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Allegations of Torture of Two Teen Detainees at Guantánamo

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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August 14, 2008

(Originally posted on DailyKos.)

Two hearings on Wednesday concerned the cases of two of the youngest prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad, who were both teenagers when they were captured by U.S. forces.

On Wednesday, pre-trial hearings resumed in the case of Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was shot in the back and captured by the U.S. A legal advisor to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs who is permitted one-on-one “welfare visits” with him tells me Khadr, who is now 21, is laboring through the Ontario seventh- and eighth-grade school curriculum she brings him.

Khadr’s defense attorneys put the issue of Khadr’s age at the time of his capture front-and-center. His lawyers argued that because he was only 15 when U.S. imprisonment and interrogations commenced, Khadr requires a full clinical evaluation by independent—not military—experts on juvenile psychology who can assess the reliability of statements extracted from him and the psychological impact of abusive interrogations and coercive conditions of confinement on a teenager.

Khadr’s defense attorney, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler, said that there are significant segments of Khadr’s time at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan that Khadr won’t discuss with his attorneys, who believe he may be suffering psychological trauma from mistreatment at the hands of U.S. interrogators there. They hope that a trained clinical psychologist will be able to assess whether Khadr’s mental state is consistent with his allegations of torture at Bagram.

Khadr’s allegations? We don’t know much about them, since the government has classified a nine-page affidavit in which Khadr describes his mistreatment in Afghanistan. We do know that Khadr has claimed that he was repeatedly interrogated while he was in excruciating pain, hooded and menaced by barking dogs, and threatened with rape.

Although prosecutor Maj. Jeffrey Groharing urged the commission to “give very little weight to an accused terrorist’s claims of abuse” and noted that Khadr’s claims were investigated and unsubstantiated, recent revelations suggest that the investigation of Khadr’s allegations of mistreatment at Bagram prison was patently inadequate. The military intelligence unit involved in interrogations of Khadr at Bagram prison was the same unit implicated in the deaths of two detainees at that prison, and U.S. investigators later recommended that 27 members of that unit be criminally prosecuted. And yet still the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) found it appropriate to find Khadr’s claims of mistreatment unsubstantiated.

All this begs the question of what continued effects of mistreatment Khadr could possibly exhibit after the fact. Video footage of then-17-year-old Khadr’s interrogation by Canada’s Air Force Office of Special Investigations released a month ago provides the first glimpse of an interrogation at Guantánamo Bay. The video, along with an interrogation report (PDF) written a year after the footage was taken, raise concerns not only about the teenager’s mental state at the time of both interrogations, but about the conduct of the interrogators as well.

Also on Wednesday was the military commission hearing of Afghan national Mohammed Jawad, whose case brought new revelations about the “Frequent Flyer” sleep deprivation program, a program we recently learned was used by the Chinese on American soldiers during the Korean War. Jawad, who was 16 or 17 years old at the time of his capture, is not accused of any links to al Qaeda or the Taliban.

As recently as a week ago, reports suggested that at least 17 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have been subjected to the program. But Maj. Jason Orlich, a creator of Guantánamo Bay’s “incentives” program that uses long-term sleep deprivation as a punishment for those who misbehave or fail to cooperate, testified that nearly all of the 350 to 400 prisoners held in two Guantánamo Bay prison camps were subject to the program, which entails waking the prisoners, shackling them, and moving them to a different cell along with all their belongings. Maj. Orlich was reluctant to specify the frequency of the moves, but testified that three-hour intervals “would not be abnormal.”

Maj. Orlich also revealed that the Frequent Flyer Program was Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), although it did not appear in writing in the SOPs of that time—begging the question of what other detainee treatment policies were omitted from the written records. According to Maj. Orlich, Guantánamo Bay leadership was aware that the Frequent Flyer Program was in use, and the program was a routine included in what the military calls its “daily synchronization matrix.” Maj. Orlich also said that the Frequent Flyer Program was ongoing at the time of his departure from Guantánamo Bay in April 2005, and he had never heard of any order to stop the program. This is despite previous government claims that the program had been discontinued in March 2004.

The fact the program continued at Guantánamo Bay even after it was officially banned isn’t exactly news: On July 10, Jawad’s lawyers announced that prison logs reveal that the Frequent Flyer program was used on Jawad after it was “officially” banned at Guantánamo Bay. According to Jawad’s lawyers, in 2004 the military subjected Jawad to two weeks of sleep deprivation in which Jawad was moved 112 times in 14 days. The Frequent Flyer program was used on Jawad only months after his Christmas Day suicide attempt in 2003.

(Around the same time in July 2004, Canada disclosed a document (PDF) in which Canada’s foreign intelligence director confirms that a similar Frequent Flyer Program was used on Omar Khadr for three weeks to “soften” him for interrogations by Canadian agents in March 2004—when he was 17. Notably, the Canadian judge found that this treatment of Khadr constituted torture.)

When asked Wednesday whether he thought it was humane to move prisoners every three hours, eight times a day, 112 times in two weeks, Maj. Orlich replied, after a lengthy pause, that yes, he believed it was humane.

I wonder what Maj. Orlich was thinking during that pause.

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