Randolph Brickey

A child soldier, interrogated and tried

Omar Khadr, shown in an undated photo, is now 24. Omar Khadr, shown in an undated photo, is now 24. (US Defense Press Operations/Getty Images)
By Randolph Brickey
November 22, 2010

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OUR NATIONAL debate over terrorism and the treatment of terrorist suspects tends towards the abstract. We often resort to hypothetical scenarios and argue without detail or specificity. This is inevitable, as so many key details are classified, and people with first-hand information tend to be unwilling or unable to speak to the public. Reality and consequences are lost in the shuffle.

However, a recent military tribunal verdict gave us an excellent opportunity to see the results of our “war on terror’’ policies, an object lesson on how these policies force us to compromise our values. We convicted a child soldier for war crimes. His name is Omar Khadr.

Michelle Shephard’s book “Guantanamo’s Child’’ does an excellent job establishing the details of Khadr’s childhood. Khadr, now 24, was born in Canada. When he was 4, his father took him to the Middle East for the first time, and then shuttled him back and forth frequently over the next few years, all the while indoctrinating the boy into an extremist, fringe interpretation of Islam.

In 2001, when Khadr was 14, his father left him with a Libyan militant in southern Afghanistan, where he lived in a bunker full of men who’d pledged their lives to resisting the US invasion. Omar spent several months there, until US soldiers busted the bunker in July of 2002, killing most of its inhabitants. Omar survived with shrapnel wounds to his eyes, three bullets to the back, and gaping exit wounds in his chest. However, due to questionable eyewitness testimony claiming he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier during the raid, Khadr spent the past eight years in US custody, first in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo Bay.

In a (heavily redacted) sworn affidavit, Khadr claims he was tortured regularly during his seven-year pre-trial detainment. Believing that Khadr killed an American soldier, Khadr’s guards and interrogators allegedly denied him medical treatment as punishment, allowing his wounds to fester. He is now blind in one eye and losing his sight in the other. Six military lawyers charged with prosecuting Khadr or other Guantanamo detainees have resigned, citing ethical and legal violations in the detainees’ treatment and prosecution. Khadr’s chief interrogator was granted immunity from prosecution for any abuse of Khadr in exchange for testifying at Khadr’s trial.

On Oct. 31,, a military tribunal found Khadr guilty of war crimes, including the death of an American soldier killed in the assault on the bunker, and sentenced him to 40 years in prison. Thanks to an unusual plea agreement, Khadr will only serve another year, for a total of 8 years in prison and extralegal detention. Setting aside the years of detention, allegations of torture, enormous procedural red flags, legal questions as to how killing an enemy soldier is a war crime, and almost every other aspect of Omar’s case, his conviction sets at least one clear precedent: the US government has decided that children are culpable for violating the laws of war, that children can be soldiers, and that they are just as accountable to the law of war as any regular, adult soldier.

If we are to conform to the precedent this case sets, then, at the very least, basic consistency demands we revise our immigration policies. When people who committed war crimes as child soldiers seek refuge in the United States, as many from Africa have, we should no longer merely decide whether to deport them. Clearly, we should arrest them. We should ensure that they are prosecuted to the full extent of whatever law is available.

We should also consider lowering the minimum recruitment age for the armed forces. If Omar Khadr could legitimately be a soldier at age 15, there is no reason why we can’t make up our troop shortfalls with 15-to-17 year olds.

Most Americans, of course, would disagree with these suggestions. Most Americans would probably prefer to treat child soldiers like traumatized victims, like children, rather than enemies or monsters. Khadr’s case is far from the only example of how our piecemeal, ad hoc system for prosecuting war on terror detainees collides violently with our values — but it is certainly one of the most galling and egregious.

Randolph Brickey is a student at the University of Minnesota Law School. He can be reached at