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Guantanamo: Omar Khadr trial a 'dangerous precedent'

Amnesty International has condemned the US government’s decision to go ahead with the military commission trial of Omar Khadr at Guantánamo, describing the move as another violation of human rights by the USA in the name of countering terrorism.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was taken into US custody as a 15-year-old in 2002 in Afghanistan, following a fire fight with US forces. He is facing five "war crime" charges, including a murder charge for allegedly throwing a grenade that fatally wounded a US soldier. The trial is due to begin today.

Amnesty International USA researcher Rob Freer said:

“The USA has turned a deaf ear to the repeated appeals of the international community, including senior UN officials, not to set this dangerous precedent of an unfair trial of an individual accused of alleged ‘war crimes’ committed when he was a child.

“After eight years of ignoring its human rights obligations, the USA is now set to try Omar Khadr under procedures that fail to meet international fair trial standards. History will not judge its actions kindly”.

On Monday, a military judge ruled that statements made by Omar Khadr during his time in custody would be admissible during the trial, rejecting a defence motion that the statements should be excluded as the product of torture or other ill-treatment. “It took this military judge about 90 seconds to rule, without explanation, that any statement this young detainee made during that time can be admitted against him,” said Amnesty International.

The selection of seven US military officers who will sit as a “jury” on the military commission was completed yesterday and opening arguments in the trial are due today. Omar Khadr faces the possibility of a life prison sentence if convicted. Even if acquitted he could be returned to indefinite military detention, according to the Manual on Military Commissions released in April this year.

Rob Freer added:

"These military commissions are part of a system of detentions and prosecutions that from the outset have kept the USA on the wrong side of its international human rights obligations. They should have been abandoned long ago, along with the unlawful Guantánamo detentions of which they became an integral part.”

Amnesty, which has an observer at the Guantánamo proceedings, has opposed the USA’s use of military commissions since former US President George W. Bush initiated them in 2001. The commissions are in their third incarnation, convened now under the Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2009, signed into law by President Obama in October 2009, revising a 2006 version of the MCA.

Rob Freer said:

“Under international law, the USA should have taken full account of Omar Khadr’s age at the time of his arrest, and treated him according to principles of juvenile justice.
“It utterly failed to do so, instead holding him for more than two years virtually incommunicado, subjecting him to repeated interrogations without access to a lawyer or the courts, and is now putting him through a military commission trial that would fail to meet international standards even if it were being applied to accusations against an adult.”

Amnesty says the commissions lack the independence of the US federal courts and fair trial protections that US nationals accused of identical conduct/crimes would receive. The military commissions deny the right of equality of all persons before the courts and equal protection of the law.

Rob Freer added:

“The military commissions were the wrong choice in 2001 and are wrong now, and justice will neither be done nor be seen to be done before them. The trial of Omar Khadr for alleged ‘war crimes’ committed when he was a child - something that would not be countenanced by any existing international tribunal - will also set a dangerous precedent.”

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