In testimony this afternoon that literally had my jaw dropping, a forensic psychiatrist called by the U.S. government testified that Omar Khadr, the Canadian who yesterday pled guilty to a slew of terrorist acts including murder, is too dangerous to be released because he is sincerely religious and became even more devout at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Dr. Michael Welner, a New York psychiatrist presented as an expert by the prosecution, spent most of the afternoon in a military commission hearing today explaining that in his expert opinion, Omar Khadr, captured in 2002 at the age of 15 and imprisoned by the U.S. ever since, is “highly dangerous.” Dr. Welner’s conclusions were reached, he explained, based largely on his understanding of the work of a psychiatrist in Copenhagen, Dr. Nicolai Sennels, who published a study of young Muslims in prison there. Although Welner admitted that he hadn’t actually read Dr. Sennels’s book because it was written in Danish, which Welner can’t read. He did have a conversation with Dr. Sennels about his theories and about Omar Khadr over the phone. Sennels apparently speaks English.
Welner also based his opinion on the written documents in the government’s file on Omar Khadr, on television interviews that Khadr’s relatives have given on English-language TV, and on one interview with Khadr in the Gitmo prison. And he relied on unspecified data given to him by the government about recidivism among Guantanamo inmates. The numbers of former Guantanamo prisoners who have turned to terrorism is hotly debated.
Welner testified that Dr. Sellner believes that the key factors determining whether a Muslim prisoner can be “deradicalized” are first, whether he exhibits remorse, and second, his degree of Westernization. Omar Khadr, he believed, failed on both counts. Although I can’t possibly recount the many hours’ worth of testimony about why that is, the short version is that Welner found Omar Khadr to be “angry” when he met with him: “he’s very angry about being here.”
Khadr, remember, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for eight years without trial. At the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, he was threatened with gang rape and death if he didn’t cooperate with interrogators.
As for Westernization, although Khadr’s English is flawless, “he has studied the Koran” and “regularly leads prayers” in the Guantanamo prison, said Welner, arguing that was a sign of radicalization. He “expressed no interest in developing himself academically,” said Welner, because when given U.S. schoolbooks – not classes, just books – he did not show much interest in reading them. Instead, he read Harry Potter, which Welner characterized as a form of “escapism.”
The fact that Khadr is surrounded by all Muslim prisoners – a choice made by the U.S. military, not Omar Khadr — is also a strike against him, said Welner. He’s been “marinating in radical Jidahism,” Welner said several times on Tuesday. Welner had not spoken to any of the other prisoners in Camp 4, and the source of his information about those prisoners and their beliefs was unclear.
Finally, Dr. Welner testified that Khadr would be a danger to society because “he identifies most closely with his family.” Khadr’s father, who was killed in Pakistan in 2003, was known as an al Qaeda financier. Welner proceeded to quote Khadr family members who’d given interviews to the media, including his sister, who told a TV reporter that she admired the bravery of a suicide bomber she’d heard about. Welner added that Khadr is also something of a “rock star” among inmates due to his al Qaeda family connections, and glistens with the “stardust” of having met Osama bin Laden.
Welner also testified that the child-like Omar who’s been without a father for seven years is vulnerable to father figures in the camp who “take him under their wing.”
It’s not clear how the military jury will respond to all of this. (The defense won’t get to cross-examine Welner until Wednesday.) But one thing the government’s expert made clear today is that Omar Khadr was indeed a child when he was working for his father, and later for his father’s friends, as an adolescent. (Many of the facts in the 50-paragraph stipulation of facts that form the basis for his plea bargain confirm that as well.) And like most child soldiers, Omar Khadr, dragged between Pakistan, Canada and Afghanistan as a youth, likely had little choice over whether to assist al Qaeda or live his own life.
Had the United States government followed through on the promises it made when it signed the United Nations Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it wouldn’t have this problem now. The United States would have separated Omar Khadr from adult prisoners, offered him rehabilitation and a meaningful education, and ultimately given him an opportunity to live a peaceful and respectable life.
Khadr’s anger isn’t due to his religion, of course, but to the torture and injustice he’s faced for the past eight years. It’s the United States’ failure to recognize the difference that feeds fears that the U.S. is fighting a “war against Islam” – understandably making some Muslims fearful and hostile.
As I reported yesterday, after weeks of negotiations, Omar Khadr has agreed to plead guilty to everything the government ever accused him of, despite the dearth of evidence supporting some of the charges and even though none of those charges appropriately belonged in a military commission. In the stipulation released today, we saw also that, in the statement’s final paragraph, Khadr agreed that he “does not have any legal defense to any of the offenses to which he is pleading guilty.”
The Obama administration thus neatly washed its hands of the serious legal problems with its first military commissions trial. But it cannot so neatly solve the problem of having violated its international legal obligations, not to mention moral principles, when it comes to deciding the future of Omar Khadr.