The Youth Prisoners of Guantanamo Bay



Three months before his death, Yasser Talal al Zahrani was deemed to be in good health although it was noted that he had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. He died inside the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in June 2006 allegedly by hanging himself using his bed sheets. He was only 21 then.

At 17, Yasser was captured in Afghanistan on suspicions of being a front line fighter for the Taliban. Although technically a minor, the U.S. military didn't consider him a juvenile as it only applies this status to persons under the age of 16.

Juvenile detainees are entitled to special protection. They should be kept separate from adults and provided with education and other rehabilitation assistance.

In his detainee assessment documents, Yasser was identified as "a jihadist" who was in combat for three months and participated in a prison riot. He was classified as "medium risk" and "may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies," a ridiculously vague phrase that has peppered most of the detainees' reviews.

Yasser's dossier is part of the trove of military documents released by Wikileaks on Monday. His assessment papers were classified as "SECRET/NOFORN" (not for release to foreign nationals).

He was not charged with any crime. He was basically in detention because the military believed him to be a religious extremist who, if released, would kill as many Americans as he can. This is the common narrative that runs through the files of detainees in Guantanamo.

War criminal at 15

Captured when he was 15, Omar Khadr can definitely be considered a juvenile. This did not save him, however, from being convicted of five charges of war crimes. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, not counting the seven years served in detention.

In the recommendation of the Defense Department's joint task force dated January 2004, Omar must remain in detention because his father was an al-Qaida financier, he excelled in explosives training, he's a smart kid, and he appeared to know a lot about al-Qaida operations and training camps. He was primarily accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.

"Detainee, though only 16 years old… has been found to be intelligent and educated and understands the gravity of his actions… [He] has never expressed any genuine remorse for the killing of that soldier. He has direct family affiliations with senior Al-Qaida members, has received advanced specialized training in explosives, and has directly participated in hostile attacks against US forces… he remains committed to extremist Islamic values," the document said.

In 2010, Omar pled guilty to the murder of Sergeant Christopher Speer. He may be transferred to Canada, his home country, to serve the remainder of his sentence after at least one year in Guantanamo.

Summer camp: weapons training

Hassan Mohammed Ali Bin Attash has been held at Guantanamo without charge for six years and seven months. He was 17 when he was captured.

In the third round of his case review in 2007, the odds were not in his favor. The review board listed 32 factors for his continued detention and only two factors for transfer or release.

Like Omar, Hassan's family connections did him in. Osama bin Laden was said to be a frequent visitor at his father's house and he supposedly belonged to a family of jihadists.

His review documents stated that he started taking bomb-making classes when he was 12 and underwent further weapons training at 14. He also acted as a courier, delivering remote detonators to the Taliban and forwarding money to al-Qaida operatives.

From the looks of it, Hassan's life is a child soldier story: He was raised in an extremist belief system, sent to warfare trainings at an age when other kids are going to summer camps, and dragged into a war that was not his making.

From the U.S. government's point of view, that qualifies him as an enemy combatant and a threat to American security. It also doesn't help his case that he's a Yemeni citizen. The U.S. has halted transfer of detainees to Yemen on account of the country's unstable security conditions.

How many teens are in Guantanamo?

There has been no definite figure on the number of Guantanamo inmates who were captured before they turned 18. Estimates range from 12 to as high as 60. The government said it is difficult to determine the exact number of minors among the detainees since most of them did not know their own date of birth.

Nonetheless, acting on a better-safe-than-sorry approach, the government has determined that these young men are dangerous enemies, never mind that no charges have been brought against them in court. So while young people their age in other parts of the world were graduating from high school and going off to college and getting on with the start of their adult lives, they have been wasting away in a military prison camp, tagged as the worst of the worst.

Photo 1 by Joshua Sherurcij - Toronto protester in 2008 protesting the detention of minors in the Global War on Terror

Photo 2 by Flickr/4wardever (Creative Commons) Omar Khadr at age 14

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