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No One Cares About Child Soldiers if They're in Guantanamo

In many ways, Guantanamo is not the exception, but far closer to the rule of our criminal justice system.

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But Gitmo, a “betrayal of American values”?  Would that it were!  Alas, for nearly every grisly tabloid feature of the Khadr case, you can find an easy analog in our everyday criminal justice system.  In a sense, much of our War on Terror has proven a slightly spicier version of our “normal” way of doing criminal justice.  Using the case of Omar Khadr, let’s take this step by step.

Child Soldiers and Juvenile Offenders

The Khadr case should have been a bit queasy-making for us Americanos.  Hasn’t there been a surge of concern for child soldiers in book clubs and church groups across the land?  Turns out, however, that this long-distance compassion goes up in smoke at closer range.  The second a child soldier points his gun at an American, not another African, it’s adiós victimized child, hello hardened terrorist.

The hypocrisy in all this is less flaming than it may appear.  After all, clemency for youth offenders, be they child soldiers or just local kids, runs against the American grain these days.  If we routinely prosecute children even younger than 15 as adults -- and we do -- why should a foreign child soldier be any different?

In fact the U.S. even has a few dozen inmates doing life without parole for acts committed when they were 13 or 14, and most of these sentences were mandatory rather than the prerogative of a particularly nasty judge.  (Some small progress: last May in Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court decided that juveniles can get life without parole only if there’s homicide involved.)  Overall, the U.S. has in recent years had precious little mercy for its children, or anyone else’s. 

Coercive Interrogation of Minors

Back in May, the Gitmo press corps gasped when Khadr’s “Interrogator Number One,” Joshua Claus, described the veiled threats of rape he wielded at Bagram Prison to try to break the young prisoner.  If Khadr should fail to cooperate, Claus told him, he would meet the same fate as another young (and imaginary) Afghan detainee who was supposedly sent to a U.S. penitentiary and raped to death in a shower room by “neo-Nazis, and four big black guys.”  Claus, a court-martialed detainee abuser, had been the leader of the final interrogation of a mistakenly imprisoned Afghan taxi driver who was beaten to death by American guards at Bagram in 2002.  Before receiving a rather light sentence in the case, Claus pledged his full cooperation with the Khadr prosecution, and he kept his part of the bargain with visible enthusiasm.

As it happens, Claus’s veiled threats of rape and violence to a minor would not have been that uncommon in domestic interrogation rooms.  “From the stories I’m familiar with, threats like that are a pretty garden-variety police interrogation tactic,” says Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University.

With youths, it’s not that much of a challenge to get a false confession, even without the threat of or actual physical violence being brought to bear, as the case of Marty Tankleff in Long Island shows, not to mention the seven and eight year-old boys from the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago who, in the summer of 1998, “confessed” to murdering a girl for her bicycle.  Even after DNA evidence from semen found on the corpse was matched to an adult serial sex offender, the Chicago Police Superintendent at first refused to exonerate them.  The State’s Attorney might well have prosecuted the boys, too, if the entire South Side of Chicago hadn’t threatened to explode.


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