By Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Reseacher, ACLU Human Rights Program
Hearings continued Friday and Saturday in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, who again was absent from the proceedings. Accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American medic and participating in a terrorist conspiracy beginning when he was only 10 years old, Khadr literally has grown up at Guantánamo.
The military commission is convening through this week to determine whether self-incriminating statements Khadr made to interrogators should be excluded from trial because of torture and other abuse. Khadr's lawyers say confessions extracted through torture and other abuse, as well as subsequent self-incriminating statements to FBI "clean teams" that relied on the coerced confessions, should be inadmissible at trial.
Unfortunately, at the end of these hearings there may be a lot we still won't know about how Khadr was treated in U.S. custody. Only seven of the at least 31 interrogators who conducted over 100 hours of interrogation of Khadr at Bagram and Guantánamo will testify. Defense lawyers have argued the military judge should subpoena the remaining interrogators, but the judge hasn't subpoenaed the other interrogators yet (in federal court, defense lawyers and prosecutors have subpoena power, but not in the military commissions, where they must rely on the military judge).
On Friday and Saturday we heard testimony from a military interrogator, three FBI agents, and a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent who interrogated Khadr during the year after his capture at age 15 in Afghanistan. These prosecution witnesses painted a picture of a cooperative 15- and 16-year-old who was eager to provide the information they demanded — including during interrogations that took place while he was confined on a hospital gurney. They described a boy who requested children's storybooks and told them he liked pizza, Coca-Cola, video games, horses, and cars. They said Khadr missed his grandmother and wanted to return to Canada to live with her, and eventually hoped to become a doctor.
The witnesses also revealed they weren't considering Khadr for prosecution at the time of his interrogations, and in fact, a 2002 military assessment indicated Khadr "was being considered for release back to Canada." The prosecution's witnesses also told the story of a boy who was used by his father, who told him he was taking a trip to help out as an interpreter, but instead sent him to an al Qaeda safehouse for training.
All of which raises the question of why, eight years later, we are prosecuting this former child soldier instead of repatriating him to Canada for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
Perhaps most intriguing was the testimony of a military interrogator, identified only as "Agent 11," who conducted 12 interviews with Khadr at Guantánamo in October and November 2002, when he was 16 years old. Agent 11 said she used an "incentive-based" interrogation technique with Khadr, in which she rewarded him with M&Ms, Fig Newtons, and game books in exchange for cooperation. She said Khadr participated in interrogations so he could return to Canada, and he "understood if he was cooperative it would expedite his repatriation back to Canada."
Agent 11 testified that her boss selected her as Khadr's interrogator because she could be a "mother figure" to the then-16-year-old boy — though the attractive brunette was only in her 20's at the time (journalists here dubbed her the "honeypot", and on cross-examination Khadr's lawyer suggested that perhaps she was selected more as a "female" than a "mother figure"). According to Agent 11, Khadr said she could take him out of his cell for an interview anytime, telling her, "I'd rather be in the booth with you than bored in my cell."
And yet through all the testimony about Khadr's willingness to talk to interrogators, there were glimpses of the abuse he says he suffered. One FBI special agent told the court Saturday of how he saw Khadr sobbing inconsolably, rocking back and forth and "appearing suicidal." According to the special agent, a Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) was called in to deal with the situation (BSCT are military psychologists who evaluated prisoners' fears and psychological weaknesses to craft individualized, often abusive interrogation techniques). Saturday's hearing also included the playing of a video of Khadr's interrogation by Canadian officials in February 2003, showing the teenage boy sobbing and begging for help (I and others who don't have security clearance had to clear out of the court while the video played, though it's available on YouTube). Testimony by defense witnesses this week is expected to paint a far darker picture of Khadr's interrogations than that presented by the prosecution last week.
Watching Friday and Saturday's hearings, I was struck by what a terrible choice this case is for the first trial in the discredited military commission system under President Obama.
And evidently the Obama administration agrees. On Saturday the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration is actively seeking a plea agreement, quoting a senior administration official who admitted, "This is not what you would choose to open with." Since the Toronto Star broke the story Wednesday that Khadr's lawyers had rejected a plea offer of five years' imprisonment (on top of the eight years he's already served), his lawyers here have refused to confirm these reports, but speculation about a possible plea agreement is rampant here at Guantánamo.
Hopefully the Obama administration will decide that eight years in Guantánamo is punishment enough for a child soldier who was taken to a conflict zone by his family and subsequently mistreated for years in U.S. detention.