Is there such a thing as a child terrorist?
That question was posed at a hearing today in Guantánamo Bay, when Navy Lieut. William Kuebler asked a military judge, Army Col. Peter Brownback, to dismiss charges against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and accused Al Qaeda fighter who was pulled off the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002. He was 15 at the time, and if convicted of the charges against him, he will spend his remaining days in prison.
According to Reuters, Khadr “is accused of throwing a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer in the firefight and planting roadside bombs intended to kill other U.S. or coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.” The charges he faces in Guantánamo include “murder, attempted murder, conspiring with al Qaeda, providing material support for terrorism and spying by conducting surveillance of U.S. military convoys in Afghanistan.”
At the hearing today, Kuebler made the case that his client is a “victim” of Al Qaeda, not a member. He also pointed out that US and international law designate all children on the battlefield involuntary combatants, since, as Reuters explains, “they lack the experience and judgment to understand the risk of joining armed forces.” (They are also, often, coerced into taking up arms.) More:
Defense attorneys contend that any charges against Khadr should be pursued in a civilian court in a juvenile system where the goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment.
If the U.S. Congress intended to try children as war criminals, it would have explicitly authorized that in the 2006 law that serves as a framework for the Guantanamo court, Kuebler said.
But a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, arguing for the prosecution, said that if Congress intended to exclude juveniles from the Guantanamo war court, it would have explicitly written that, because lawmakers knew Khadr could face charges. Instead, Congress wrote the law using the term “person,” which legally refers to “anyone born alive,” Justice Department attorney Andy Oldham said.
If Brownback refuses to drop the charges, Kuebler noted, he “will be the first in Western history to preside over the trial of alleged war crimes committed by a child.” (Sadly, that wouldn’t be the first of the firsts for the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.”) Brownback has not issued a ruling yet; the case is scheduled to go to trial in May.
[For more on Omar Khadr’s ordeal, read this lengthy article from Rolling Stone, which appeared in August 2006. For more on youth caught up in Islamist fighting, check out Jared Cohen’s book Children of Jihad.]