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"Screwed Up" and "Abused": The Interrogation of 16-Year-Old Omar Khadr

A closer look at the first Guantánamo interrogation to be released on video reveals, above all, a "victimized and exploited" child.
 
 
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As the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrates, a photo is worth a thousand words -- even if, as Errol Morris' newly-released documentary Standard Operating Procedure demonstrates, those words are sometimes what the viewer wishes to see, rather than what actually happened.

There is, therefore, enormous excitement in the media about the first ever release of images from interrogations in Guantánamo: seven and a half hours of footage (highlights available here in a ten-minute version) from interrogations of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in July 2002.

In February 2003, when he was still only 16, Omar was visited by representatives of his home country's Air Force Office of Special Investigations. As has already been widely reported, the video footage from these interrogations -- released to Omar's Canadian lawyers, Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney, as the result of a decision in May by the Supreme Court of Canada and a decision in June by the Federal Court of Canada -- shows Omar displaying his wounds, weeping uncontrollably and pulling at his hair in despair.

Despite the excitement, however, documents relating to these interrogations have been available for the last six days, and it's my belief that they demonstrate the confusion of a desperately lonely imprisoned child without any of the dubious voyeurism that the images bring, whilst also allowing a useful distance from which to appreciate the general coldness and indifference of the interrogators. As Whitling noted in an email accompanying the documents' release, "The documents paint a picture of a victimized and exploited boy."

The Canadian representatives interrogated Omar for four days, and in three separate documents relating to the sessions they ran through the lines of questioning they pursued, which were mainly to do with his family history and his knowledge of al-Qaeda. Omar's father, who funded orphanages in Afghanistan, was also friendly with Osama bin Laden, and Omar and his three brothers spent much of their childhood in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on occasion sharing a compound with the bin Laden family.

Absent from these reports, however, is any detailed questioning relating to Omar's supposed crime -- the killing of a US soldier during the firefight in which he was captured, the veracity of which has only recently been exposed to scrutiny. Also missing are the odd flashes of humanity that can be gleaned from the videotape, when, for example, one of the interrogators attempts to calm Omar, who is clearly distraught, by saying, "I know this is stressful."

These human touches are, however, overshadowed by the interrogators' general indifference to Omar's plight. As Whitling and Edney noted when they released the documents, although Omar was clearly "suffering from severe emotional problems connected with his detention and interrogation, crying heavily on more than one occasion," the Canadian officials "dismissed his claims of abuse on the flimsiest of pretexts," writing, in one of the reports, that his allegations of torture at the US prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, which have, of course, subsequently been verified by numerous sources, "did not ring true."

The interrogators were also indifferent when Omar broke down after describing how he was severely wounded in one eye during the firefight that led to his capture. One report relates, "Khadr stated, 'I lost my eyes,' indicating that when he was shot, it affected his vision. Khadr put his head back in his hands and cried heavily. The interrogators left him at this point." On another occasion, another report states, "Khadr has not received any letters from family since being detained. The interviewers then provided Khadr with a letter, which had recently arrived at Camp Delta. The letter was from his grandmother in Canada. Khadr was left along to review the letter. Khadr was watched using a video monitor and a one-way piece of glass. Khadr appeared to cry while reading the letter. Tears were coming from his eyes and he was rubbing his eyes and nose."

This might not be quite so worrying if Omar was an adult at the time of his capture and interrogations -- although it would still raise uncomfortable questions about Canadian complicity in the U.S. detention of a Canadian citizen in worryingly novel circumstances, held neither as a Prisoner of War protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as a criminal suspect facing a regular trial.

Given Omar's circumstances, however, it directly contravenes the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which both the United States and Canada are signatories, which stipulates that juvenile prisoners -- defined as those accused of a crime that took place when they were under 18 years of age -- "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."

Clearly, these requirements have not been fulfilled in Omar's case, and the Canadians' complicity in Omar's detention and interrogation also, of course, make a mockery of the Canadian government's insistent mantra -- that it would not intervene in Omar's case since it had received assurances from the United States that Omar was being humanely -- which, as Whitney notes, "has now been proven to have been an attempt to misinform the Canadian public."

Also included in the documents released by Whitling and Edney, although not featured in the videotapes, are notes from a second visit with Omar, by Jim Gould of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, in March 2004. In a summary of the visit by R. Scott Hetherington, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Division, Gould, who regarded himself as "an amateur observer of the human condition," described Omar as "a thoroughly 'screwed-up' young man," adding, pertinently, 'All those persons who have been in positions of authority over him have abused him and his trust, for their own purposes. In this group can be included his parent and grandparents, his associates in Afghanistan and fellow detainees in Camp Delta and the US military." Significantly, Gould also noted that, as during the visit in 2003, Omar "recanted all previous statements, including his confession to having thrown the grenade that killed the American soldier."

Despite being rather patronizing about Omar, Gould's statement included riveting details of the U.S. military's treatment of Omar, explaining that, "in an effort to make him more amenable and willing to talk" the authorities had placed him on the "frequent flyer program," the euphemistic name for a program of prolonged sleep deprivation. "For the three weeks prior to Mr. Gould's visit," the report continued, Omar "has not been permitted more than three hours in any location. At three hour intervals he is moved to another block, thus denying him uninterrupted sleep." Gould was also told that Omar would "soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks" and would then be interviewed again.

Although Gould was critical of Omar's U.S. interrogator, noting that he "seemed to be trying to intimidate Omar or force Omar to talk rather then trying to cajole him into cooperation," he was unconcerned about the prolonged sleep deprivation, noting, nonchalantly, that Omar "did not appear to have been affected by three weeks on the 'frequent flyer' program." Four years later, however, on June 25, 2008, Mr. Justice Richard Mosley of the Federal Court of Canada thought differently, and ruled that this treatment constituted a breach of the United Nations Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. As Nathan Whitling noted, without elaboration, "The Canadian government did not attempt to appeal this decision."

The most distressing anecdote from Gould's report, however, which, bizarrely, he portrayed as an example of Omar "hav[ing] some feelings," followed a session with an interrogator from the Department of Defense, who had shown him a photo of his family, only for Omar to deny that he knew anyone in the picture. "Left alone with the picture and despite his shackles," the report continued, "Omar urinated on the picture. The MPs cleaned him, the picture and floor and again left him alone with the picture -- after shortening his shackles so that he couldn't urinate on the picture again. But, with the flexibility of youth, he was able to lower his trousers and again urinated on the picture. Again the MPs cleaned up and left him alone with the picture on a table in front of him. After two and a half hours alone and probably assuming that he was no longer being watched, Omar laid his head down on the table beside the picture in what was seen as an affectionate manner."

This is an example of Omar "hav[ing] some feelings"? In my world, which I hope you share, it shows a horrendously isolated and abused teenager displaying mood swings that are symptomatic of extreme mental disturbance.

As Dr. Eric Trupin, who has conducted extensive research on the effects of incarceration on adolescents, explained in 2005 after reviewing the results of mental status tests administered by Omar's U.S. lawyers, which followed three years of interrogations that began as soon as Omar was captured, and which had a cumulative effect that the Canadians either could not or would not consider:

The impact of these harsh interrogation techniques on an adolescent such as O.K. [Omar], who also has been isolated for almost three years, is potentially catastrophic to his future development. Long-term consequences of harsh interrogation techniques are both more pronounced for adolescents and more difficult to remediate or treat even after such interrogations are discontinued, particularly if the victim is uncertain as to whether they will resume. It is my opinion, to a reasonable scientific certainty, that O.K.'s continued subjection to the threat of physical and mental abuse places him at significant risk for future psychiatric deterioration, which may include irreversible psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as a psychosis with treatment-resistant hallucinations, paranoid delusions and persistent self-harming attempts.

Andy Worthington is a writer and historian, and author of The Guantánamo Files .