The Omar Khadr case makes a mockery of US justice

After eight years in Guantanamo, the last western “enemy combatant” faces a deeply flawed trial.

Omar Khadr was a badly wounded boy of 15 when, in 2002, US forces captured him in Afghanistan. As the dust settled on a suspected al-Qaeda compound after a firefight that July, troops discovered him slumped in the rubble among the dead, leaning against a wall.

One soldier -- identified only as "OC1" in a military document that was mistakenly released six years later -- testified that there were two survivors among the insurgents. He claimed he killed the first, then shot Khadr (who was facing away from him) twice in the back, leaving two large exit wounds across his upper body. In a legal motion, another officer present at the scene wrote: "(He's) missing a piece of his chest and I can see his heart beating."

The Pentagon alleges that Khadr was responsible for the death of the US special forces medic Christopher Speer, who sustained fatal injuries that day from a grenade hurled from the compound.

Khadr -- a Canadian citizen -- is the last prisoner from a western country among the 176 "enemy combatants" still held at Guantanamo Bay. Eight months after Barack Obama's campaign deadline to close the facility, the future of its detainees continues to be determined outside the protection of international law. Khadr's long-delayed trial, which began today, is the first official terror case to be heard before the military courts under the Obama administration; it is also the first war crimes trial since Nuremberg for offences allegedly committed by a minor.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special envoy for children in armed conflict, said today that the proceedings were of dubious legality and has released a statement urging the US to abandon them. She said:

The statute of the International Criminal Court makes it clear that no one under 18 will be tried for war crimes, and prosecutors in other international tribunals have used their discretion not to prosecute children . . . Even if Omar Khadr were to be tried in a national jurisdiction, juvenile justice standards are clear -- children should not be tried before military tribunals.

Since his capture, Khadr has been housed with adult detainees and denied access to education. His defence team has long complained that the statements on which the case against him are based were obtained illegally through torture, his interrogators even threatening him with gang rape and death. Yesterday, however, the US military judge ruled in favour of allowing such dubiously extracted "confessions" as evidence.

In his January State of the Union speech, President Obama spoke of how Americans at both ends of the political spectrum aspired "to give their children a better life". The very fact that the Khadr case is roaring ahead -- with scarcely a word of concern from the president or the mainstream US media -- shows how hollow that flourish of oratory was.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.