Accused's Age Is Focus at Guantanamo Tribunal
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now war crimes tribunals resumed today at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. There will be preliminary hearings for two prisoners. And one case involves a young Canadian citizen. His name is Omar Khadr.
NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam is at Guantanamo, and she profiles Khadr's case.
JACKIE NORTHAM: In July 2002, U.S. soldiers attacked a suspected al-Qaida base near Khost in Afghanistan. There was a protracted battle. Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the U.S. Military Trials or Commissions, says when it was over, American forces moved slowly into the compound to check the situation.
Colonel MORRIS DAVIS (Chief Prosecutor, U.S. Department of Defense Office of Military Commissions): A hand grenade come over a wall, and that was where one of our members was injured there. He died a couple of days later in a hospital.
NORTHAM: The military alleges that Omar Khadr threw the hand grenade that killed Army Medic Christopher Speer. Khadr was captured and taken to Bagram Air Force Base. He was just 15 years old. Muneer Ahmad, a civilian lawyer who has been working Khadr's case for several years, says Khadr was held in Afghanistan until he turned 16.
Mr. MUNEER AHMAD (Omar Khadr's Lawyer): Right after his 16th birthday, they transferred him to Guantanamo where they treated him as an adult ever since. He has never been given any age-appropriate treatment whatsoever. So far as we can tell, the only acknowledgment that was made of his age was in the context of interrogations, where they used his age and vulnerability against him.
NORTHAM: Khadr is now 20 years old. At his arraignment today here at Guantanamo Bay, he will be charged with murder and attempted murder, among other things. What will most likely be a focal point of Khadr's trial, certainly for the defense, is his age at the time he allegedly carried out the offenses.
Khadr's lawyers say he should be treated as a child soldier, not an adult. Peter W. Singer - a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book, "Children at War" - says there are several international conventions and treaties defining a child soldier.
Dr. PETER W. SINGER (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Author, "Children at War"): Under international law, anyone who's under the age of 18 who is a combatant - basically someone who is fighting in a war - they are a child soldier.
NORTHAM: The U.S. government says that Khadr was first introduced to al-Qaida when he was about 10 years old. That's when his father, Ahmed Khadr, moved the family from Canada to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. The father was an associate of Osama bin Laden. The U.S. military says the son, Omar, attended al-Qaida training camps, where he learned at a young age how to set landmines and spy on U.S. troops.
Jo Becker, children rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, says there's international consensus that children haven't yet developed good judgment or impulse control and are vulnerable to peer pressure and other influences. Becker says no existing international tribunal has ever tried a former child soldier for war crimes.
Ms. JO BECKER (Advocacy Director, Children's Rights Division, Human Rights Watch): The special court for Sierra Leone does have the authority to try children as young as 15, but it's chosen not to do so. And, in fact, all of the defendants that are currently before the court have been charged with the recruitment and use of child soldiers - not the children who might have participated and committed war crimes.
NORTHAM: Becker says, technically, the Guantanamo military commission is not an international tribunal. It's a U.S. court. Still, Becker says, there's little precedent for trying former child soldiers for war crimes in national courts.
Ms. BECKER: The ones that we're aware of are in East Timor, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
NORTHAM: Colonel Davis, the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, denies that the U.S. military is blazing new trails in American law by trying Khadr or any other Guantanamo detainee facing prosecution for war crimes.
Col. DAVIS: First off, I would disagree of using the term soldiers to describe terrorists. These were not members of a armed force of a nation. These were a group of zealots that joined up with a terrorist organization to use terror as a tactic.
NORTHAM: Davis says the U.S. has given a nod to Khadr's age by recommending that he not be subjected to the death penalty or life without parole. Davis says the U.S. recognizes Khadr's questionable upbringing.
Col. DAVIS: But that doesn't excuse him for the decisions that he made, and he should be held accountable the same way we hold 15 year olds accountable here when they choose to commit murder.
NORTHAM: The Brookings Institution's Singer says Khadr's case may helped to clarify how the U.S. plans to treat juveniles on the battlefield.
Dr. SINGER: Because it is a certainty that we will continue to pick up children in the course of our military operations. It's an unfortunate truth. There are more than 300,000 child soldiers fighting out there in the world today, and they're present in every single place that U.S. forces have deployed since 9/11.
NORTHAM: Singer says the U.S. has picked up and released combatants as young as 12 years old in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
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