Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2008
Issue No. 901
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Good kid

A UN panel has criticised the US for its treatment of captured children in American custody, Tamam Ahmed Jama reports from Ottawa

A new report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticises the US for its treatment of captured children held in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.

"The committee notes the presence of considerable numbers of children in US-administered detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan," states the panel's report, published last week. "The committee is concerned over the number of children detained over extended periods of time, in certain instances for one year or more, without adequate access to legal advisory services or physical and psychological recovery measures... [as well as] reports indicating the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detained children."

The panel expressed a particular concern over the indefinite detention of children in Guantanamo Bay and reports of torture and ill-treatment of youngsters held there: "The committee is seriously concerned that children who were recruited or used in armed conflict, rather than being considered primarily as victims, are classified as 'unlawful enemy combatants' and have been charged with war crimes and subject to prosecution by military tribunals -- without due account of their status as children."

The best-known case of a captured child who has been charged with war crimes and is now facing trial by a military commission is that of Canadian national Omar Khadr, currently held in Guantanamo Bay. Khadr's case has caused uproar and occasioned much debate in his native Canada. The Ottawa-born youth, who was just 15 when he was captured, is the sole citizen of a Western nation remaining in Guantanamo Bay.

The Canadian government has come under repeated fire for failing to intervene on Khadr's behalf and ensuring that he be repatriated and, if need be, tried at home where he can get a fair legal proceeding. All other Western nations have secured the release from Guantanamo Bay of their nationals. The last of them, Australian national David Hicks, was sent home last spring and has since been released. The UK not only secured the release and repatriation of all nine British citizens previously held at Guantanamo Bay, but also lobbied for and secured the release of a number of non-national detainees who were residing in Britain at the time of their capture overseas and transfer to the controversial camp.

Khadr, who was the only survivor of an American raid on a suspected Al-Qaeda compound in Afghanistan in July 2002, allegedly threw a grenade that injured US marine Christopher Speer, who later died of his wounds. Khadr himself was shot a number of times, at close range, during the raid and left blind in one eye. He is charged with murder and war crimes and faces life in prison, if convicted. A military judge threw out Khadr's case last June, but US military authorities appealed against that decision and his case is now before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay.

At its annual national conference last year, the Canadian Bar Association called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to demand Khadr's immediate release and repatriation. That call, which received a standing ovation from the conference floor, fell on deaf ears. But the debate has continued and so have criticisms of the government for its silence on Khadr's case.

It emerged recently that military interrogators were required to destroy their handwritten notes of earlier interviews with Khadr. The sudden removal of the military judge overseeing his case has also been received with suspicion in Canada. The Globe and Mail, the country's leading national daily, described the judge's removal as "disquieting, to say the least", adding that the official explanation given was "unconvincing".

Canadian officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs were given access to Khadr on separate occasions in March and April. In their report, they list a number of "permanent" health problems that Khadr has, including the loss of vision in his left eye. They add that the sight of Khadr's good eye is deteriorating because of shrapnel embedded in its membrane and that he also has shrapnel in his right shoulder, which is still painful. They say that he also complains about recurring stomach problems (which could be due to the injuries he sustained at the time of his capture -- shots fired at close range went through his thorax).

In the report, the officials describe Khadr as a "likeable, funny and intelligent young man". In their meeting with the Canadian officials, prison guards also described him as a "good kid", saying that he was "salvageable".

One of the Foreign Affairs officials said Khadr still hopes that Canada will eventually intercede for him. "The overarching theme of much of our discussions focussed on his desire to get out of Guantanamo, to return to Canada, to fix his health, to educate himself, to have a family and to eventually find a job satisfying his personal commitment to help those in need. He also expressed a hyper- awareness of the challenges that he would face, but demonstrated no bitterness or anger -- emphasising instead a desire to move forward in life."

A series of recent documents, including one raising the possibility that Sergeant Speer was killed by friendly fire, cast doubt as to whether it was Khadr who threw the grenade that mortally wounded the US marine. These developments are expected to increase the pressure on Ottawa to finally take action to bring Khadr home.

The controversial military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, set up by the Bush administration to try the detainees there, are widely regarded as a political show. The US Supreme Court is expected to rule later this month whether Guantanamo Bay detainees have the right to go before federal courts to challenge the legality of their indefinite detention. The two candidates for the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain, have both said that, if elected, they would close the infamous military prison.

Meanwhile Human Rights Watch has urged Washington to implement the recommendations of the UN panel and take immediate steps to improve the conditions of children in American custody.

"The US recognises child soldiers as victims in countries like Sierra Leone and Angola, but when US forces are involved, it's a different story," said Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch. "The US should adopt consistent policies, recognising that these children have been exploited by military commanders and are in need of rehabilitation, not punishment."

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