Examining the tortured and turbulant life of Omar Khadr

While Omar Khadr’s signing of a plea agreement on October 26th may have brought protracted court proceedings to a much awaited end, the implications and repercussions of his guilty plea have yet to take shape and have left many critics wary of the precedent which has been set for future tribunals, especially ones involving under-age defendants.

By pleading guilty to the murder of US Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer, Khadr agrees to an additional year of imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay before being moved to a Canadian prison where he will serve no more than eight years, with eligibility for early release in 2013. The terms of his plea agreement also stipulate that he cannot seek legal or monetary recourse for any alleged mistreatment or torture he experienced during his time in American custody.

Originally taken into custody and detained at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 after allegedly throwing a grenade at US forces during a firefight in Afghanistan at the age of 15, Khadr stands as the first child combatant to be prosecuted for war crimes since the establishment of the Geneva Convention. His status as a child soldier and his designation as an illegal combatant have been hotly debated in legal proceedings and have raised concerns from observers such as Canada Research Chair in Human Rights, Rhoda Howard-Hassman. “There are a whole slew of implications with regards to his rights as a child soldier, his right to be protected from torture, and his right to be protected from malfeasance,” she noted.

Howard-Hassman takes issue with the tribunal’s white-washing of immediate human rights violations which took place during Khadr’s detention at Guantanamo. “The court rejected his allegations that he had been tortured and also that he had been questioned while he was still seriously ill. They rejected his allegation that threats to rape him to death would be a form of coercion,” she said, referring to interrogators’ suggestions that Khadr would be raped in prison by older inmates if he were not to co-operate with them.

Equally troubling to Howard-Hassman is the sharp, concrete legal distinctions which have been drawn in Khadr’s case and the attached designation of illegal combatant. “If you’re in a war, and you are in uniform and you’re a legal combatant, you can’t be tried for murder. In war people get killed. The claim here is that he was not a legal combatant,” she noted. “It seems to me that if he was an illegal combatant then he should have been tried in a civilian court, but he was tried in a military court.”The added complication of Khadr’s age is a crucial one, and Howard-Hassman points to a lack of American complicity with UN regulation as the root problem.

“If he was a soldier, he was a child soldier so I think the law would say he should not have been prosecuted. That he should be considered a victim rather than a perpetrator. But the United States has not signed onto the Convention on the Rights of the Child so presumably the United States doesn’t accept that definition of a child soldier.”

Despite playing a key role in its development, the United States joins only Somalia as one of two nations which have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This lack of synchronicity with international law in conjunction with the precedent set by the Khadr trial may prove problematic as tribunals, and pursuant objections from human-rights watchdogs, continue.

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