European Rights Activists Slam Guantanamo Bay Conditions | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.07.2008
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European Rights Activists Slam Guantanamo Bay Conditions

European human rights activists have expressed alarm about a graphic video released this week showing a young Canadian inmate at Guantanamo Bay weeping and calling out for help.

Man holding his head in pain

The video of the Guantanamo inmate begging for help has sparked outrage

A grainy seven-and-a-half hour video released by the lawyers of the youngest detainee held at the US military prison in Cuba shows Omar Khadr weeping and begging for help.

"You don't care about me," Khadr tells his interrogators. "Nobody cares about me."

Indeed, when Khadr complains that the interrogators have not helped his case and asks to be returned home to Canada, he is told, "We can't do anything for you."

The video, shot over the course of four days in February 2003 when Khadr was 16 and grilled by officials from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service spy agency is the first real insight into the conditions at Guantanamo Bay which have been slammed by human rights activists.

"For me that video is just the tip of the iceberg," said Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. " I'm not an emotional person, but it's easy when you watch that footage to fill in the blanks about what you're not seeing."

The United States is holding about 265 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. 21-year-old Omar Khadr, the only western national among them, is charged with killing a US medic in Afghanistan in 2002 at the age of 15.

"This tape shows the inhumanity of what goes on at Guantanamo," said Ferdinand Muggenthaler, Americas Expert at Amnesty International Germany. "Though the video itself doesn't show torture outright, it gives us an image of what happens there -- the methods that interrogators are using."

Canada in violation of UN protocol?

In one excerpt, these methods include interrogators showing little sympathy for Khadr's myriad medical concerns. "You look like you're doing well to me," says the interrogator. "I'm not a doctor but I think you're getting good medical care."

Man in white shirt and pants sitting behind chain link fence

America's treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has come in for harsh criticism

In another clip, Khadr is left alone in the interrogation room for over 20 minutes, a time during which he repeatedly shouts "Help me."

It's these experiences, combined with files released by the Foreign Intelligence Division of Canada's Foreign Affairs department revealing that Khadr was forcibly deprived of sleep by his US captors to soften him up for questioning by the Canadian agents, that most bother Muggenthaler.

"This shows that the Canadians knew what was happening to Khadr," said Muggenthaler. "They knew that what was going on at Guantanamo was in direct opposition to the UN's Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of a Child -- a protocol that Canada ratified."

The UN protocol, which the US has yet to agree to, states that the inclusion of children under the age of 18 in an armed conflict is a war crime. It likewise requires that former child soldiers should be given the chance to rehabilitate.

"Youths are under pressure both from adults and from their peer group so it doesn't make sense to treat them as adults," said Muggenthaler.

Peer pressure from an unlikely peer

For Khadr, that outside pressure came from an undeniably potent force. The youngest son of an Egyptian-Palestinian couple, Khadr spent little of his youth in Canada. At the age of two, he moved with his family from Toronto to Peshawar, Pakistan. Several years later, the family moved into Osama bin Laden's compound in Afghanistan.

As a teenager, Omar attended a military training camp where he learned marksmanship, bombmaking and combat tactics. When US forces invaded Afghanistan, Khadr fought alongside his father against them.

It's this fighting that landed the 15-year-old in US custody. During a protracted firefight outside Ab Khail, a small hill town near the Pakistan border, Khadr launched a grenade at US soldiers, killing one and injuring another. Though Khadr was seriously injured in the fighting that followed, US medics tended to his injuries and the boy was subsequently brought to Bagram Air Force base and later forwarded to Guantanamo Bay.

The right to a fair trial

Sketch of courtroom proceedings

Critics argue Khadr should not be subject to a military tribunal

There, he awaits a military tribunal on allegations of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy and aiding the enemy. Those charges, considered by some to be in direct conflict to the Geneva Convention, don't worry Kaleck. Instead, Kaleck is concerned for Khadr's right to a fair trial.

"It's especially a problem because Khadr was a child at the time of the crime. Some might argue that if Khadr was old enough to fight, he is old enough to face the consequences of his actions. But the people at Guantanamo, they aren't afforded the rights to criminal law when they face a military trial," he said.

Muggenthaler agreed. "Even if Khadr isn't innocent, Canada needs to ask the US to release him to them. He's the last western national at the camp, and if he were returned to Canada, he could be given a fair trial there. If Germany was able to secure the release of their nationals, Canada should be able to do the same."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't seem to agree, however. Though a Canadian federal judge said Khadr's treatment at Guantanamo Bay violated international laws on human rights, the prime minister's office held firm Tuesday in its decision not to ask for Khadr's repatriation.

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