(Toronto) – The government of Canada should rehabilitate and reintegrate into society former child soldier Omar Khadr, and seek to remedy abuses he suffered during a decade in United States custody, Human Rights Watch said today.
Khadr, who is now 26, was 15 years old in July 2002 when he was captured by US forces after a firefight in Afghanistan in which he was seriously wounded. While detained at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he was allegedly forced into painful stress positions, threatened with rape, hooded, and confronted with barking dogs. US government witnesses confirmed some of this treatment during pretrial hearings, testifying that Khadr was interrogated while strapped down on a stretcher just 12 hours after sustaining his life-threatening injuries and threatened with rape if he did not cooperate.
“Omar Khadr’s repatriation provides an opportunity for Canada to begin to right a wrong,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “International law provides him the right as a former child soldier to be reintegrated into society.”
Khadr was transferred to Guantanamo in October 2002, where the abuse that began in Afghanistan continued, including with Canadian participation, Human Rights Watch said. He told his lawyers that he was shackled in painful positions, threatened with rendition to Egypt, Syria, and Jordan for torture, and used as a “human mop”after he urinated on the floor during one interrogation session. He was deprived of all access to legal counsel until November 2004, more than two years after he was first detained.
In October 2010, Khadr pleaded guilty to a series of charges, including “murder in violation of the laws of war,” in a military commission trial at Guantanamo for his role in a firefight with US forces during which US Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer was killed and Khadr suffered two bullet wounds to the chest. Khadr was sentenced to eight years in prison. In diplomatic notes appended to his plea agreement, the US acknowledged that Khadr could apply for transfer to Canada under a bilateral treaty, and Canada agreed to favorably consider his application for transfer after he served one year of his sentence. Khadr has already served 22 months of his sentence prior to his transfer to Canadian custody.
In 2010, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the participation of Canadian officials in Khadr’s interrogations at Guantanamo were a violation of Khadr’s human rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and “basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth.”
“Now that Khadr is back in his own country, Canada should assist in his rehabilitation,” Prasow said. “But Canada should also do all it can to hold accountable those who are responsible for his abuse.”
The US military commission system in which Khadr and other Guantanamo detainees have been prosecuted is fundamentally flawed, Human Rights Watch said. The military commissions assert jurisdiction over conduct not previously considered to be war crimes, lack independence, and allow for the use of evidence obtained by coercion from third parties. Military commission judges and lawyers have no special training in dealing with child offenders.
Throughout Khadr’s detention, the US failed to afford him the protections provided to children under international law. Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which Canada ratified in 2000 and the USratified in 2002, countries are obligated to recognize the special situation of children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict.
The Optional Protocol requires the rehabilitation of former child soldiers within a country’s jurisdiction, mandating that a state provide “all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.” Khadr is now within Canada’s jurisdiction, obligating Canada to provide assistance to him.
Even absent any action by Canada to fulfill its obligations under the Optional Protocol, Khadr will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, or 32 months, meaning he could be released as early as June 2013.
“Canada violated international law and its own Charter when it failed to protect its citizen detained in Guantanamo,” Prasow said. “Khadr should be released as soon as the law allows and provided with all assistance necessary that will help his reintegration.”