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Some Held at Guantánamo Are Minors, Lawyers Say

Lawyers representing detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, say that there still may be as many as six prisoners who were captured before their 18th birthday and that the military has sought to conceal the precise number of juveniles at the prison camp.

One lawyer said that his client, a Saudi of Chadian descent, was not yet 15 when he was captured and has told him that he was beaten regularly in his early days at Guantánamo, hanged by his wrists for hours at a time and that an interrogator pressed a burning cigarette into his arm.

The lawyer, Clive A. Stafford Smith, of London, said in an interview that the prisoner, who is now 18 and is identified by the initials M.C. in public documents, told him in a recent interview at Guantánamo that he was seized by local authorities in Pakistan about Oct. 21, 2001, a few months shy of his 15th birthday, and taken to Guantánamo at the beginning of 2002.

Barbara Olshansky, a senior lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which is coordinating a program to match volunteer lawyers with detainees, said she believed he may be one of six current detainees who were imprisoned at Guantánamo before their 18th birthday.

Military authorities say the only juveniles at the detention center were the three who were kept in a separate facility from the main prison camp with more freedom and activities. They were released in January 2004.

The dispute is clouded by two issues: military authorities define a juvenile as someone younger than 16 years of age, not 18, as do most human rights groups. Further, the ages of the detainees brought to Guantánamo as enemy combatants cannot be determined with certainty, leaving officials to make estimates.

"They don't come with birth certificates," said Col. Brad K. Blackner, the chief public affairs officer at the detention camp. Col. David McWilliams, the chief spokesman for the United States Southern Command in Miami, which runs the prison operation, said that the authorities were fairly confident of their estimates. "We used bone scans in some cases and age was determined by medical evidence as best we could," he said.

As to the mistreatment that M.C. reported, Colonel McWilliams said the military tried to investigate all credible accusations where possible, but he would not discuss the prisoner's specific complaints.

The details of M.C.'s accusations are contained in a 17-page account prepared by Mr. Stafford Smith, in which the prisoner said that he was suspended from hooks in the ceiling for hours at a time with his feet barely missing the floor, and that he was beaten during those sessions. M.C. said a special unit known as the Immediate Reaction Force had knocked out one of his teeth and later an interrogator burned him with a cigarette. Mr. Stafford Smith said he saw the missing tooth and the burn scar.

Some of M.C.'s descriptions match accounts given not only by other detainees, but also by former guards and interrogators who have been interviewed by The New York Times.

He describes being shackled close to the floor in an interrogation room for hours with music blaring and lights in his face. He also said he was shown a room with pictures of naked women and adult videos and told he could have access if he cooperated. His description fits the account of former guards who described such a room and said it was nicknamed "the love shack."

The three detainees released in January 2004 were thought by officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross to have been ages 12 to 14 at the time.

During their captivity, they were kept apart from the main prison population at Guantánamo, confined in a squat building known as Camp Iguana where they were given lessons in English and their native language, allowed to play games and, on rare occasions, taken to the beach.

The new dispute about juveniles involves other prisoners. In addition to M.C., there is Omar Khadr, a Canadian detainee, now 18, whose case is widely known. He is accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American medic near Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. Moreover, the authorities say his father was an associate of Osama bin Laden.

Ms. Olshansky said her organization has learned of four other detainees who were under 18 when captured and said one might still be only 17.

Colonel McWilliams said that of the remaining 525 or so detainees, there was no one at Guantánamo who was not at least 16 when he arrived. Colonel Blackner said there was no one at Guantánamo now under 18.

Prof. Adam Roberts of Oxford University, a leading authority on international law, said the definition of a juvenile was not precise. The Geneva Conventions, the basic foundation of international law, do not provide a definition. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed by the United States and deals with the related issue of how young a soldier may be recruited, says that juveniles are those under 18. But the Optional Protocol seems to acknowledge that some countries might use a younger age at which soldiers may be recruited.

Although not a treaty, the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty, which more directly deals with the issue of detentions, uses the age of 18 as a boundary.

 

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