Andy Worthington
Campaign for Liberty
May 4, 2010

Since coming to power 15 months ago, promising to close Guantánamo within a year, and suspending the much-criticized military commission trial system for terror suspects, President Obama’s zeal for repudiating the Bush administration’s “war on terror” detention policies has ground to a halt.

The rot set in almost immediately, when the new administration invoked the “state secrets doctrine” last February, to combat a lawsuit brought by several men subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and was sealed last May, when Obama delivered a major national security speech in which he announced that the military commissions were back on the table, and also announced his intention to continue holding some prisoners at Guantánamo without charge or trial.

In November, Attorney General Eric Holder set the seal on the administration’s two-tier justice system for terror suspects at Guantánamo by announcing that five men would face federal court trials for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but that five others would face trial by military commission, in a revamped version of the “terror courts,” approved by Congress over the summer.

This year, Obama disappointed critics in the United States, and those scrutinizing his activities around the world, by failing to close Guantánamo within a year as promised, and by failing to set a new deadline for the prison’s closure, but last week his administration pressed ahead with what may well be viewed as the single most disappointing failure to repudiate the cruel, chaotic and unjust policies of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”: the trial, by military commission, of Omar Khadr.

A Canadian citizen, Khadr was just 15 years old when he was seized by U.S. forces after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, in which he allegedly threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier, Sgt. Christopher Speer, and was taken first to the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase, and then to Guantánamo, where he remains to this day. I have been covering his case since June 2007, when his first pre-trial hearing took place in the commissions’ first reincarnation, after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 that the original version, the brainchild of Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington, was illegal.

For nearly three years, therefore, I have watched as a disturbingly shambolic and misconceived excuse for a judicial system has attempted, without success, to prosecute Omar Khadr, and the many failures of this endeavor have not been resolved through Congress’ tweaking the system last summer.

The shame and disgrace of prosecuting a child

Firstly, and most important, Khadr was a child when seized. This meant nothing to the Bush administration, and it is clear that it also means nothing to the Obama administration either. Back in May 2003, when the story first broke that juvenile prisoners were being held at Guantánamo (and research indicates that at least 22 juveniles were held in total), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld impatiently told a press conference, “This constant refrain of ‘the juveniles,’ as though there’s a hundred children in there — these are not children,” and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that they “may be juveniles, but they’re not on the Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league team, and it’s a terrorist team, and they’re in Guantánamo for a very good reason — for our safety, for your safety.”

This rhetoric played well with those who hold that everyone is accountable for their actions, whatever their age, but in a more enlightened world, of which the United States is technically a part, juveniles — defined as those under the age of 18 when the crime they are accused of committing took place — “require special protection” according to the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which the United States is a signatory. The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

It would be difficult to find a more appropriate case of a child who was “particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities” than Omar Khadr, who spent much of his childhood in Afghanistan, taken there by his father, an alleged fundraiser for Osama bin Laden, and yet, as I demonstrated in the first of my weekly columns for The Future of Freedom Foundation, back in October 2008, Khadr has never received “physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration,” because a detailed plan submitted by four doctors to the Defense Department in January 2003, entitled, “Recommended Course of Action for Reception and Detention of Individuals Under 18 Years of Age,” was completely ignored.

The problem of invented war crimes charges

Beyond this most glaringly obvious problem with Omar Khadr’s trial (and his nearly eight years in detention), another fundamental problem with Obama’s decision to proceed with prosecuting a former juvenile prisoner in the first U.S. war crimes trial since Nuremberg concerns the basis of the charges against Khadr. On an intuitive level, critics of Khadr’s trial have, from the beginning, recognized that there is something horribly skewed about redefining the internationally accepted laws of war so that one side in an armed conflict — the United States — can kill whoever it wants with impunity, whereas its opponents are viewed as terrorists, or, when brought to trial, as those who have committed “murder in violation of the law of war.”

Lt. Col. David Frakt, who knows more about the laws of war than Congress or officials in either the Bush or Obama administrations, has long pointed out that the military commissions are fundamentally flawed because they contain “law of war offenses” invented by Congress, including “providing material support to terrorism” and “murder in violation of the law of war.” As he explained last week, as Khadr’s trial got underway, the latter was introduced by the DoD in 2003, when it was defining the crimes eligible for trial by military commission, as “murder by an unprivileged belligerent.” He added:

This status-based definition conflated two different concepts — unprivileged belligerents and war criminals. Under Article 4 of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention it is clear that while a member of an organized resistance movement or militia may be an unprivileged belligerent (because of not wearing a uniform or failing to carry arms openly, for example) he may still comply with the laws and customs of war, so not all hostile acts committed by unprivileged belligerents are war crimes. Attacks by unprivileged belligerents which comply with the law of war (in that they attack lawful military targets with lawful weapons) may only be tried in domestic courts. In Iraq, for example, insurgents who try to kill Americans by implanting roadside bombs are properly arrested and tried before the Central Criminal Court of Iraq as common criminals. Attacks by unprivileged belligerents which violate the law of war, such as attacks on civilians or soldiers attempting to surrender, or using prohibited weapons like poison gas, can be tried in a war crimes tribunal.

When Congress revived the commissions in 2006 (after Congress ruled them illegal), “murder by an unprivileged belligerent” became “murder in violation of the law of war.” However, as Lt. Col. Frakt explained, the distinction appeared to be cosmetic, and, crucially, judges in the only two full trials that ever took place (those of Salim Hamdan and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul), as well as the judge in the case of Mohamed Jawad (released in August 2009), rejected the supposed crime, “each ruling that the mere status of unprivileged belligerency was insufficient to prove a violation of the law of war.”

Despite Lt. Col. Frakt’s alerting Congress to these problems last summer, lawmakers left the definition of “murder in violation of the law of war” unchanged in the new version of the commissions, but, astonishingly, DoD officials added an “official comment,” explaining that “an accused may be convicted in a military commission … if the commission finds that the accused engaged in conduct traditionally triable by military commission (e.g., spying; murder committed while the accused did not meet the requirements of privileged belligerency) even if such conduct does not violate the international law of war.” In other words, as Lt. Col. Frakt explained, “a detainee may be convicted of murder in violation of the law of war even if they did not actually violate the law of war.”


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