Qaeda friends. In 2002, when he was just 15, Khadr was captured in Afghanistan and accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. For that he’s been charged with a war crime.
The Khadr case is troubling from many fronts. To begin with, the evidence presented so far seems to rest almost entirely on confessions extracted from Khadr. Those confessions have long suspected of being the result of, at best, suspicious circumstances and at worst, torture.
Also, as Daphne Eviatar points out, the crime of murdering a U.S. soldier is not a war crime because in war it is not a crime to target the other side’s soldiers. As a civilian, rather than a member of any regular foreign army, throwing a grenade is a criminal act that could, and should, be prosecuted in a regular criminal. Last but not least, the legality of the military commissions as a whole raises serious issues, some of which Khadr’s questions presented just last week to the Supreme Court. They argue that the commissions are unconstitutional since they target only “aliens”–people who are not U.S. citizens. This is currently an open question of law almost guaranteeing that if Khadr is convicted his case will snake through the appellate process for years.
And those are just the legal problems with the case.
International law dictates that a child captured in combat is to be treated as a victim, not a soldier. Those “child soldiers” are to be offered rehabilitation while in custody and eventually repatriated home. Khadr reportedly has relatives who still live in Canada, was never offered those options.
Khadr has spent the last eight years in a cell in Guantanamo. Now 23, he’s turned from a scared child willing to cooperate with interrogators in any way possible to a defiant young man who has threatened to boycott his own trial because he thinks the whole military commission process is a sham.
Can you blame him? Had Khadr been held in the United States he would have been tried and either convicted or released by now. Instead, he’s sat isolated in a cell in Cuba. Human Rights First has been observing the military commission process and has reported on the injustices and inefficiency in the entire process. It is almost too much for words.
There is no doubt that addressing international terrorism calls for a way of rethinking traditional legal regimes and, when necessary, adapting those regimes to suit our changing times. I cannot think of a single reason why any rethinking would include holding, and trying as a war criminal, a child.
Photo courtesy U.S. Army via Flickr