By Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher, ACLU Human Rights Program
Since Omar Khadr's guilty plea this Monday, the case has moved into the sentencing phase, and a panel of senior military officers has been hearing testimony about mitigating and aggravating factors. Khadr's actual sentence is capped under the plea bargain agreement, the terms of which have not been disclosed to the jury. Now 24, Khadr was 15 when he was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and has spent a third of his life at Guantánamo.
Over the past two days, we heard hours of testimony from prosecution expert witness Dr. Michael Welner, a courtroom psychiatrist-for-hire who invented the "depravity scale," which purports to quantify evil and depravity in criminal defendants. Welner's assessment of Khadr was made on the basis of a 7- to 8-hour court-ordered interview with him and interviews with 20 other people. Welner worked 500-600 hours on Khadr's case, and the rumored cost to the government is around half a million dollars.
Welner, who spoke with no detainees other than Khadr and has no expertise in Islam, let alone radicalism or deradicalization programs, dramatically pronounced Khadr to be "highly dangerous" as a result of his imprisonment at Gitmo.The basis for Welner's conclusions is highly questionable, to say the least.
Welner went on to discuss recidivism among released Gitmo detainees, citing widely discredited (PDF) Pentagon statistics that claim as many as 20 percent of released Gitmo detainees have returned to terrorism. The inflated Pentagon figures even include three British friends who were interviewed for a critically acclaimed documentary on their imprisonment at Guantanamo – according to the Pentagon, the interviews themselves were "anti-coalition militant activity" and thus counted among those "returning to the battlefield."
Welner outrageously cited as signs of Khadr's future dangerousness that he has "memorized the Quran and studies it energetically," and that he leads other detainees in prayers. Ignoring social science research and epidemiological evidence to the contrary, Welner claimed that Khadr's religiosity is a sign of future dangerousness, In fact, research has conclusively found the opposite: religious belief and membership in a community are reliable predictors for rehabilitation. In the course of his testimony, Welner variously referred to radical Islam as "deviant," a "pathology," and a "passion;" he also analogized it to a "fungating tumor wrapped around an artery" that must be surgically removed.
Welner based his assessment of Khadr largely on the opinions of a Danish psychologist, Nicolai Senells, who treated Muslim inmates in a Copenhagen prison and wrote a book about his findings. Welner never actually read Senells' book; he just called Sennels up on the phone and chatted with him.
On cross-examination we learned that a simple Google search reveals numerous examples of Senells's Islamophobia. He once characterized a Muslim patient as "someone from another planet on my couch." In July, Sennels wrote an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron in which he called the Quran "a criminal book that forces people to do criminal things." In an article, Sennels wrote about half of all Muslims are inbred, contributing to problems with "intelligence, sanity, health and society." In an interview, Senells told an online magazine, "We should in general make it so unpleasant and the economic disadvantage so big that the consequences of non-integration would motivate resident Muslims to emigrate."
Welner also pointed to the fact that Toronto-born Khadr is not Westernized as another sign that he is dangerous . Welner testified that Khadr reads the Quran, but has no interests in Western studies. Sure, he read Harry Potter, but that's just escapist reading, dismissed Welner.
On cross-examination by the defense, however, we learned that Khadr told Welner both that he had secular interests and that he has tried to educate himself while in detention. In fact, in a court-ordered interview, Khadr had told Welner that he is studying GED books and English, math and science textbooks well-wishers have sent him, but finds it difficult to teach himself: "Since I stopped school at eighth grade and it's been eight years, some things are hard to learn by myself." Khadr told Welner he also has read Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, President Obama's Dreams of my Father, Nelson Mandela's Walk to Freedom, the Twilight series, and John Grisham and Danielle Steele novels. (From previous testimony in this case, we also know that Khadr is a young man who has told interrogators of his love of video games, car magazines, pizza, Coca-Cola, and McDonald's.)
It's clear from the past two days of testimony that the government witnesses are of questionable credibility, to say the least, and their determination that Khadr is a future danger contradicts everything we already know about him.
Of course if the U.S. had adhered to international juvenile justice standards and the U.S.- ratified Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict since Khadr's capture eight years ago, this bogus assessment of future dangerousness wouldn't be a question. Khadr would have been held separately from adult detainees and enrolled in education, reintegration and rehabilitation programs, not abused and prosecuted by the discredited military commissions.