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The Monster of Bagram

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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May 7, 2010

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

On Wednesday pretrial hearings continued in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr. Captured at age 15 in Afghanistan and now held for fully a third of his life in U.S. detention, Khadr is currently scheduled for trial by military commission in July. Unless a plea bargain is reached, Khadr’s case will be the first prosecution in U.S. history of a person for war crimes allegedly committed as a child.

Wednesday’s hearing included dramatic testimony from a notorious interrogator who befriended Omar Khadr during Khadr’s three months of detention at Bagram. The former Army interrogator, Damien Corsetti, was known to Bagram detainees as “The Monster,” but was acquitted of charges of detainee abuse in a 2006 court-martial and honorably discharged from the army. Corsetti told the Toronto Star in January 2009 of his desire to testify as a witness for the defense about his knowledge of abuse at Bagram, “I firmly believe it was torture and unfortunately I took part in it,” adding “I guess this is just me trying to make it a little bit right.”

Corsetti told the court Wednesday that he wasn’t Khadr’s interrogator, but was present for an intelligence interview conducted two days after Khadr’s capture, while the 15-year-old Khadr was gravely injured and flat on a stretcher in Bagram’s Army field hospital. Frightened, Khadr was hooked up to heart rate or respiration monitors that jumped during questioning, according to Corsetti.

Corsetti said that once Khadr was transferred from the Bagram hospital to the detention facility two weeks later, he felt compassion for Khadr and chatted with him about cars and video games. Corsetti explained:

He was a child. That’s it. He was a 15-year-old child who had been blown up, shot, grenaded, and he was in probably one of the worst places on earth. How could you not have compassion for him? He was in the wrong place for a 15-year-old child to be.

He observed that Khadr “went from a smiling young kid to a look of defeat by the time he left” for transfer to Guantánamo.

During Corsetti’s testimony, the government military prosecutor, U.S. Marine Maj. Jeff Groharing, made frequent, strenuous objections whenever the defense asked Corsetti about abuse practices at Bagram while Khadr was detained there. In the few instances when the judge overruled the government prosecutor’s objections, Corsetti testified about the rampant abuse that was approved for use by interrogators. Corsetti described approved interrogation techniques at Bagram, which included screaming, breaking furniture, shackling detainees in stress positions for hours, and threatening to send detainees to interrogation in Israel or Egypt. He also said that during the period of Khadr’s detention at Bagram in 2002, interrogators were under tremendous pressure from the Secretary of Defense’s office and other commanders to extract information from detainees. He said, “There was a ton of pressure on us to get information to save lives and generate reports… If there came a time when we were stagnant and not generating 20, 30 reports a week, we would get a call asking what was going on.”

Corsetti’s was dramatic testimony, but the judge, Col. Patrick Parrish, frequently sustained the government prosecutor’s objections, and shut down lines of inquiry about standard operating procedures for interrogators or abuse at Bagram that Corsetti didn’t specifically see being used on Khadr.

The question of torture is at the center of these proceedings, but.even with the revelations of the past three days about Khadr’s abuse at Bagram, there may have been a lot left unsaid by witnesses. Throughout the hearings of the past week, with few exceptions, the judge refused to allow witnesses to testify about patterns and practices of abuse of other detainees at Bagram — even by Khadr’s own interrogators. So although some witnesses who testified at the proceedings had participated in interrogations at Bagram while Khadr was imprisoned there and would have knowledge about abuse during interrogations at that time, defense lawyers generally couldn’t ask about it.

This is extremely problematic, because Khadr’s lawyers have faced obstacles to interviewing and compelling testimony from all of Khadr’s interrogators at Bagram and Guantánamo. Khadr’s lawyers argue that self-incriminating statements he made to interrogators at Bagram and Guantánamo are false confessions and should be excluded from trial because they are tainted by torture and other abuse. To prove this, they need evidence that corroborates their client’s allegations of abuse.

But Khadr’s lawyers say they still don’t have the names and details of some of Khadr’s interrogators six years after Khadr was first charged under the first military commission system. And only seven of the at least 31 interrogators who conducted over 100 hours of interrogation of Khadr at Bagram and Guantánamo will testify in these proceedings. Defense lawyers have argued the military judge should compel some of the remaining interrogators to testify, but the judge has extremely limited ability to punish nonmilitary witnesses for refusing to appear, so we may never hear from some of Khadr’s interrogators. This makes it all the more important that Khadr’s lawyers be given the opportunity to ask those interrogators who do testify about general interrogation patterns and practices at Bagram at the time.

It is chilling to watch government prosecutors argue that Khadr’s coerced statements — and subsequent statements tainted by prior abuse — should be used against him at trial. We believe this is why the military commissions were revived to prosecute cases like Khadr’s. It is time for the Obama administration to recognize the folly of prosecuting an abused child soldier before the discredited military commissions.

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