The Bush administration's treatment of juvenile prisoners shipped to Guantánamo Bay defies logic as well as international law.
By Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director - Human Rights Watch
When Mohammed Jawad took the stand in a courtroom at the U.S. Naval base here late last week, he described a litany of abuse he has endured while detained at Guantánamo, including a sleep deprivation regime known colloquially as the "frequent flyer" program.
"Day and night, they were shifting me from one room to another room," Jawad said. "I don't remember how much time I slept, but it was only a short time before they were knocking on my door and shifting me from place to place. No one answered me why they were giving me this punishment."
Military records showed that during a 14-day period in May 2004, Jawad was moved from cell to cell 112 times, usually left in one cell for less than three hours before being shackled and moved to another. Between midnight and 2 a.m. he was moved more frequently to ensure maximum disruption of sleep.
Such tactics used against a detainee would have been severe under any circumstances – Department of Defense guidance limits sleep deprivation to a maximum of four days – but in the case of Jawad, they are particularly disturbing because he was a scared and suicidal teenager at the time. (...)
According to government records obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, more than 20 detainees under the age of 18 have been brought to the prison camp since 2002. The treatment of underage prisoners at Guantánamo, largely in defiance of international law, is one of various ways in which the Bush administration's policies have tainted prospects for Guantánamo detainees ever to be brought to justice under U.S. law.
Although most of the 20 juvenile detainees have now been released, three remain, having spent more than a quarter of their lives at Guantánamo. The other two juvenile detainees were each only 15 years old when they were apprehended. Mohammad El Gharani was arrested at a mosque in Pakistan and brought to Guantánamo in early 2002. Omar Khadr, a Canadian, was apprehended in July 2002 after a firefight in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier. Held for several months in Afghanistan, he was barely 16 when he arrived here later that same year.
The presence of juveniles at Guantánamo first came to light in 2003, when media reports revealed the age of the youngest detainee at Guantánamo – who was only 13 years old. (...)
That year, on behalf of Human Rights Watch, I had several meetings with Pentagon representatives to discuss the fate of these children. In early 2004, they were released to UNICEF in Afghanistan for rehabilitation. But whenever I tried to raise the case of Omar Khadr (we were unaware of El Gharani and Jawad's cases at the time) I received the same response: "Khadr is off the table; we will not discuss Khadr."
Unlike with the three boys held at Camp Iguana and released for rehabilitation, the Pentagon has never acknowledged the juvenile status of Khadr, Jawad or El Gharani. Although international law provides that anyone under 18 is a child and entitled to special treatment, the Defense Department created its own standard: Anyone who was 16 would automatically be treated as an adult. When I asked Defense Department officials in 2004 about the rationale for this policy, they had no reply. One official finally admitted to me that it was completely arbitrary. (...)
The Bush administration's refusal to treat these prisoners as juveniles has had profound consequences for Khadr, Jawad and El Gharani. They have had no access to education or recreation facilities and have been housed in the same facilities as adult detainees. After five years of imprisonment, Jawad remains functionally illiterate. None of the three have been allowed to see members of their family.
The effects of prolonged isolation have taken a severe toll. El Gharani has tried to commit suicide at least seven times. He has slit his wrist, run repeatedly into the sides of his cell and tried to hang himself. On several occasions he has been placed on suicide watch in a mental health unit.
Jawad also tried to commit suicide about 11 months after arriving in Guantánamo, by hanging himself by his shirt collar. Prison records also state that he "attempted self-harm by banging his head off of metal structures inside his cell."(...)
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