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Alone in the civilized world (and, it should be noted, in most other countries regarded as barbaric dictatorships), the US administration has a penchant for ignoring international laws regarding the legal distinctions between adults and children, subjecting teenagers, in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, to brutal detention without charge or trial, and, in the case of Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old at the time of his capture, also hauling him up before a lawless show trial by Military Commission, designed to prevent all mention of torture by US forces, and to secure a pre-ordained verdict of guilt. Dozens of teenagers–some as young as 12 or 13–have been held in Guantánamo over the years, but until now Khadr was the only one to face a trial.
Last week, however, in what was supposed to be a demonstration of the efficacy and justice of the Military Commissions, the Pentagon announced that an Afghan named Mohamed Jawad would be joining Khadr, Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers, and David Hicks, who was returned to Australia in May after a plea bargain, as the fourth “terror suspect” to face the Commissions since their revival in March this year, after four years of wrangling and humiliation for the government.
A minimum of research reveals that, according to the Pentagon’s own records, Jawad was born to Afghan parents in Pakistan in 1985, and was therefore only 17 when he was captured. This means nothing to the administration, of course. At a press conference in April 2003, when the “child prisoners” story first broke, Donald Rumsfeld pointedly described the juvenile detainees as “not children,” and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that they “may be juveniles, but they’re not on the Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league team, and it’s a terrorist team, and they’re in Guantánamo for a very good reason–for our safety, for your safety.”
Last year, in response to media reports criticizing the number of juveniles held at Guantánamo, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon also weighed in, insisting, in defiance of reason, “There is no international standard concerning the age of individuals who engage in combat operations,” and adding, “Age is not a determining factor in the detention [of those] engaged in armed conflict against our forces or in support to those fighting against us.”
What is just as astonishing about Jawad’s case, however, is that it was chosen at all. According to the AFP, he is to be charged with “attempted murder in violation of the laws of war,” and “intentionally causing injury for allegedly throwing a grenade at a US military vehicle, wounding two US soldiers and an Afghan interpreter,” but there are doubts over whether he actually threw the grenade, and, in any case, after nearly six years of chest-thumping claims that Guantánamo houses “the worst of the worst,” the decision to prosecute a teenager, who had no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda, and who, at best, was a minor Afghan insurgent, is both desperate and risible.
For his part, Jawad has long denied that he actually threw the grenade. In his administrative review in December 2005, he denied an allegation that an individual approached him at his shop in Khost in October 2002, offering him an opportunity to make money by killing Americans, saying, “I don’t have a shop in Khost. I don’t know anyone to give me money.” He accepted that, in December 2002, at a mosque in Miran Shah, Pakistan, he met four people who offered him a job clearing mines in Afghanistan, but denied other allegations that he received training “to use AK-47s, rocket launchers, machine guns and hand grenades,” that he trained with Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (the anti-American militia headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a US favorite during the war against the Soviet Union), and that he “was identified as being at [a] jihadi madrassa before the Americans came to Afghanistan,” where he learned how to throw grenades and was “seen with a fake plastic grenade in his hand.” “This statement is not true,” he said. “It is a lie. I never went to a religious school. I have not heard of those names before. I only went to school in Pakistan.”
The specific reason for Jawad’s detention in Guantánamo involves a grenade attack on US forces on December 17, 2002. According to the allegations, two people ordered him and a second person “to position themselves near the mosque and to wait for an American target to pass. As an American vehicle passed, the second individual ordered the detainee to throw a grenade into the vehicle.” Jawad responded, “Nobody asked me to throw a grenade. I have never thrown a grenade. I don’t understand how to throw it.” He then became agitated after it was alleged that he had “stated originally he was not the person who was supposed to throw the grenade, but that the grenades were passed to him at the last minute … The other individuals told the detainee to throw the grenade, so he did.” He insisted, “That is not true. I told them [the interrogators] in my statement that I was the person who did not throw the grenade.”
He also denied subsequent allegations that, while he was throwing the grenade, the second individual “fled the scene,” that he was “caught by a local police officer at the site of the explosion,” and that he “made a written confession to this attack, signed it, and marked it with his fingerprint.” Crucially, he said that the local police took him to jail and “they tortured me. They beat me. They beat me a lot. One person told me, ‘If you don’t confess, they are going to kill you’. So, I told them anything they wanted to hear.”
Having not heard this story before, the Presiding Officer, in a stunning display of the tortuous bureaucracy overlaying the Guantánamo regime, declared that Jawad’s allegation of torture and abuse “triggers the mandatory reporting aspect of the Office of Administrative Review for the Detention of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC) Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) [with regards to reporting allegations of abuse and torture].” This was dropped, however, when Jawad then confirmed to the Board that the abusive treatment had taken place in Kabul, at the hands of Afghan soldiers, and added, “I have never seen or endured any torture in Bagram or here in Cuba by the Americans.”
Returning to the subject of the grenade attack, Jawad denied an allegation that he “told a senior Afghani police officer that he was proud of what he had done, and if he were let go he would do it again,” and responded to an allegation that “A senior Afghani official stated he heard the detainee admit to throwing the grenade at the two United States soldiers,” by saying that he was probably overheard when he made his false confession. He again insisted that “someone else threw the grenade,” and explained that the person who had invited him to come to Afghanistan to clear mines had given him a grenade to put in his pocket (although he did not know what it was) and had then left him unattended for a while in the market. He said that, while shopping for raisins, he took the grenade out of his pocket and put it on the sack of raisins, but that when the shopkeeper saw it he “told me it was a bomb and that I should go and throw it in the river. I put the thing back in my pocket and I was running and shouting to stay away, it’s a bomb! When I got close to the river, people [the police] caught me.”
Mohamed Jawad may well be guilty of the grenade attack, but it is doubtful that the truth will be aired adequately in a Military Commission. It is, for example, beyond the bounds of belief that the Afghan soldiers who allegedly tortured him will be sought and found in Afghanistan and brought to Guantánamo to testify. Above all, however, the whole sad story, whether true or not, is nothing like the kind of major prosecution of a senior al-Qaeda operative that the American public might be expecting after six years, the spending of untold billions of dollars, and the demolition of the rule of law.
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).
He can be reached at: email@example.com