Legal experts and human rights advocates are challenging the public to remember Guantanamo’s “child soldiers” when the detainees there are characterised as “the worst of the worst”. Since the iconic detention centre in Cuba opened in 2002, some 22 juveniles have been imprisoned there. And contrary to the UN’s Rights of the Child protocol, all but three have been housed with the general population, despite their being obliged to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict”.

Two “child soldier” cases in particular are being highlighted by human rights advocates. Mohammed el-Gharani, a Chadian national and Saudi resident, was just 14 years old when he was seized by Pakistani forces in October 2001, in a raid on a mosque in Karachi. El-Gharani’s defence lawyers charge he was treated with appalling brutality. After being tortured in Pakistani custody, he was handed over to the US forces, who flew him to a prison at Kandahar airport, where, he said, one particular soldier would hold a pair of scissors, and threaten to harm him. They claim his treatment did not improve in Guantánamo. Subjected relentlessly to racist abuse, because of the colour of his skin, he was hung from his wrists on numerous occasions, and was also subjected to a regime of “enhanced” techniques to prepare him for interrogation. As a result, el-Gharani became deeply depressed, and tried to commit suicide on several occasions.

But last month, just days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a federal judge, Richard Leon, ruled that the government had not proven that el-Gharani was an enemy combatant and said he must be released and sent home “forthwith”. He is unlikely to be released soon, however, because it is not clear if the government of Chad will accept him.

Over the past month, federal judges in Washington have been moving ahead with case-by-case reviews of about 200 detainee legal challenges. The review is happening because of a Supreme Court ruling in June 2006 which gave terror suspects the right to challenge their detention in federal court. The Bush administration had said that el-Gharani had served as a courier for senior Al Qaeda operatives. The other “child soldier” still at Gitmo is Omar Khadr. He was taken into custody in Afghanistan at the age of 15, and was in the midst of his trial when President Obama’s first executive orders suspended all Military Commission proceedings for 120 days.

Khadr was born in Toronto, and is the only citizen of a western country currently detained by US authorities in Cuba. He was captured after a four-hour firefight in the village of Ayub Kheyl in Afghanistan, and has spent the past six years at Guantanamo. He is charged with war crimes, providing support to terrorism and throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier. But according to the lawyers, the unintentionally released US military documents said that Kadr was not the person who threw the grenade.

Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, said that Khadr’s case “should be dismissed in its entirety”.

“If his trial proceeds — and no matter in what forum it proceeds — it will be the first instance of a child soldier being prosecuted in a US court for conduct in wartime,” he said. — IPS