by Andy Worthington
Omar Khadr, the only Canadian citizen in Guantánamo, was seized in Afghanistan on July 27, 2002, when he was just 15 years old. On September 19 he turned 24, and has grown, physically, into a man during the eight years and two months he has spent in US custody, first at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and, since October 2002, at Guantánamo. At heart, however, he remains a child, whose youth has been stolen from him by the US authorities responsible for detaining him, and by the Canadian government, which has refused to demand his return.
I don’t want you to reflect, however, particularly on the abuse to which he has been subjected throughout his detention, or on the US government’s shameful refusal to rehabilitate him, rather than punishing him, as required by its obligations under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which includes the agreement that all States Parties who ratify the Protocol “[r]ecogniz[e] the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and are “[c]onvinced of the need [for] the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”
I don’t want you to reflect particularly on the Canadian government’s shameful refusal to demand his return to his homeland, despite severe criticism by the Canadian courts, or on the Obama administration’s shameful refusal to cancel his scheduled trial by Military Commission, on war crimes charges that — even if the allegations are true — are not war crimes at all, as Lt. Col. David Frakt, the military defense attorney for another former child at Guantánamo, Mohamed Jawad (who was released last August), has explained.
Instead, I want you to think only about Omar, and to reflect on how, although he now looks like a man, he has in fact been thoroughly deprived of the formative experiences that shape a young man — of the opportunities to learn, to experience life, to forge new friendships with those of his age.
On Saturday, I attended “Eid Without Aafia,” an event to raise awareness for the plight of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist facing a life sentence in the United States next week, after a trial that failed to address claims that she was held and abused in US custody for over five years as a CIA “ghost prisoner.” As part of the event, I was honored to be asked to conduct a discussion about Guantánamo, and conditions for prisoners held in the “War on Terror,” with former Guantánamo prisoners Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed.
While we were discussing the treatment of children in US custody — with reference to two of Aafia Siddiqui’s children (who also disappeared without explanation for up to seven years) — Ruhal and Shafiq spoke about Omar, whom they knew from Guantánamo, and both men pointed out how disturbing it was that he was held, how disturbing his wounds were, and how, although he was growing up physically while they knew him, he remained a child, and his life — and the lives of the other 21 juveniles held at Guantánamothroughout its history — had been stolen from him far more severely than was the case with other prisoners.
No country that dares to call itself civilized should tolerate holding anyone as a prisoner in an experimental prison whose rationale — as formulated by the Bush administration — was to establish a policy of indefinite detention, and to facilitate coercive interrogations outside the scrutiny of the US courts. To do this to a child is unconscionable, and the very least the Obama administration, and the government of Stephen Harper, should do before Omar’s trial by Military Commission resumes on October 18, is to arrange for him to be returned to Canada, to begin filling in the blanks in those eight long and lost years of his life.
— Andy Worthington is a journalist, the author of “The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison,” and the co-director of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo.” A version of this article first appeared on Cageprisoners.