The first military commission trial of the Obama administration is set to get under way here at the sweltering US military base on the island of Cuba.
Along with 37 other journalists, I’ve been flown here by the Pentagon to observe and report on this military trial. It is my seventh time here. The mood is even more serious and uptight than normal: five colleagues were banned from Guantanamo earlier this year for publishing the name of an interrogator.
Their media organisations fought back and they were re-admitted. We’ve all been given new rules that expand the already strict procedures we must follow.
It’s almost impossible to take a picture outside two or three locations and all television footage is examined frame-by-frame by a censor for “security” reasons. Agreeing to these rules is a condition for being allowed here.
To see what a detainee camp looks like, watch one of my earlier reports.
The upcoming trial is one of Guantanamo’s most controversial cases. Canadian citizen Omar Khadr is the only Westerner still being held at this military prison he was detained in Afghanistan at the age of 15. He’s now 23.
International law says children captured on the battlefield must be treated as victims, and not as perpetrators. Child-soldiers are supposed to be rehabilitated and given the chance to re-enter society.
Omar Khadr hasn’t been treated as a victim nor has he been rehabilitated because the United States says he isn’t a soldier and al-Qaeda isn’t an army.
It’s been widely reported that the US would have preferred to have reached a plea deal with Khadr, rather than have his case go to trial.
The Canadian has refused, and in a letter to his lawyer dated May 27 Omar Khadr wrote, “I have an obligation to show the world what is going on down here, it seems that we have done everything but the world doesn’t get it so it might work if the world sees the US sentencing a child to life in prison”.
A top military physiatrist who examined Khadr told me that he is under extreme stress, is depressed and doesn’t trust anyone. He recently fired his defence team, keeping just one military-appointed attorney to represent him – Major Jon Jackson. I’ve watched Khadr in court three times over the last few years.
At first he was calm and rather shy but recently his tone has changed. He seems frustrated and has suggested he plans to boycott his trial. It’s worth mentioning that Omar Khadr has often claimed he’s been tortured. He’s said that military interrogators threatened him with gang-rape and murder if he didn’t co-operate and at an earlier hearing a former US Army sergeant seemed to confirm that claim.
When I interviewed Zeynab Khadr, Omar’s older sister, she seemed confident that the Canadian Supreme court would demand her brother’s release from Guantanamo.
But the court did not issue such a request. Prime Minister Harper has a conservative base and many voters are not sympathetic to the Khadr family. Omar’s father was allegedly an al-Qaeda financier and his two brothers have been in prison – the eldest, Abdullah spent five years in prison fighting an extradition request by the US on terrorism charges and was released last week.
Some people view military trials as a test of a judicial process that’s faced international criticism and been revised several times by higher US courts. For Omar Khadr, the next few days are about his future, not the system.