Jan 26, 2009 04:30 AM
This is Omar Khadr today.
He is taller than six feet, weighs more than 180 pounds, has a full beard, short coarse hair and looks nothing like the 15-year-old who was shot and captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan 6 1/2 years ago.
Khadr's fate now rests in the hands of the Obama administration and the Canadian government who will decide if he is to be tried in the U.S. or sent home. The only thing certain is that the 22-year-old will leave Guantanamo Bay this year.
Last week was my 15th, and likely final, time reporting from Guantanamo, the U.S. prison on Cuba's southeast coast.
As this dark chapter in history closes – a story that began with the horrific Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but ends with condemnation of a U.S. administration that sacrificed the moral high ground – it's time to look back at a prison that has become an enduring symbol.
Guantanamo is a place of jarring juxtapositions.
Bad things aren't supposed to happen in beautiful places, which is why each trip becomes surreal moments before landing, when the military pilot makes a sharp right turn to avoid Cuban airspace and the splendour of the aquamarine coastline and rugged terrain comes into focus.
From the start, the Pentagon tried to control the message in sometimes farcical ways.
Suicides of the detainees became "asymmetric warfare" and force-feeding prisoners on hunger strikes was "assisted feeding." Captives did not have "interrogations" but had "reservations." And signs posted on the road to the camps listed the "Value of the Week" as "Pride" or "Respect" even as Washington debated the definition of torture.
The motto for Joint Task Force Guantanamo operating the prison is "Honour Bound to Defend Freedom."
The refrain is repeated continuously as soldiers' salute one another, prompting one journalist during a prison tour to ask earnestly, "At a prison?"
Journalists have been the public's eyes and ears at the base for the last seven years and the ever-changing rules have at times hampered our efforts to tell the whole story.
Security regulations surrounding photos and videos were perhaps the most confounding.
Last week, censors erased a photographer's shots of the tents at "Camp Justice" where journalists reside because there were more than three tents in the frame. A television reporter's clip was deleted because the shot showed her talking with an orange barricade in the background. No one could explain why that was a problem.
Tight shots of razor wire were okay, except if it surrounded the courthouse, even if the courthouse wasn't shown. I tried to point out that I didn't think Al Qaeda would be surprised that razor wire was being used as security.
Detainees couldn't be interviewed or identified in photographs because of the Geneva Conventions, Pentagon spokespeople and military commanders told us.
The international treaties state that prisoners of war must "at all times be protected ... against insult and public curiosity." The PoWs should be afforded "respect for their persons and their honour."
But the Bush administration created this offshore prison in an effort to sidestep those same Geneva Conventions. U.S. President George W. Bush, who left office last week, famously stated that only the "spirit of" the Geneva Conventions would be respected at Guantanamo.
Our military escorts would correct us if we referred to captives as prisoners because these were not "prisoners of war" but "detainees."
And if the reason for censoring photos was to protect a captive's right to privacy and honour, then the Pentagon violated its own rules when it released Guantanamo's most famous picture. The photo, taken in 2002, showing shackled prisoners in orange jumpsuits kneeling in the hot Cuban sun while dogs and soldiers bark at them, was actually taken by a U.S. sailor.
When international furor erupted, the Pentagon quickly labelled the photos "For Official Use Only" in an attempt to prevent further distribution. But it was too late.
Photographer Navy Petty Officer Shane McCoy, who has since left the military, told Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg he was amazed by the reaction. "I actually called my mother right after it happened and told her that my photos had caused an international incident," he said last year.
The Toronto Star is the only media outlet to have attended every court hearing for Khadr – a process Pentagon officials have insisted was "full, fair and open."
But the fact that the hearings were held in Cuba, and that we had to agree to pages of ground rules, meant that these trials were anything but open.
Legal motions were often not "cleared" for release until months after a hearing had taken place. Few exhibits were ever given to reporters.
There was also a ban on identifying military witnesses. Sometimes this made sense if it meant protecting someone posted abroad or undercover. But one perplexing instance in Khadr's case came last month when lawyers were arguing about a witness known as "D.C." It was clear they were talking about Damien Corsetti, a military interrogator – now retired – who had befriended Khadr when he was held in Bagram, Afghanistan.
I had interviewed Corsetti in 2007 for a book on Khadr's case and his account of what happened to prisoners at the U.S. base was featured in the Star and in an Oscar-award-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side.
Corsetti did not mind going public but we didn't publish his name for that day's story because under the military court rules we could have been barred from the base.
Over the years, I have witnessed spectacular clashes between journalists and military public affairs officers who worked as our liaisons on the base.
The New York Times' Bill Glaberson once ran in a circle around our tents until the military relented and agreed that reporters didn't need an escort if they wanted to jog alone. I had only one dramatic encounter myself a couple years ago, when a captain screamed that I would be "sent to my room" if my attitude didn't improve. He later apologized and said the place was getting to him.
The U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay has been there for 100 years, based on a pre-Castro Cuba treaty that stipulated both parties must agree to abolish the lease.
President Barack Obama's order last week to close it refers only to the prison camps that hold 245 men and Camp Justice, the $12 million portable legal complex that can be dismantled and moved elsewhere.
An earlier Bush administration proposal to build a $100 million permanent federal court and support centre had been wisely rejected.
The U.S. navy base, however, with its Starbucks and driving range, its outdoor movie theatre and McDonald's, will likely continue to exist, despite an ailing Fidel Castro's entreaties to Obama last week to surrender the land.
What will also live on is "Guantanamo," just that one word, to convey abuse of power in a time of fear.
If you think the arrest of child soldier's and indefinite detention without trial is bad, remember, Mr. Harper put him on the plane there. In Canada, we have "Power Orders" and "Sheffield Orders", issued in Ontario Superior Court -"Family Division" where father's are criminally convicted "WITHOUT TRIAL" or "The right to a trial" or even the right to cross examine QUADRUPLE HEARSAY EVIDENCE". Any vindictive mother can simply hire a feminist lawyer to "personally fabricate evidence" make a phone call to Chambers and "get her judge" to hold a hearing contrary to numerous other judges orders for a trial. These draconian orders permanently remove the right of access to the courts for almost any reason, and you can thank that very small group of judges who make the majority of those draconian decisions that are nothing less than a flagrant abuse of judicial "discretion". Notice Mr. Harper's light has not yet switched on. And he is our P.M.