What emerged from another day of testimony in the Omar Khadr military commission case today was the portrait of a young boy ordered by a powerful father and his al Qaeda associates to do bad things. And now, eight years of imprisonment later, that child is being prosecuted for it.
Khadr is accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed a U.S. soldier, and conspiring with al Qaeda to plant explosives. Although the hearing now being heard by the military commission in Guantanamo Bay is ostensibly about whether to suppress his confessions, which he says were elicited by abusive treatment and torture, the government's witnesses so far are presenting much of the substantive evidence supporting the military's case.
Three individuals who interrogated Omar Khadr testified on Friday: an FBI agent who interviewed Khadr at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and two military interrogators who interviewed him at Guantanamo Bay. All three testified that they were always exceedingly nice to Khadr, giving him water, snacks and games. In turn, Khadr poured his heart out to them, telling them how as a child he played with the children of Osama bin Laden and was ordered to act as a translator for his father's al Qaeda associates. He also provided details of what happened at the fateful firefight that led to the death of a U.S. soldier.
The government clearly intends this testimony to be damning to the defense, since the interrogators have all testified that Khadr confessed to throwing a grenade and to helping his father's associates build land mines. But it's not clear whether he was even attempting to tell the truth, or whether he was simply telling these kindly interviewers what he thought they wanted to hear - anything to keep him from being returned to his prison cell. The fact that significant facts in his stories differed depending who he told them to at the very least raises that question.
One of the interrogators who testified today, named #11 by the government, was an attractive young woman who testified that she was chosen to question Khadr because the military thought he would view her "as a mother figure." Not surprisingly, she testified that Khadr told her repeatedly that he would rather talk to her anytime than sit bored and alone in his Guantanamo prison cell.
Significantly, however, the details of Khadr's stories changed when he spoke to different interrogators. Khadr told the FBI agent in Bagram, for example, that he'd thrown a grenade over a compound wall as U.S. forces stormed the compound. Khadr told a military interrogator at Guantanamo Bay that he threw a grenade backwards over a 3-foot-tall bush. Testimony today revealed he'd told other interrogators that both of his parents had been killed in a car accident. He told someone else that his father had died in Egypt, and his mother died of cancer. If nothing else, that all calls the reliability of any of his statements into serious question.
The government's witnesses all appeared professional and competent, and all swore they'd never so much as even raised their voice at Omar Khadr. That doesn't address whether any of the other 30 or so interrogators who interviewed him treated him well, however. And it doesn't explain why the government refuses to produce more than three of those interrogators for interviews by defense counsel.
But what struck me most in this long day of testimony was that Omar Khadr, dragged around Afghanistan from the age of nine by his father, was exactly the sort of child that international treaties are intended to protect.
The FBI agent, Robert Fuller, testified that Khadr easily identified a long list of al Qaeda operatives shown in photos and on a videotape. He proceeded to recount that Khadr told him the details of how he'd met each of these people, all in the mid-1990s, and mostly at weapons training camps or guesthouses - when Khadr, who was born in 1986, was between nine and 11 years old.
All of which raises the question, what exactly is the government trying to prove in this case? The remarkable fact that a small boy took orders from his terrorist financier father?
Whether or not Omar Khadr was treated inhumanely or tortured, as he claims, the testimony presented so far in the case underscores the fundamental problem here: that trying a child as an enemy combatant for alleged war crimes is not only a violation of international humanitarian law; it also flies in the face of common sense.