By Daphne Eviatar, Senior Associate, Law and Security
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
As jury selection began for the trial of Omar Khadr today, a picture began to emerge of what sort of jury will make up the military commissions – not just in Khadr’s case, but in future military commission cases here at Guantanamo Bay as well.
The lead government prosecutor and Khadr’s military defense lawyer spent the entire day asking the pool of 15 unnamed military jurors a broad range of questions, from whether people close to them have been victims of enemy explosive attacks, to whether they had opinions about the Guantanamo Bay prison camp or know any Muslims or Arabs.
Commission members either volunteered to serve on a commission or were instructed to do so by their commanders. The final commission chosen must include at least five members, but may include as many as 15.
While eight potential jurors personally knew victims of Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, (Khadr is alleged to have assisted in the building of IEDs) few had personal dealings with Muslims or Arabs and none can speak or read Arabic, although many had been deployed in middle eastern countries. Only two jurors had an opinion about U.S. treatment of detainees, and not one had formed an opinion about Guantanamo Bay, although they were all aware that President Obama had pledged to close it.
Only three of the 15 had watched movies or read books about Afghanistan; only four had read books about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
One third of the pool agreed with the statement that the government “must have some good evidence against [Omar Khadr] or we wouldn’t be here.”
While four jurors had been through SERE training, those questioned individually about it acknowledged that while it was painful, they always knew it was only training and that they wouldn’t actually be harmed or killed. Khadr claims he was abused using many of the tactics, such as sleep deprivation and stress positions, that are employed in SERE training. Because in his case it was not training but actual interrogations, he claims that he confessed to some of the crimes charged only due to the terrifying tactics, which also included the threat of rape and death. He now claims he is innocent, and yesterday pleaded “not guilty” to all of the charges.
Khadr is charged with conspiracy, material support for terrorism, spying, and throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier while U.S. forces were storming a compound he was in. Although severely injured and blinded in one eye during the firefight, Khadr was the only person in the compound who survived. The evidence against him consists mostly of his statements and a video found at the firefight showing him with two adults in a room making some sort of device, which the government claims are explosives.
During jury selection today, both the prosecutor and defense lawyer asked the potential jurors about their thoughts on child soldiers and whether children should be treated the same as adults if they commit crimes. None of the jurors thought that a defendant should not be tried because of his age. All 15 of the potential jurors said that the age of a suspect has no significance by itself, and that children should not be held to a different standard.
Although they weren’t asked directly about their understanding of the law, none referenced or seemed to be aware that the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which the United States has signed, says that children under the age of 18 should not be treated as combatants and tried as war criminals, but instead should be treated as victims and offered rehabilitation.
Throughout the day’s proceedings, Omar Khadr sat quietly in court, wearing a slate gray suit, red-checked tie and black dress shoes that his lawyers had provided for him. Khadr, who lived the first nine years of his life in Canada so is fluent in English, said “hello” to the jurors and frequently smiled and chatted during breaks with his Canadian legal advisor and his military defense lawyer.
Update: In final jury selection, the government struck from the jury the one man who, in individual questioning, said that he “agreed with the president” that the continued operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention center is harming our national security, and admitted that he’d heard that some prisoners were abused and killed at the U.S.-run prison at Bagram in 2002 – 2003.