Torture has received the most attention among the many war crimes of the Bush administration. But those who support Bush’s pursuit of the “war on terror” have not been impressed by recriminations over torture. Worse than torture are the murders of at least 50 prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, but again the hard-hearted are unimpressed when those whom they perceive as terrorists receive illegal extrajudicial capital punishment.
The case for abusing children, however, is more difficult to support. The best kept secret of the Bush’s war crimes is that thousands of children have been imprisoned, tortured, and otherwise denied rights under the Geneva Conventions and related international agreements. Yet both Congress and the media have strangely failed to identify the very existence of child prisoners as a war crime. In the Islamic world, however, there is no such silence. Indeed, the prophet Mohammed was the first to counsel warriors not to harm innocent children.
The first example of war crimes against children, which are well documented, occurred during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when the children’s hospital in Kabul was bombed, its patients thereby murdered, contrary to the Red Cross Convention of 1864. Other children were killed as “collateral damage” during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, contrary to the Geneva Convention ban on indiscriminate killing in wartime, though numbers of dead are unknown. During spring 2004, during the assault on Falluja, Iraq, some 300 children, including peaceful demonstrators, were killed. Their dead bodies were filmed live on al-Jazeera Television throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
In 2008, the Bush administration reported to the UN-assisted Committee on the Rights of the Child that the United States from 2002 had detained 2,400 children in Iraq and 100 in Afghanistan, though another source claims that the figure for Afghanistan is at least 800 boys, aged 10 to 15, from whom as many as 64 were sent to Guantánamo, of which there were 21 as of May 2008. That month, the Committee upbraided the United States for charging minors with war crimes instead of treating underage persons as victims of war. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s two children, aged 7 and 9, were separately detained to intimidate him to confess.
While detained, several children have been brutalized and tortured. At Abu Ghraib, American guards videotaped Iraqi male prisoners raping young boys but took no action to stop the offenses. Perhaps the worst incident at Abu Ghraib involved a girl aged 12 or 13 who screamed for help to her brother in an upper cell while stripped naked and beaten. Iraqi journalist Suhaib Badr-Addin al-Baz, who heard the girl’s screams, also witnessed an ill 15-year-old who was forced to run up and down Abu Ghraib with two heavy cans of water and beaten whenever he stopped. When he finally collapsed, guards stripped and poured cold water on him. Finally, a hooded man was brought in. When unhooded, the boy realized that the man was his father, who doubtless was being intimidated into confessing something upon sight of his brutalized son.
While General Hamid Zabar was being questioned in Iraq, his interrogators decided to arrest his frail 16-year-old son in order to produce a confession. After soldiers found the boy, he was stripped, drenched with mud and water, and exposed to the cold January night while bound and driven about in the open back of a truck. When presented naked to his father, he was shivering due to hypothermia, clearly needing medical attention.
At least 25 war crimes refer specifically to child prisoners. Among the crimes are the arbitrary transfer out of their home countries, leaving their parents to wonder whether they were dead. When their locations were later revealed, parents were not allowed to contact them, even through the mail. And family members knew nothing of Hassin Bin Attash’s extraordinary rendition experience in Jordan or Ahmad Bashir’s disappearance for two years in a secret prison.
Children have been incarcerated in the same quarters as adults, contrary to the Geneva Convention. Subjected to solitary confinement, they are denied educational and recreational opportunities. Indeed, one attorney was not allowed to give his client (Omar Khadr) a copy of “Lord of the Rings” or play dominoes with him; another has been forbidden to supply his client (Mohammed Jawad) articles from the Internet. After Captain James Yee left Guantánamo on September 10, 2003, no Muslim chaplain has ever replaced him, so they have not been provided appropriate religious education.
Meanwhile, the authorities have refused to investigate or prosecute those who have abused children, and there have been no programs established to prevent prison mistreatment or to assist in their resulting post-traumatic stress. They have been denied legal counsel and a statement of reasons for their confinement upon arrival in prison, held far beyond the “speedy trial” requirement under the Geneva Conventions, coerced into confessions that may be false, and denied available exculpatory evidence, including witnesses.
In 2003, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao gave a speech on behalf of the need to rehabilitate child soldiers from Burundi, Colombia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. While she spoke, several children were being abused at Guantánamo. The most famous, Mohammed Jawad and Omar Khadr, are still being held for trial at Guantánamo.
Omar Khadr’s videotaped plea for his mommy and claims of torture has been seen on television worldwide. While still wounded from battle in Afghanistan, Omar was interrogated many times, sometimes while hooded with dogs barking near him, so he confessed to stop the pain from his wounds. During interrogation at Guantánamo, Omar was shackled to the floor in stress positions until he soiled himself. His bound body was twice used as a mop to wipe his own urine mixed with pine oil after which he was refused a shower and a change of clothing. He has also been administered a brutal beating while on a hunger strike, threatened with rape, and denied pain medication.
There is some puzzlement over the reason for imprisoning Mohammad Jawad. Is it because, while at an American-run prison in Afghanistan in 2002, he has claimed that he saw Americans murdering inmates? At Guantánamo, to deprive him of sleep in order to force some sort of confession, he was shifted from one cell to another more than 100 times during two weeks in May 2004, and he remains in solitary confinement today. When he showed up in court in 2008, he was the first to wear leg shackles. During his arraignment, the judge asked him whether he accepted the assigned military defense attorney as his lawyer. After replying in the negative, the judge asked whether he knew another lawyer. His reply to the Kafkaesque inquiry was “Since I don’t know any lawyer, how can I have them represent me? . . . I should be given freedom so that I can find a lawyer.” His request to hunt for a lawyer was then denied.
The mistreatment of children is something not so funny that has been neglected on the road to investigations of and calls for prosecution of those responsible for torture. George W. Bush has never been asked about the abuse of children in American-run prisons in the “war on terror.” It is high time for Bush and others to be held accountable for what is arguably the most egregious of all their war crimes—the abuse and death of children, who should never have been arrested in the first place.
Michael Haas’s book George W. Bush, War Criminal? - The Bush Administration’s Liability for 269 War Crimes is available here