Guantánamo’s children

Local human-rights center says WikiLeaks shows U.S. government lied (again) about underage detainees

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child may be read online at

A new report by the UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas concludes that there were more children detained at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in the “war on terror” than the U.S. government admitted.

The state department initially acknowledged holding eight juveniles in the American detention camp, which is based in Cuba. Following a 2008 report by CSHRA, the government acknowledged that 12 children had been detained at Guantánamo.

But the new report, based on materials released by the transparency organization WikiLeaks, says that 15 minors were imprisoned there by the United States, and at least two were only 13 years old.

“In justification for their actions,” began Almerindo Ojeda, UC Davis professor of linguistics and CSHRA director, “the U.S. government says that it will pursue terrorists regardless of their age. That’s fine, as long as they remain within the confines of the law when they do.” Ojeda, who is currently in Peru, conducted a lengthy email interview with SN&R.

“According to American law, a child is an individual who is under 18 years of age. No exceptions are made for child soldiers, child criminals, or child terrorists, let alone alleged child soldiers, alleged child criminals, or alleged child terrorists.”

Ojeda pointed out that even those children who may be incarcerated under American law have special protections, such as being segregated from adult prisoners and that the purpose of their incarceration must be rehabilitation.

“Yet, as far as we know, only three of the 15 children we know were imprisoned at Guantánamo were ever segregated from the general population. And Guantánamo is an interrogation camp, not a rehabilitation facility.”

The report from the UC Davis center, titled “Guantánamo’s Children: The Wikileaked Testimonies,” was released earlier this month. It was compiled from more than 700 documents included in the WikiLeaks releases concerning Guantánamo Bay detention-center prisoners, as well as testimony from former inmates and guards at the camp.

The leaked documents indicate that 15 children have been detained. This total is three more than the state department acknowledged, and seven more than the U.S. government initially reported.

And the estimate is lower than others; journalist Andy Worthington estimated that 22 juveniles were detained, while the British human-rights organization Reprieve has estimated that the number of prisoners who were under the age of 18 when detained at more than 46.

The bottom line, Ojeda said, is that “children should not be interrogated, let alone tortured, as children in Guantánamo have.”

“Torturing children is twice depraved.”

A representative of the U.S. State Department told SN&R by phone that they do not comment on individual stories that involve WikiLeaks.

In a periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child dealing with the involvement of children in armed conflict from January of last year, the most recent available, the state department wrote that, “In an armed conflict where terrorists recruit and exploit children to send them into harm’s way deliberately, which often leads to their death, the detention of juveniles becomes an unavoidable necessity and burden.”

The document further states, “At Guantánamo, only one detainee who was under 18 at the time of capture [Omar Khadr, who was captured engaging in hostilities against U.S. Forces] remains in U.S. custody.”

According to the “Guantánamo’s Children” report, Khadr was the only juvenile detainee actually convicted of war crimes. The other 14 detainees who were children at the time of their internment were not convicted.

Thirteen of the juvenile detainees have been released. The remaining detainee, Yasser Talal al Zahrani, killed himself in his cell. He was 21 at the time of his death, and had been detained at Guantánamo since he was 17 years old.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Warren W. Tichenor sent a letter, dated November 24, 2008, to Yanghee Lee, chairman of the U.N. committee, acknowledging that the state department had previously undercounted the number of children detained at Guantánamo. SN&R obtained a copy of that letter.

Tichenor wrote, “In response to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, the Department of Defense has reviewed its records and concluded that the correct total number of individuals who were below the age of 18 upon their arrival at Guantánamo is twelve, rather than eight.”

SN&R was unable to reach the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is located in Geneva, by press time.

Ojeda finds it “convenient” that the State Department will not respond to questions based on WikiLeaks sources.

“None of the WikiLeaked materials on the war on terror have been questioned. WikiLeaks goes to great lengths to verify their information, and to involve major news organizations in verifying their information,” he said.

Ojeda also suggested that citizens concerned about the violation of human rights at Guantánamo “educate themselves, educate others, and educate the government about the fact that you are educated about these issues.”

“Depravity can only prosper in the dark.”