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The Torture of Omar Khadr, a Child in Bagram and Guantánamo

Andy Worthington

May 13, 2010

Are we so inured to the implementation of torture by the Bush administration that we no longer recognize what torture is? Torture, according to the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, is "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person."

Under President Bush, however, John Yoo, an ideological puppet in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is supposed to objectively interpret the law as it applies to the executive branch, purported to redefine torture, in two memos that have become known as the "torture memos," as the infliction of physical pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death," or the infliction of mental pain which "result[s] in significant psychological harm of significant duration e.g. lasting for months or even years."

I ask this question about torture — and our attitude to it — because of what took place last week, in pre-trial hearings at Guantánamo preceding the trial by Military Commission of the Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002. A number of witnesses revealed details of Khadr’s mistreatment, in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, which hinted at his inclusion in an abusive program that, before the 9/11 attacks, before Yoo’s memos and before a general coarsening of attitudes towards abuse and the mistreatment of prisoners, would have led to calls for that mistreatment to be thoroughly investigated, and, very possibly, for it to be regarded as torture or as cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

In Khadr’s case, these questions should not even need raising, for a number of other compelling reasons. The first concerns his age. Under the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which the US is also a signatory, juveniles — defined as those under the age of 18 when the crime they are accused of committing took place — "require special protection." The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes "the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities," and requires its signatories to promote "the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict."

Instead, however, the US government is attempting, for the third time, to prosecute Khadr for war crimes in a special trial system for foreign terror suspects — the Military Commissions — which were first ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2006, were then revived by Congress but abandoned by President Obama on his first day in office (after they had succeeded in delivering just three dubious results), and were then revived again by President Obama, with the support of Congress, last summer.

Compounding the dark absurdity of Khadr’s proposed trial is an uncomfortable truth that has been particularly noted by Lt. Col. David Frakt, a former military defense attorney for the Commissions, who has regularly pointed out that the Military Commissions are fundamentally flawed because they contain "law of war offenses" invented by Congress, including "Providing Material Support to Terrorism" and "Murder in Violation of the Law of War." Lt. Col. Frakt has recently expressed even graver concerns about how the new Military Commissions Act includes a passage which claims that "a detainee may be convicted of murder in violation of the law of war even if they did not actually violate the law of war."

As I also explained in an article last week, "critics of Khadr’s trial have, from the beginning, recognized that there is something horribly skewed about redefining the internationally accepted laws of war so that one side in an armed conflict — the US — can kill whoever it wants with impunity, whereas its opponents are viewed as terrorists, or, when brought to trial, as those who have committed 'Murder in Violation of the Law of War.’"

Nevertheless, as the Obama administration has decided to press ahead with Khadr’s trial, pre-trial hearings were held over the last two weeks in an attempt to address concerns raised by Khadr’s defense team. These largely skirted the issues discussed in the paragraphs above, but focused unerringly on Khadr’s alleged mistreatment, through a "Motion to Suppress Statements Procured Using Torture, Coercion and Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment" (PDF), in which his lawyers argued that any self-incriminating statements that Khadr may have made should be ruled out because of the manner in which they were extracted.

The torture of Omar Khadr

Over the years, and in an affidavit submitted in February 2008 (PDF), Khadr has described his mistreatment in detail, explaining how he was unconscious for a week after his capture, when he was severely wounded, and how, in Bagram, where he was taken after just two weeks in a hospital, his interrogations began immediately, at the hands of an interrogator who manipulated his injuries (the exact details were redacted from his affidavit). Crucially, he also explained how, as soon as he regained consciousness, "the first soldier told me that I had killed an American with a grenade," and how, during his first interrogation at Bagram, "I figured out right away that I would simply tell them whatever I thought they wanted to hear in order to keep them from causing me [redacted]."

There is much more in the affidavit — casual cruelty, whereby guards made Khadr do hard manual labor when his wounds were not healed, and, significantly, threats "to have me raped, or sent to other countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan or Israel to be raped." He also noted, "I would always hear people screaming, both day and night," and explained that other prisoners were scared of his interrogator. "Most people would not talk about what had been done to them," he declared. "This made me afraid."

Khadr also described what happened to him in Guantánamo, where, as I explained last week, he "arrived around the time that a regime of humiliation, isolation and abuse, including extreme temperature manipulation, forced nudity and sexual humiliation, had just been introduced, by reverse-engineering torture techniques, used in a military program designed to train US personnel to resist interrogation if captured, in an attempt to increase the meager flow of 'actionable intelligence’ from the prison."

At various points in 2003, while the use of these techniques was still widespread, Khadr stated that he was short-shackled in painful positions and left for up to ten hours in a freezing cold cell, threatened with rape and with being transferred to another country where he could be raped, and, on one particular occasion, when he had been left short-shackled in a painful position until he urinated on himself:

Military police poured pine oil on the floor and on me, and then, with me lying on my stomach and my hands and feet cuffed together behind me, the military police dragged me back and forth through the mixture of urine and pine oil on the floor. Later, I was put back in my cell, without being allowed a shower or a change of clothes. I was not given a change of clothes for two days. They did this to me again a few weeks later.

Crucially, when describing the interrogations that punctuated these experiences at Guantánamo, Khadr explained, "I did not want to expose myself to any more harm, so I always just told interrogators what I thought they wanted to hear. Having been asked the same questions so many times, I knew what answers made interrogators happy and would always tailor my answers based on what I thought would keep me from being harmed."

Until two weeks ago, these claims — though well-known to those who have followed Khadr’s case — had, for the most part, not been aired in a courtroom. In response to the defense motion, however, the government attempted to refute Khadr’s claims, calling a female interrogator who stated that Khadr had voluntarily admitted that he threw the grenade that killed US Sgt. Christopher Speer, during sessions after his arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002 that were perfectly amicable, and an FBI agent, Robert Fuller, who stated that his interrogations of Khadr at Bagram earlier in October 2002 were also "conversational" and "non-confrontational," and that Khadr had freely admitted to throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer.

Whilst it was possible — if not probable — that both interrogators were telling the truth about interrogating Khadr non-coercively, the problem remains that Khadr has stated that, from the time of his very first interrogation, he regarded telling his interrogators what they wanted to hear as the best way of avoiding mistreatment, and so may not have been telling them the truth. As a result, last week’s witnesses were more significant because they shed light on the early days after he recovered consciousness in US custody, and, in particular, on his first interrogation and his subsequent interaction with that interrogator. Along the way, further witnesses cast shadows on the government’s otherwise clean picture of interrogations conducted in a non-coercive environment.

It would have remarkable had this not happened, as countless witnesses — including soldiers as well as current and former Guantánamo prisoners — have described the brutality at Bagram at the time Khadr was held there between August and October 2002, which led, just over a month after Khadr’s departure for Guantánamo, to the murder of two prisoners — and, very possibly, to other murders at the time he was held.

The medic’s testimony –- and "Palestinian hanging"

The first to reveal a glimpse of the regime at Bagram was, ironically, a medic called as a witness by the prosecution. "Mr. M," as he was identified, who testified by video link from Boston, countered Khadr’s claims that, while he was at Bagram, "five people in civilian clothes would come and change my bandages," and that they "treated me very roughly and videotaped me while they did it," stating that he alone changed his bandages twice a day, and that no rough treatment was involved.

He did, however, note that, on one occasion, he found Khadr hooded and chained to a cage by his wrists with his arms "just above eye level," and that when he lifted the hood, Khadr was visibly upset. The medic added, as Carol Rosenberg described it in the Miami Herald, that "he didn’t object to Khadr’s treatment, because chaining was an approved form of punishment" at Bagram, "adding that he didn’t know the reason for the punishment nor how long Khadr had been chained."

This rather nonchalant description of "chaining" may not have shocked the medic, especially as the chains were apparently "slack enough to allow Khadr’s feet to touch the floor," but the only reason for this was because of the severity of his wounds, as Khadr explained in his affidavit, in which he also stated that he was chained up "several times." Otherwise, like numerous other prisoners, including Dilawar (the subject of "Taxi to the Dark Side") and Mullah Habibullah, the two prisoners who were killed at Bagram in December 2002, he would have been fully suspended by his wrists, in a torture technique more commonly known as the "strappado" technique or "Palestinian hanging."

Nevertheless, as Barry Coburn, Khadr’s lead lawyer, explained, the medic’s testimony provided "critically important validation" of statements in his client’s affidavit, and another of his lawyers, Kobie Flowers, added, "Had this been an American soldier in North Korea, people would be outraged. Here we have a 15-year-old individual who was nearly killed with bullets in his back who was left up there to hang as punishment."

"Interrogator No. 2" and Khadr’s first interrogation –- on a stretcher

However, while this was significant in establishing some context for the general and well-chronicled brutality at Bagram, which will no doubt emerge in unprecedented detail should Khadr’s trial proceed, it was not until Tuesday last week that previously unknown information emerged regarding Khadr’s first interrogation on arrival at Bagram, which, according to a master sergeant in the US Army, identified as "Interrogator No. 2," who appeared in person, took place on the same day that Khadr was moved from the hospital to what Carol Rosenberg described as "the crude, putrid Bagram Air Base detention center."

The interrogator, who was an observer at Khadr’s first interrogation on August 12, 2002, revealed that "the questioning took place while Khadr was on a stretcher — he couldn’t remember if Khadr was shackled to it — and that his notes included this detail: 'Clarification was difficult due to the sedation and fatigue of the detainee.’" He also explained that no coercion was used on him, but just two approved techniques from the Army Field Manual: "fear down," which is designed to play down a prisoner’s anxieties, and "fear of incarceration," which encourages prisoners to tell the truth by pointing out that otherwise they may face extended imprisonment.

It is hard to tell if this controlled line of questioning strictly reflects reality, but even so, as one of Khadr’s military lawyers, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson noted, the testimony showed that Khadr "was first questioned within just 12 hours of his transfer from the US field hospital to the detention center." Kobie Flowers was more forceful in his criticism. "You got a guy who is 15, seriously wounded, who has had multiple surgeries, and that’s the first time the United States government takes a statement from him to use in his prosecution," he said, adding, "Now whether it is torture, cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment or simply involuntary … I don’t think any federal judge in the United States would allow that type of conduct."

The testimony of Damien Corsetti

On Wednesday, a peripheral figure in Khadr’s story — but one who has achieved a certain notoriety — testified by video link from Arlington, Virginia. Damien Corsetti, who was known as "Monster" at Bagram, based on a tattoo on his chest, and also as "The King of Torture," described himself as "a disabled veteran suffering post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his interrogation work in both Afghanistan and Iraq," and explained how, on seeing Khadr on July 29, 2002, just two days after his capture, he was struck by how he was an injured "child" detained in "one of the worst places on Earth." He added, "More than anything, he looked beat up. He was a 15 year-old kid with three holes in his body, a bunch of shrapnel in his face. That was what I remember. How horrible this 15 year-old child looked."

Corsetti, who was cleared in 2005 of abuse charges relating to his conduct in Bagram and, later, at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, explained, back in 2007, how he was still haunted by "the cries, the smells, the sounds" of those whose torture he witnessed, when he was called upon to attend sessions in the basement of Bagram in which "high-value detainees" were tortured. "[T]hey are with me all the time," he said.

Last Wednesday, Corsetti told the court that he was "not one of Khadr’s interrogators" but had befriended him in Bagram. He explained that the guards and interrogators, who identified all the prisoners as "BOB" (which stood for "Bad Odor Boys"), named Khadr "Buckshot BOB," due to his injuries. He added that "there was the sound of screaming and yelling 'continuously," and also confirmed that threats were made to send prisoners to countries where they would be tortured, or raped. He specifically mentioned Israel and Egypt, but added, as Michelle Shephard explained in the Toronto Star, that he "did not know if Khadr had been told this." As Khadr stated in his affidavit that he was indeed threatened with being sent to Israel or Egypt (or Syria or Jordan), Corsetti’s testimony therefore endorsed another of Khadr’s claims.

"Interrogator No. 1" and the rape threat

If Corsetti’s testimony, for the most part, did little more than add some more color to the story of Khadr’s early months in US custody, Thursday’s witness, Joshua Claus, provided potent testimony regarding the kind of threats to which Khadr was subjected, and also provided a disturbing link to the kind of violence in Bagram that led to the murders of Dilawar and Mullah Habibullah in December 2002. Claus, formerly a sergeant in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion (of which Corsetti was also a member), was identified in court as "Interrogator No. 1," and was Khadr’s main interrogator at Bagram, the "skinny blond" man with glasses (just 21 years old at the time) who also interrogated him while he was on a stretcher, on the day that he was moved to Bagram from the field hospital, and who, according to Khadr, mistreated him in an unknown manner (because the details are redacted) during his first interrogation.

Testifying by video link from Arizona, Claus recalled, in particular, using the technique described as "fear up harsh" in interrogations of Khadr, during which he would kick the furniture and scream at the young prisoner. He also admitted that he invented a rape story to scare him, explaining, as Spencer Ackerman described it in the Washington Independent:

"I told him a fictitious story we had invented when we were there," Interrogator #1 said. It was something "three or four" interrogators at Bagram came up with after learning that Afghans were "terrified of getting raped and general homosexuality, things of that nature." The story went like this:

Interrogator #1 would tell the detainee, "I know you’re lying about something." And so, for an instruction about the consequences of lying, Khadr learned that lying "not so seriously" wouldn’t land him in a place like "Cuba" — meaning, presumably, Guantánamo Bay — but in an American prison instead. And this one time, a "poor little 20-year-old kid" sent from Afghanistan ended up in an American prison for lying to an American. "A bunch of big black guys and big Nazis noticed the little Afghan didn’t speak their language, and prayed five times a day — he’s Muslim," Interrogator #1 said. Although the fictitious inmates were criminals, "they’re still patriotic," and the guards "can’t be everywhere at once."

"So this one unfortunate time, he’s in the shower by himself, and these four big black guys show up — and it’s terrible something would happen — but they caught him in the shower and raped him. And it’s terrible that these things happen, the kid got hurt and ended up dying," Interrogator #1 said. "It’s all a fictitious story."

Perhaps so, but as Ackerman also noted, every other interrogator who spoke to Khadr did so "after he heard a 'fictitious story’ about a young Afghan who lied to US interrogators and as a result was raped and killed in jail."

In many ways, the events of the last two weeks were inconclusive, and it remains to be seen how the judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, will interpret them. Certainly, there was much worse abuse at Bagram and at Guantánamo than that experienced by Omar Khadr, but he was just a child during his time at Bagram and the early years of his abuse at Guantánamo, and it may well be that, as his lawyers assert, any self-incriminating statements that he made (especially regarding the throwing of a grenade that may have taken place when he was face down and unconscious under a pile of rubble) were produced because rape threats and physical violence based primarily on exploitation of his wounds was enough to terrify him into acquiescence with whatever his captors wanted.

The Pentagon shoots itself in the foot: four reporters banned

Ironically, the biggest story in Guantánamo last week was not the reports of Khadr’s treatment but the banning of four reporters (including Michelle Shephard and Carol Rosenberg), after they revealed Claus’ name in newspaper reports. The Pentagon alleged that this violated an order stipulating that Claus’ real name was protected information, but this was patently ridiculous, because his name was already in the public domain, and, in 2008, he had even conducted an interview with Michelle Shephard.

Instead of protecting Claus, the Pentagon’s heavy-handed response served only to make other reporters wonder if the Pentagon was trying to prevent anyone from working out that, unlike Damien Corsetti, Claus served five months in prison for pleading guilty in a court martial to the abuse of an unidentified prisoner at Bagram, who was made "to roll back and forth on the floor and kiss the boots of his interrogator," as Michelle Shephard described it, and for the assault of Dilawar. In Shephard’s words, "He admitted to forcing water down the throat of Dilawar and twisting a hood over the Afghan’s head." Moreover, as another soldier explained in a military report into Dilawar’s death, "I had the impression that Josh was actually holding the detainee upright by pulling on the hood. I was furious at this point because I had seen Josh tighten the hood of another detainee the week before. This behavior seemed completely gratuitous and unrelated to intelligence collection."

In his interview in 2008, Claus insisted that he wanted to set the record straight. "They’re trying to imply I’m beating or torturing everyone I ever talked to [at Bagram]," he said, adding that, with Khadr, "I spent a lot of time trying to understand who he was and what I could say to him or do for him, whether it be to bring him extra food or get a letter out to his family … I needed to talk to him and get him to trust me."

Responding last Thursday to a question about his conviction posed by Barry Coburn, Claus insisted that he "lost control at a very slight moment. You’re talking about two-and-a-half minutes of my life." This may not technically be correct, as there was clearly more than one incident, but it is obvious that his actions were part of an abusive program sanctioned at the highest level of the Bush administration, and moreover, as Damien Corsetti explained, "the pressure to get information from prisoner at Bagram was intense." He told Col. Parrish, "This was less than a year after 9/11 so we’re all still pretty heated up about that. This was life and death stuff we were supposedly dealing with. There was just a ton of pressure on us to get information to save lives and generate reports."

By banning the four reporters, the Pentagon has only succeeded in drawing attention to something it presumably wanted to hide: that Omar Khadr’s mistreatment in Bagram took place at time when the violence in the prison, sanctioned by the Bush administration, was so intense that prisoners died, and that his first interrogator was implicated in the murder of one of these men. It doesn’t prove that Khadr wasn’t coerced into making false confessions, but it doesn’t augur well for claims that everything about his treatment was "conversational" and "non-confrontational."

The Obama administration has until July, when Khadr’s trial is scheduled to start, to extricate itself from a public relations disaster of its own making, by formulating an acceptable plea deal for Khadr and arranging his return to Canada. Too much about this story — from the trumped-up war crimes charges, to the doubts about Khadr’s guilt, to his age and the abuse to which, on occasion, he was undoubtedly subjected — makes proceeding with the trial an unpalatable and essentially pointless exercise. It is, I believe, time, after nearly eight years, for his punishment to come to an end, and for his long-delayed rehabilitation to begin.

Note: The courtroom sketches above, by Janet Hamlin, are courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and currently on tour in the UK), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.



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