According to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict), to which the United States has been a signatory since January 23, 2003, juvenile prisoners — those under the age of 18 when their alleged crimes took place — “require special protection.” 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.”
In January 2003, four doctors in Guantánamo put together a fascinating document, entitled “Recommended Course of Action for Reception and Detention of Individuals Under 18 Years of Age” (PDF). This was clearly influenced by international agreements regarding the distinctions between adult and juvenile prisoners (including the Geneva Conventions, which were, in general, shredded by the administration), and it laid out, in painstaking detail, how juvenile prisoners held at Guantánamo should be treated.
Noting, in the first instance, that “all efforts should be made” to prevent juveniles from being imprisoned at Guantánamo, the doctors proceeded to explain that the exposure of juvenile prisoners to adult prisoners would “have a high likelihood of producing physical, emotional, and psychological damage,” and recommended that they be held separately from the adult population, with “a primary living space with a minimum space of 20ft by 30ft,” and an “open, outside recreation area,” measuring at least 50ft by 50ft, in which they “should be allowed to play” for at least three hours a day.”
The doctors also recommended that juvenile prisoners should be educated for four to six hours a day, and listed a large number of staff — interpreters, social workers, medical and psychiatric professionals, and a nutritionist — who should be assigned or on call to provide assistance to the prisoners. They concluded by stating that all personnel “should refrain from wearing military uniforms and utilize appropriate civilian attire.”
Although the doctors assumed that their “Recommended Course of Action” would become a “SecDef directive” (a directive from Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense), all of their recommendations were ignored. The reality for the juveniles held at Guantánamo (twenty-two in total, according to the Pentagon’s own records) was detention in conditions akin to solitary confinement, in cells that measured 8 ft by 6 ft, little opportunity for exercise, and no educational facilities whatsoever. In addition, adult prisoners were held as their neighbors, no staff were provided with expertise in the requirements of juveniles, and their dealings with the prison’s personnel were always with people in military uniform.
As far as the administration was concerned, the age of the Guantánamo prisoners was completely irrelevant, and the premise for this was confirmed by Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference in May 2003, after the story first broke that juveniles were being held at Guantánamo. Rumsfeld stated, “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.”
Omar KhadrBehind this gleefully dismissive rhetoric, the truth was even darker. Guantánamo’s most celebrated juvenile, Omar Khadr, was severely wounded after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, when he was just 15 years old, but on arrival at the US prison at Bagram airbase, he was subjected to chronic abuse. According to his own account, reported by Amnesty International, he “asked for pain medication for his wounds but was refused,” said that “during interrogations a bag was placed over his head and US personnel brought military dogs into the room to frighten him,” and added that he was “not allowed to use the bathroom and was forced to urinate on himself.” Like many other prisoners, he was also hung from his wrists, and explained that “his hands were tied above a door frame and he was forced to stand in this position for hours.” An article in Rolling Stone, in August 2006, added further details, noting that he was “brought into interrogation rooms on stretchers, in great pain,” and was “ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet.”
In Guantánamo, the abuse of Khadr continued. On his arrival, in October 2002, just a few weeks after his 16th birthday, he was immediately subjected to a regime of humiliation, isolation and abuse — including extreme temperature manipulation, forced nudity and sexual humiliation — which had just been introduced in an attempt to increase the meager flow of “actionable intelligence” from the prison. He told his lawyers that he was “short-shackled by his hands and feet to a bolt in the floor and left for five to six hours,” and that “occasionally a US officer would enter the room to laugh at him.” He also said that he was “kept in extremely cold rooms,” “lifted up by the neck while shackled, and then dropped to the floor,” and “beaten by guards.” In one particularly notorious incident, the guards left him short-shackled until he urinated on himself, and then “poured a pine-scented cleaning fluid over him and used him as a ‘human mop’ to clean up the mess.”
Mohammed El-GharaniOmar Khadr was not the only juvenile to receive brutal treatment in US custody. Mohammed El-Gharani, a Chadian national and resident of Saudi Arabia, who was just 14 or 15 years old when he traveled to Pakistan in October 2001 and was seized in a random raid on a mosque, has also been subjected to a regime of “enhanced” techniques to prepare him for interrogation — including prolonged sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation and the use of painful stress positions — and has also been regularly abused by the Initial Reaction Force (IRF), a heavily-armored riot squad used to quell even the most minor infringements of the rules. On one occasion, an IRF team slammed his head into the floor of his cell, breaking one of his teeth, and on another occasion an interrogator stubbed out a cigarette on his arm. As a result of this violence he has become deeply depressed, and has attempted to commit suicide on several occasions.
Another juvenile, Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan who was 16 when he was seized after a grenade attack on a US jeep in December 2002, was also subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, under the program known euphemistically as the “frequent flier program,” which involved moving prisoners from cell to cell every few hours to prevent them sleeping. In Jawad’s case, this took place 112 times over a two-week period in 2004.
To make matters worse, both Khadr and Jawad have been put forward for trial by Military Commission, the system of trials for “terror suspects” conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001, even though, as Khadr’s lawyers pointed out in February, if jurisdiction is exercised over Mr. Khadr, the military judge will be the first in western history to preside over the trial of alleged war crimes committed by a child. No international criminal tribunal established under the laws of war, from Nuremberg forward, has ever prosecuted former child soldiers as war criminals … A critical component of the response of our nation and the world to the tragedy of the use and abuse of child solders in war by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda is that post-conflict legal proceedings must pursue the best interest of the victimized child — with the aim of their rehabilitation and reintegration into society, not their imprisonment or execution.
The examples above will hopefully suffice to demonstrate that, in the “War on Terror,” in which a rogue administration, devoted to unfettered executive power, has refused to be bound by the law, those seized and detained as juveniles were doubly unfortunate. After the scandal of the juvenile prisoners was revealed in 2003, the administration made a small concession to its international obligations (and to common decency) by holding three Afghan boys, who were aged between 12 and 14 at the time of their capture, in a separate block, Camp Iguana, where they received treatment that at least approached the requirements laid down by Guantánamo’s scorned doctors.
However, this was only until they were released in January 2004, and for the other 19 juveniles, including five who are still held, the administration’s disdain for the Optional Protocol, with its requirement to rehabilitate children caught up in war, has remained as pronounced as ever. It is one of many crimes that Barack Obama should address as urgently as possible.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press/the University of Michigan Press, and available from Amazon — in the US, the UK and Canada).
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As published exclusively in “Preventing Torture within the Fight against Terrorism,” Volume 2, Issue 6, November 2008, a bi-monthly newsletter published by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), based in Copenhagen, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), based in Paris. The newsletter is available to download here. For further information, please email Brandy Bauer, IRCT Senior Communications Officer.