“For me, Omar’s age has always been the greatest factor.” Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was 15 at the time of his capture in Afghanistan in 2002. That’s the bottom line for Michelle Shephard, the Toronto Star reporter who has covered the Khadr story since his capture. And indeed his age is an issue on more than one level. To begin, there is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which holds that “The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time.” The convention also provides for “prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance” and “to a prompt decision.”
The conditions of his confinement also are at issue. It certainly behooves a government detaining a child, especially for an extended period of time, to provide access to education. It is clear that no such arrangements were made to provide such aid, a matter that Shephard does not discuss. His lawyers were not allowed to bring outside mental health assessors to verify their concern about his mental health, so they themselves administered some standard tests, which were judged by a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. The lawyers also noted a considerable level of immaturity, related to his isolation and lack of normal social interaction.
Then there is the matter of torture. Khadr claims that he was used as a mop to clean up urine mixed with pine oil and threatened with rape, among other things. Moazzam Begg, a prisoner who was released back to Britain, told Shephard that Khadr’s treatment on his arrival was, in her words, “harsher than that of most detainees.” According to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted,” but Alberto Gonzales and Jay Bybee, lawyers for the White House at the time, issued a memorandum limiting it to treatment resulting in “death, organ failure or permanent impairment of a significant bodily function.”
In spite of all this, Canada’s Conservative government has accepted the assurance of Uncle Sam that Khadr is being treated humanely. The Canadian government has also produced internal guidelines about what to say about the Khadr case. Don’t talk about his age, spokesmen are warned.
Shephard covers the uncertainty around who threw the grenade that killed an American soldier. Just as her book was hitting the bookstore shelves, Khadr’s lawyers were able to establish a couple interesting facts. The original write-up about the attack on the compound had been altered after the fact to implicate him. And troops entering the bombed-out compound killed one al-Qaeda fighter by shooting him in the head, only being prevented from doing the same to seriously wounded Omar Khadr by a Special Forces soldier.
The book covers the history of the Khadr saga and its political and legal ramifications. However, it is much more. It also provides a riveting account of the Khadr family history and its deepening involvement with radical Islam. All in all, a gripping and troubling read.