US Still Seeks Jail for 'Fighter' Captured at 15 in Afghanistan

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US Still Seeks Jail for 'Fighter' Captured at 15 in Afghanistan

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr is shown in an undated handout photo from the Bowden Institution in Innisfail, Alta. (Bowden Institution/Canadian Press)

The good news is that an appellate judge in Canada has had the courage and good sense to uphold the release from jail on bail of Omar Khadr, a native of Canada who was captured as a child soldier at the age of 15 in Afghanistan by US forces back in 2002 and shipped off to Guantanamo, where he became one of the children held in captivity.

The bad news is that Khadr, who spent 13 years in the Guantanamo hellhole, should never have been imprisoned in the first place. Brought along at the age of 14 to fight in Afghanistan by his father, a Canadian Muslim extremist who was killed in Afghanistan, the young Khadr should have, when captured, been treated under international law not as a combatant, illegal or otherwise. Under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty signed by the US and thus an integral part of US law, all children under the age of 18 captured while fighting in wars are to be offered “special protection” and treated as victims, not as combatants.

Instead, as Reuters reports, "Khadr claims that during at least 142 interrogations in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, he was beaten, chained in painful positions, forced to urinate on himself, terrorized by barking dogs, subjected to flashing lights and sleep deprivation and threatened with rape."

Under these circumstances, and fearing that he would never leave Guantanamo, Khadr in 2010, at the age of 23, agreed to plead guilty to the US military’s spurious murder charge, so that he could be sent to serve out his prison sentence in his home country of Canada. Now appealing his sentence, and renouncing his plea on the grounds that it was made under duress, he will be confined to the home of his attorney under the court’s order.

This plea clearly cannot be fairly considered a real admission of guilt. It was a desperate maneuver by someone who had spent half his young life in an unregulated and illegal prison to escape all the endless torture and abuse, not to mention the lengthy separation from his home and family.

As I wrote back in 2010, charging Khadr with murder was never justified, and could never had survived a fair trial, or probably even a corrupt military tribunal:

Khadr’s crime? He was in a [residential compound] that was struck by a US air strike and then raided by US special forces during the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. The gravely wounded Khadr was accused of tossing a grenade at advancing US troops, which killed US Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, and caused another soldier to lose an eye.

Although Khadr, after nine years of harsh confinement at Guantanamo, and facing a military tribunal, has pleaded guilty in a plea bargain, after insisting for nine years that he did not throw the grenade (there is no living witness to his having done so, and the Special Forces soldier who shot the wounded Khadr twice in the back said he had done so because Khadr was the only one still alive who could have tossed the grenade that killed another US soldier), one issue here is that even if he did toss it, that action would have been seen as that heroic act of a gravely-wounded young fighter facing a superior enemy force, but for the fact that the US is claiming Khadr was not a legitimate soldier, but rather a “terrorist.”

This is a rather spurious claim, since the US says it went to “war” in Afghanistan to go after Al Qaeda forces there, who had been set up with CIA assistance initially to help the Mujahadeen fight the Soviet occupiers. So the force that Khadr was supposedly fighting with was a legitimate fighting force once, but became not a fighting force when the enemy was the US. Clearly, such fine distinctions would have meant nothing to a 15-year-old boy who had been “drafted” into the war at 14 by his Al Qaeda-member father, who was later killed by US fire. Note too that the US can say its soldiers, who have been killing a prodigious number of civilians in Afghanistan, cannot be charged with murder or manslaughter because they are soldiers, but the enemy they are fighting can be charged with murder if they fight back, because they are supposedly not legitimate soldiers.

Canada’s conservative government, headed by the right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had been fighting to keep Khadr in prison, but has now, thankfully, lost that battle.

The US should simply admit the atrocity it has committed against Khadr, and drop the charges against him. Canada should also stand up for international law and denounce this war crime by the US, and free him, instead of supporting the continued effort by the US to have him locked up. (To get away from Guantanamo and US military control, Khadr had to accept a sentence of eight years, not counting the 10 he had already spent at Guantanamo without charge, which means if he loses his appeal he could remain in captivity in Canada until 2018.)

This outrage, just one of hundreds among all the captives held at Guantanamo, is particularly egregious because it involves someone captured and detained illegally as a child. That his arrest and detention are based on a bogus charge of murder makes it all the more outrageous.

If there were any decency left at all in the White House, President Obama would have long ago ended Khadr’s nightmare by releasing him to his family and apologizing or his years of torture and confinement without charge.

But there isn’t.

Dave Lindorff

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). He is the founding editor of ThisCantBeHappening.

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