Yesterday, I witnessed history being made here in Guantánamo, as jury selection began today in the first war crimes prosecution of a child soldier since World War II, and the first ever in U.S. history.
Accused of throwing a grenade that killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer and participating in a terrorist conspiracy beginning when he was only 10 years old, Khadr literally has grown up at Guantánamo. Now 23, the full beard Khadr has grown since his imprisonment in 2002 obscures the fact that he was only 15 at the time he was shot and captured by U.S. forces.
Khadr has now spent a third of his life at Guantánamo, and after five years in the discredited military commissions, his trial began today. Khadr faces charges of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, providing material support to terrorism, and spying. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
Khadr’s is the first trial in the illegitimate military commissions under President Obama. The trial of an alleged child soldier who was abused in U.S. detention is a terrible case for the administration to open with, and yet here we are, in the middle of jury selection.
Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Khadr is the only one of the 176 remaining detainees who was a juvenile when transferred here. A Canadian, he’s also the only Westerner remaining at Gitmo. Khadr’s case is also unique because it will be the first prosecution in history for murder in violation of the laws of war (murder isn’t a recognized war crime; like the charges of spying and material suppport for terrorism that Khadr also faces, the charge was fashioned out of whole cloth for the purposes of the military commissions).
Omar Khadr’s trial flies in the face of international law and policy that recognizes child soldiers as victims and candidates for rehabilitation. The U.N. Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict said in a statement today that Khadr’s trial sets a dangerous precedent that could endanger child soldiers around the world. She also said “juvenile justice standards are clear—children should not be tried before military tribunals.”
Since World War II, there hasn’t been a war crimes prosecution of a child soldier—until today. And that’s not because children don’t commit war crimes. Children committed some of the most heinous abuses of the Sierra Leonean civil war in the 90’s, including murder, rape, and amputation of limbs. But the U.N. war court convened to prosecute those responsible for wartime atrocities chose not to prosecute anyone under 18 at the time of their crimes, and instead entered these child soldiers in rehabilitatation programs and used them as witnesses in the war crimes trials against the adults who recruited or used them during the war.
The former chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leonean war court, former Defense Department official David Crane, has said that Khadr’s trial is “morally and legally wrong.” Author Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone who, like Khadr, was captured when he was 15, has also criticized Khadr’s prosecution. Beah admits that during the civil war he killed “too many people to count,” but since a stint in a rehabilitation center he has written a best-selling memoir, graduated from Oberlin, and served as a UNICEF ambassador. Beah has said he struggles to understand the dramatic difference between the compassion shown him and the lack of compassion shown Khadr.