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Despite U.N. Objections, U.S. Continues to Detain Children at Guantánamo

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July 22, 2008

On Saturday, the UK’s Guardian published an article by Cory Crider , an attorney for the UK-based nonprofit Reprieve , in which Crider reasserts that the United States is holding as many as 21 inmates who were under the age of 18 when they arrived at Guantánamo—not eight, as the U.S. previously reported to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in May.

In Soldiers of Misfortune , a recently released U.S. report about child soldiers, the ACLU reported that as many as 23 detainees were under 18 when they arrived at Guantánamo between 2002 and 2004, based on documents released by the government under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Associated Press.

There’s a big difference between eight and 23.

But the U.S. government has shown little interest in setting the record straight. Some news reports estimate as many as 60 detainees were under the age of 18 when they arrived at Guantánamo. The birthdates of 20 are listed as “unknown.” While the U.S. government claims that it can’t verify the ages of prisoners who claimed to be children when imprisoned at Guantánamo, the Department of Defense’s pleading of ignorance is no excuse for reflexively treating all the prisoners as adults.

The most famous of these young detainees is Canadian Omar Khadr, who was 16 when he was captured. On his charge sheet (PDF), he’s accused of associating with Al-Qaeda when he was 10 years old. When he was 16, he was shot in the back twice by U.S. forces after a firefight in Afghanistan. Evidence that was accidentally released during a hearing in February, plus a videotape released in April, both suggest that Khadr may well be innocent of some of the most serious charges brought against him. Right now the government is attempting to prevent Khadr’s attorneys from seeing even more evidence that may prove his innocence.

In April, a military judge denied Khadr’s motion to dismiss his case on the grounds that Khadr should be treated as a child under the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child —which the United States ratified in 2002. The judge’s reasoning? He’s an adult now.

Khadr was held by U.S. forces for two years before he even saw a lawyer, which suggests that the U.S. government was waiting for him to “age out” of juvenile status to charge him. While he waited to be old enough to be unlawfully tried, his attorney reports that he was tortured repeatedly.

In the CRC’s concluding observations (PDF) on the U.S.’s compliance with the Optional Protocol, the U.N. suggested that the U.S. detain children “as a measure of last resort,” and “if in doubt regarding age, young persons should be presumed to be children.”

The U.S. has so far done neither.

The other teen mentioned in Crider’s article is Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, who was 17 when he was captured and sent to Gitmo. He committed suicide in June 2006. The ACLU sued the Pentagon in April, asking a court to order the release of any and all documents relating to deaths at Guantánamo. The lawsuit followed a FOIA request filed in 2006, to which the Pentagon was unresponsive.

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