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Taxi to the Dark Side

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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May 5, 2010

Hearings continued Monday and Tuesday in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, the last Western national still being held at Guantánamo. Now 23, Khadr was 15 when he was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. medic. Unless a plea bargain is reached, Khadr will be the first person prosecuted in a military commission under President Obama.

We have long known, since the creation of the military commissions, that the question of torture is at the heart of these proceedings. Since Omar Khadr first announced he had been abused while detained at Bagram and Guantánamo, we’ve faced the shameful possibility that he could be convicted using confessions extracted through torture and abuse. This week the commission is examining whether self-incriminating statements Khadr made to interrogators should be excluded from trial because of torture and other abuse.

In an affidavit, Khadr has described how he was denied pain medication for his injuries, hooded, menaced by barking dogs, used as a “human mop” after he was forced to urinate on himself, and threatened with rape. Monday and Tuesday we heard testimony independently corroborating Khadr’s claims of abuse at Bagram air base in Afghanistan — and this came from witnesses for the prosecution, with the first defense witnesses scheduled to testify Wednesday.

An Army medic at Bagram, identified only as “Mr. M,” revealed Monday that he saw Khadr hooded in a 5-by-5-foot cage, with his handcuffed arms chained forehead-high to a metal grate — a punishment the medic called a “common practice” at Bagram. When he had the guard lift the hood covering Khadr’s head, he found Khadr was crying and appeared “scared and frustrated.” At the time, Khadr was 16 years old and still recovering from two gunshot wounds in his shoulder and back.

Khadr’s lawyer Barry Coburn told reporters this was “the most substantial” independent corroboration of Khadr’s claims of abuse. Coburn said, “I think it’s quite interesting, really, to see that a witness — not a witness that we called, but a witness the government called — has so directly and substantially corroborated an allegation of what I regard as egregious, inexcusable, and repulsive abusive treatment.”

On Tuesday, an Army Master Sergeant identified only as “Interrogator 2” revealed that the 15-year-old was gravely wounded, sedated and on a stretcher when he was first interrogated at Bagram. The interrogation took place on the day Khadr was moved to the detention facility from the base’s field hospital, where he underwent four surgeries in the two weeks after his capture.

According to Interrogator 2, Khadr’s first interrogation at Bagram was conducted by a military interrogator identified only as “Interrogator 1,” who was later court-martialed for detainee abuse at Bagram. Canadian press reports identify the interrogator as Army Sgt. Joshua Claus. Khadr’s previous defense lawyer has suggested that Claus was Khadr’s principal interrogator at Bagram.

Claus was convicted for his role in the death of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar who died in custody while in Bagram in 2002. Claus was one of his final interrogators. Coroners found that Dilawar’s legs had “basically been pulpified,” and the injuries were comparable to being run over by a bus. Claus pleaded guilty in 2005 to maltreatment and assault, and was sentenced to five months in prison. He admitted to forcing water down Dilawar’s throat and twisting a hood over his head. Dilawar’s death was the subject of the Oscar-winning film Taxi to the Dark Side. The ACLU obtained Dilawar’s autopsy report (PDF) through the Freedom of Information Act.

The military intelligence unit involved in Khadr’s interrogations at Bagram — Claus’s unit — was the same unit implicated in the deaths of two detainees at that prison. U.S. investigators later recommended that 27 members of that unit be criminally prosecuted.

Given the revelations of the past two days, it is more apparent than ever that the Obama administration must reverse course and repatriate Omar Khadr to Canada, instead of pursuing the misguided prosecution of a tortured child in a discredited and second-class system of justice.

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