Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star and has been following Khadr’s story since his arrest in 2002. Her new book traces the story of his life. It’s called Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.
A US military judge dismissed the argument Friday that Guantanamo’s youngest detainee, Omar Khadr, was a child soldier when captured in Afghanistan and therefore in need of protection and not prosecution. US Army Colonel Peter Brownback’s ruling clears the way for Khadr’s trial, which will be the first war crimes trial in history of anyone under the age of eighteen. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
A US military judge dismissed the argument Friday that Guantanamo’s youngest prisoner, Omar Khadr, was a child soldier when captured in Afghanistan and therefore in need of protection and not prosecution. US Army Colonel Peter Brownback’s ruling clears the way for Omar Khadr’s trial, which will be the first war crimes trial in history of anyone under the age of eighteen.
The Toronto-born twenty-one-year-old, now, was fifteen when he was shot and captured after a fight with US Special Forces in Afghanistan. He was first detained at Bagram Air Base, then transferred to Guantanamo. The Pentagon charged Khadr with five war crimes, including murder, for the death of a US soldier who was fatally wounded by a hand grenade. Khadr is scheduled to appear for a pretrial hearing in Guantanamo next week.
Michelle Shephard is the national security reporter for the Toronto Star. She has been following Khadr’s story since his arrest in 2002. Her new book traces the story of Omar Khadr’s life. It’s called Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr. She joins us now from Toronto. She is now doing her first US broadcast interview on this book.
Thanks very much for joining us, Michelle. Tell us who Omar Khadr is.
Omar Khadr is the second-youngest son of an Egyptian Canadian named Ahmed Said Khadr, who came to Canada, studied here and, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, went as a charity worker. After the Soviets were defeated, he stayed on and continued his work, eventually aligning himself with many of al-Qaeda’s elite.
Omar and his siblings grew up between Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan, shuttled back and forth. And when — as you mentioned, when he was fifteen, after 9/11, his family had fled, and he was caught in a firefight with US Special Forces. He was shot and captured, and he has been detained since. He’s twenty-one now.
How did you end up getting involved with Omar Khadr?
I’ve been following this story since his capture, and I always found it an incredible story. His upbringing itself is like — you can’t compare to anything. But what struck me most about his case was his age, the fact that he was fifteen when he was captured and that his age had not been taken into consideration. And that’s, for me, what separates his case from the others at Guantanamo. So I’ve been following the case for the newspaper for almost six years now, and I just felt there I couldn’t get the whole story in, so I decided to write a book on it.
Talk about what you know happened to Omar Khadr at the age of fifteen, when he was picked up.
Well, unfortunately, we don’t know a lot yet. There’s many conflicting reports. I interviewed many of the soldiers who were involved that day, and what they’ve told me is that they received a call from Washington that there had been a satellite phone used that had been picked up by NSA and that it pinpointed a location in Afghanistan that they were sent to. When they went there, there were five men inside a compound, or what they believed were — to be five men. When they asked the occupants to come out, they shot two of the Afghan soldiers that were with them, and a massive firefight followed, which included air support.
At the end of this lengthy firefight, they believed all the occupants were dead inside the compound, and they went in to check the remains. At some point — and there’s a crucial ninety seconds, minutes — ninety seconds, rather, that are going to be analyzed if we get to court on this case — at some point during that time, a grenade was thrown that fatally wounded Delta Force soldier Christopher Speer. And the Pentagon alleges that it was Omar who threw that grenade.
For five years, his culpability was really not in doubt, because the Pentagon had believed he was the only remaining survivor. What we found out this February in a document that was mistakenly disclosed to us when we were at Guantanamo Bay was that there was actually another occupant of that compound that was alive at the time. And the document that we had was written by one of the — what we believe was one of the Delta Force soldiers who was there, although he’s not identified in the document. He alleges that after the grenade was thrown, he shot one of the occupants in the head and the chest, killing him, and then he shot Omar twice in the back. So at this point, we’re not sure if he was the one to actually throw the grenade.
Your first chapter, Michelle Shephard, is called "Shoot me." Why?
At the end of the battle, after Omar had been shot — and there’s a picture in the book that I think is very telling — it shows the wounds he had, and there’s these two gaping holes in his chest, which are actually the exit wounds of the bullets. One of the soldiers who was sent to guard him at that point to make sure he didn’t escape — although when you look at this picture, you realize he wouldn’t be able to — he said that Omar looked at him and said, “Shoot me.”
I’m showing now, for our TV viewers, the image in the book of Omar, the very graphic bullet holes you see in his chest. For our radio listeners, you can go on our website, democracynow.org. We’re talking to Michelle Shephard. The book is called Guantanamo’s Child. So he ends up at Guantanamo. Talk about his treatment, what you can reconstruct of it, what you know of it, what his family knows.
Has his family seen him at all at this point?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, unfortunately, we can’t talk to Omar. The Pentagon has a policy that they won’t allow detainees to be interviewed. So his treatment I’ve cobbled together from some of the sources that you mentioned, some of the statements that he’s told his lawyers and interviews that I had of detainees who were kept with him.
Both in Bagram and in Guantanamo, the detainees that had been in prison with him said that he was treated worse than some of the other prisoners who were brought in at the time, partly because he was injured, and he was interrogated right after he was brought in in Bagram, when his injuries were quite severe. So that, in itself, was seen as harsh treatment. He alleges, through his lawyers, that he was denied medication at this time, as well. But I think, overall, it was the perception that and the allegations that he had killed a soldier, and for the guards there, they treated him especially harsh because of that. The other prisoners at Bagram and at Guantanamo had been accused of connections with al-Qaeda, but none had been accused of actually killing a soldier. And from what the other detainees told me, this dogged him for the first couple years, anyway, and he was often shouted “killer,” “murderer,” “butcher.” And the guards were especially rough with him.
Can you talk about — and I’m showing the image again of the older brothers of Omar Khadr. These brothers are — one, you say, worked for the CIA and was freed, another was extradited.
That’s right. His eldest brother, Abdullah, is facing an indictment in a Boston court for terrorism. He is alleged to have purchased weapons for al-Qaeda. Now, he’s actually fighting his extradition, so he’s been in a Toronto jail now for two years. But what’s interesting to note in his case is that he’s been charged in a domestic court. While Omar is classified as an enemy combatant and facing a war crimes trial, Abdullah, who had been picked up by Pakistani forces, brought back to Canada and then arrested in Canada on the warrant from the US, is actually facing a domestic charge. So he’s in a Toronto jail. He’s fighting his extradition. And he actually has a hearing this week, as well, a bail hearing.
His other brother, Abdurahman, is the self-described black sheep of the family. And he had always rebelled against his father. His father had tried to send them to training camps. He often ran away. He was quite notorious for his behavior in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After 9/11, when the family fled, he returned to Kabul, and he was picked up very shortly after 9/11 by the Northern Alliance forces and eventually handed over to the US. When he was in Kabul, he was approached by FBI and eventually the CIA, and they asked him to become an informant and an agent, which he did. He was later sent to Guantanamo, where they wanted him to spy on the other prisoners, but he didn’t last very long there. At one point, he was able to shout to his brother Omar, but they never saw each other there. And I think he was identified pretty quickly in Guantanamo as a mole. So they got him out of there. They sent him to Bosnia. His story is quite incredible. It goes on at length. But just to wrap it up, they sent him to Bosnia. He blew his cover. He came back to Canada and eventually told Canadians his story, and included in telling his story were the details about his father’s connection to al-Qaeda members. He actually said, “We were an al-Qaeda family.” And that made many Canadians dub the Khadr family “Canada’s first family of terrorism.”
Michelle Shephard, can you talk about the international treaties around child soldiers, around children?
Well, what Omar’s lawyers argued was that the international treaties, in particular the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol, prohibit the prosecution of a minor, that they don’t explicitly state that a prosecution can’t occur, but in the language of the treaties it protects those under the age of eighteen who are captured in armed conflict. In their motion, they had many friends of the court offer submissions, as well, many civil and human rights groups and people such as David Crane, who is the former US prosecutor for war crimes in Sierra Leone. And Crane said that “I had the ability, the power, to try those under the age of eighteen, but I didn’t do that.” This was all before the military judge.
<p.And what the Pentagon argued was that while there hadn’t been in modern-day history a war crimes trial of someone under the age of eighteen, international law didn’t prohibit it. Ultimately, the Guantanamo judge, as you mentioned, Peter Brownback, agreed with that and cleared the way for his trial.
So what will happen now? You’re headed to Guantanamo today, Michelle?
Yes, off to Baltimore, actually, this evening, and we go back to Guantanamo tomorrow. He has a pretrial hearing on Thursday. At that point, we believe that the prosecution will again ask for a date to be set for his trial to start. At the last appearing, the judge refused to do that, saying there were still some issues to be dealt with. We’re not sure if he is going to do that this time. At this point, the prosecutors and defense are still arguing over disclosure, over what information the defense is entitled to have to prepare for the case. But there’s very few obstacles now that remain in the way of trial. Omar’s lawyer says really only the intervention of the Canadian government at this point could stop it.
And Michelle Shephard, finally, you’re talking to us from Canada, the attitude today of the detention, of the imprisonment of Omar Khadr at Guantanamo for, what, over almost six years now — fifteen years old when he was picked up?
Well, Amy, it’s interesting, because Canada finds itself in this very unique position as the only Western nation now to stand beside the Bush administration in support of Guantanamo and its trials. Omar is the only Western citizen that remains there. And over the past two weeks there has been a lot of pressure on Ottawa to intervene in the case. The opposition groups, legal groups, civil, human rights groups and many international groups are demanding to know why Canada supports these trials, where they’ve been condemned elsewhere. At this point, the conservative minority government here in Canada has said they won’t interfere in the process. And I think that has much to do with the reputation of Omar’s family here in Canada. They’ve never been well liked. They’ve said atrocious things in public. And I think that’s overridden any concerns at this point for Omar himself.
Michelle Shephard, thank you very much for being with us, national security reporter for the Toronto Star. Her book just out is called Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.
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