“I have memories, but I don’t know if they’re mine, if they are accurate or not,” said Omar Khadr recently, recalling the events for which he was convicted by a U.S. military tribunal. Khadr, a Canadian citizen, spent almost nine years at Guantánamo Bay after being captured in Afghanistan at age 15.
His father, Egyptian-Canadian Ahmed Said Khadr, who had connections to Al Qaeda’s elite, sent Omar Khadr to work mainly as an interpreter in Afghanistan with those fighting U.S. forces who had dispersed the Taliban government in early 2002.
On July 27, 2002, in Khost, Afghanistan, Omar Khadr found himself in a firefight, during which grenades were tossed inside the compound where he had been staying. “And something just exploded beside me,” he said, in comments airing Monday in an Al Jazeera exclusive documentary. “I got tossed … 2 or 3 meters back,” he said. “I got up, and that’s when I lost my left eye, and my right eye was pretty badly damaged.”
He recalled hearing Americans screaming, and he is alleged to have killed a U.S. service member by throwing a grenade during the chaos. “I got scared,” Khadr recounted. “I didn’t know what to do. So I thought, ‘I am just going to throw this grenade and maybe just scare them away.’” But he also said that no one claims to have seen him throw the grenade. That gives him a curious hope. “So I always hold to the hope that maybe my memories were not true.”
Khadr pleaded guilty to war crimes at a military commission tribunal hearing at Guantánamo in 2010, under a deal that allowed him to serve out the remainder of his eight-year sentence in his native Canada. In 2012 he recanted his confession and was recently granted bail as he appeals his conviction to the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review. His case is unique. “No existing international tribunal has ever prosecuted a child for war crimes, reflecting the wide recognition that the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is a serious abuse in itself,” Amnesty International noted in 2008 with respect to his case.
Despite challenges citing international law, the U.S. has long defended its treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo — even the youngest. “Despite their age, these are very, very dangerous people,” Gen. Richard Myers said in 2003. “So they may be juveniles, but they’re not on a Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league team, and it’s a terrorist team.”
Although Khadr is the only person in modern history to have been charged with a war crime for an act he is said to have committed as a juvenile, he was hardly the only child in Guantánamo. An Al Jazeera examination of the dates of birth and dates of detention of prisoners at the facility found that at least 23 were under the age of 18 when first detained. But the number could be as high as 33, because in some cases those dates are not known.
International law generally defines anyone under the age of 18 as a child, entitling them to certain rights while incarcerated, such as being housed separately from the adult prison population, being given educational opportunities and being allowed to contact their families.
But at Guantánamo, the Pentagon defined a child as someone under the age of 16. (Khadr was 16 years old when he arrived at Guantánamo in late October 2002.)
The young Afghans
As of June 2015, the U.S. officially says that by its 16-years definition, it has detained only three juveniles at Guantánamo. They were all Afghans: Asadullah, likely age 12 at the time of his arrest; Naqibullah, perhaps 13; and Mohammed Ismail, about 15. Another Afghan, Abdul Qudus, was also likely only 13 or 14 when first detained.
The first proof of life received by Asadullah’s family came a year after the boy disappeared, when a letter was delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross bearing a military clearance stamp. “All of the greetings from my heart I convey to the family,” Asadullah wrote. “I keep my hope alive by the grace of Allah. Please send me a letter when you can. Please don’t cut the connection. Write soon,” he wrote.
Naqibullah was a “kidnap victim” and “a forced conscript of a local warring tribe, affiliated with the Taliban,” according to classified Guantánamo documents released by WikiLeaks.
He and the other two Afghan youths were resettled in their home country in 2004.
“Age is not a determining factor in detention,” Defense Department detainee policy spokesman Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins said by email. “We detain enemy combatants who engaged in armed conflict against our forces or provided support to those fighting against us. The fact that juveniles are being used as combatants is an unfortunate reality in many parts of the world.”
Those who remain
Three Yemeni prisoners who were detained before their 18th birthday remain at the prison. Hassan bin Attash, now thought to be the youngest detainee still at Guantánamo, was recommended for prosecution but is not currently facing charges. Bin Attash, the brother of an alleged co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, was 17 when he was taken in Pakistan and rendered to Jordan. There he was tortured — held upside down and his feet whipped, according to his lawyer.
The two other Yemeni prisoners held as minors were cleared for transfer more than five years ago. One of them, Fahd Ghazy, has been in U.S. custody since age 17. While held in Afghanistan, Ghazy told his lawyer he witnessed older men being horribly abused by their captors. “If the U.S. could do this to these grown men, what chance did he have of surviving?” his lawyer Omar Farah said. “It produced a tremendous anxiety that the end could be near.”
Ghazy, whom Farah describes as resourceful and resilient, has grown up in Guantánamo. “All the really important, formative experiences of his life happened in a cell in Guantánamo. His relationship to the world,” Farah said, “has been through Guantánamo, which means it has been distorted by fear, by alienation, by isolation, by censorship and by the U.S. government’s really aggressive dehumanization campaign that has tried to rob him of his identity and turn him into just a number.”
Farah believes that at 31, Ghazy is still young enough “to redefine his life in a way that is productive and healthy and help him shake off all the horrors that he has been through.”
Among the others detained as minors are:
Mohammed el-Gharani, raised in Saudi Arabia but a citizen of Chad, who was taken to Guantánamo at age 14, according to the U.K.-based legal charity Reprieve. He tried to commit suicide in Guantánamo several times, according to his lawyers. In 2009 a judge ordered his release, and was sent to Chad.
Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, a Saudi taken into U.S. custody at 17, died at Guantánamo in 2006 in an incident officially called a suicide, but campaigners have raised serious questions about the circumstances of his death.
Haji Mohammed Ayub, a Uighur detained along with others from his ethnic group by mistake. Randall Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, described the imprisonment of the Chinese minority at Guantánamo as “nothing short of tragic.” Ayub was transferred to Albania in 2006.
Young ‘enemy combatant’
Mohammed Jawad from Afghanistan was taken into U.S. custody on Dec. 17, 2002, at the age of 16 or 17. He was first held at Bagram, where he said he was forced to wear a black bag over his head, kept in isolation and restrained in handcuffs. If he tried to sit down, the guards grabbed him by the throat and made him stand up; they also kicked him and made him fall over, as he was wearing leg shackles and couldn’t take large steps, according to testimony by Jawad.
He was transferred to Guantánamo in early February 2003 and is reported to have first attempted suicide in December of that year.
Jawad was alleged to have been involved in a grenade attack that injured two U.S. military personnel and their interpreter in Afghanistan in 2002. He had no access to legal counsel until 2007, when he was charged before a military commission.
But the lead prosecutor in the case resigned for ethical reasons, complaining that the government failed to turn over turned over evidence. In 2009, a federal judge ordered Jawad’s release, and he was sent to Afghanistan.