I’ve arrived at Guantánamo Bay and spent much of the afternoon attending to a variety of practicalities and formalities. I’m here with observers from three US-based NGO’s as well and we’ve been escorted everywhere we’ve gone today by a very helpful US military officer. Tomorrow will be largely downtime as the start of Omar Khadr’s hearing has been postponed to Wednesday.
Guantánamo is truly a surreal place to be. Hidden away from where we’ve spent the afternoon are the various camps in which some 183 men remain in detention, many having experienced torture or other ill-treatment during their years in US custody and most having no prospect of any trial (let alone a fair trial) or, it seems, of being released at any foreseeable point. They include individuals who were previously hidden away for years in secret CIA detention at undisclosed locations, and subjected to so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques such as “water-boarding” and sleep deprivation. Meanwhile we are surrounded by sportsfields, fast food chains, and an outdoor movie theatre.
What lawyers will be arguing about over the coming two weeks is critical. Omar Khadr’s legal team will be pushing to have various statements that he provided to interrogators excluded as evidence in his trial that is set to begin in July. They will lay out the detailed and harrowing descriptions Omar has provided as to the torture and ill-treatment he says he endured during those interrogations – both in Afghanistan and here at Guantánamo. They will highlight as well that the treatment was all the more cruel and coercive because he was so young at the time, having been only 15 years old when first apprehended in Afghanistan. They will stress that under international law and US law, there is no question – statements obtained through torture or other ill-treatment cannot be used.
Precisely what the prosecution will argue is as yet unclear. In a response to the defence motion recently made public, but dated 12 December 2008 (that is, a month before President Obama took office), the government asserted that Omar Khadr’s allegations of torture are “false and self-serving”. They argued instead that he was treated humanely at all times by expert interrogators who took his young age into account. This ignored the extensive public record that provides compelling evidence that ill-treatment of the kind Omar Khadr has described was commonplace, tolerated and even encouraged, both in US detention sites in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo.
It is a sad commentary indeed that we have gone from President Obama’s January 2009 promise that the Guantánamo detention facility would be closed within a year, to this. To the prospect of a young man, in military detention since he was a 15-year-old boy, and who has been through close to eight years of abuse and a labyrinth of injustice, being tried by an unfair military commission system many hoped to have seen the last of after President Obama took office.
Equally sad is that Omar Khadr’s own government has abandoned him to this fate. There are many Canadians here. Canadian journalists are here. One of Omar Khadr’s Canadian lawyers is here. I am here this week and another Canadian human rights observer is slated to arrive next week. Many Canadians are here watching, advocating, and reporting. The Canadian government has also sent two representatives to watch the proceedings. But beyond watching all we hear from the Canadian government is silence. Silence in the face of so many serious human rights concerns. Silence that echoes very loudly indeed.