/ 6 April 2006

Canadian plans boycott of Guantánamo trial

A Canadian teenager accused of killing a United States soldier in Afghanistan said on Wednesday he would boycott his ”war on terror” trial before a US military tribunal after he was placed in solitary confinement at the Guantánamo detention camp.

”I am boycotting these procedures until I am treated humanely and fairly,” said Omar Ahmed Khadr (19) reading from a handwritten statement in a nervous voice.

Khadr’s statement set off an angry exchange between his defence lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel Colby Vokey, and the military officer presiding over the tribunal, Colonel Robert Chester, who called a recess in the pre-trial hearing after Vokey pounded the podium and yelled.

Vokey fumed that just as he was trying to prepare his client’s case, ”they move him to solitary confinement for no apparent reason whatsoever”.

He complained that his client was being treated unfairly and that the conditions at the prison and the tribunal’s procedures undermined the defence team’s ability to carry out its work.

”Every time we come down here there is this incredible burden just to do our normal jobs,” he said.

The lawyer said he had been asked by Khadr to stop taking any legal action in the case to support his protest over his detention conditions.

After a short recess to allow tempers to cool, Chester ordered the proceedings to continue and said the matter of Khadr’s solitary confinement would be addressed later in the week once the facts could be presented.

The episode illustrated the legal challenges facing the US administration as it struggles to try detainees held in a controversial prison before extraordinary tribunals operating outside of international and US law.

A spokesperson for the military contingent running Guantánamo said it was routine practice for detainees facing charges before the tribunals to be moved into the maximum-security section of the prison.

While the inmates are separated from the rest of the inmates and put in individual cells, Commander Robert Durand said the term solitary confinement did not apply because the inmates could speak to each other.

”It’s largely for their own protection,” Durand told Agence France-Presse.

The US government has come under severe criticism over conditions at the Guantánamo prison at the US naval base on Cuba’s southern coast.

Former detainees, defence lawyers and FBI officials say inmates have been abused and tortured in marathon interrogation sessions.

The tribunals, set up to try ”war on terror” detainees at the Guantánamo prison, have been plagued by legal dilemmas over the rights of the accused and the procedures to be followed.

Khadr’s defence lawyers said they were being asked to violate their professional ethical obligations by defying their client’s wishes to resolve his detention conditions immediately.

But Chester rejected their concerns and Vokey said the defence team would participate in this week’s proceedings under protest.

Only 10 of about 490 inmates held at the prison have been charged in the more than four years since the camp was opened. Prosecutors say they plan eventually to charge a total of about 75 detainees, leaving the fate of the other prisoners unclear.

As the hearing continued on Wednesday afternoon, Khadr’s lawyer challenged the impartiality of the presiding officer, saying he had a potential conflict of interest due to a pending application for a job as an immigration judge.

Vokey said the post is appointed by the US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, who Vokey argued also has a vested interest in the operations of the tribunals which he helped to create.

Vokey pointed out that his client had a habeas petition pending before a US federal court which Gonzales’s office is fighting to defeat.

Khadr, who says he has been tortured and abused, was captured in Afghanistan by US forces in July 2002, when he was 15, and his lawyers say he is too young to be tried on war crimes.

He is charged with plotting with al-Qaeda and killing a US medic during a battle near Khost in Afghanistan. – AFP