President-elect Obama urged to halt Guantánamo trial

US President-elect Barack Obama is being urged to back up his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay by calling a halt to the military commission trial scheduled to begin there six days after his inauguration.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups are calling on the President-elect, as one of his first acts in office, to stop military commission proceedings against Canadian national Omar Khadr, who was captured in July 2002 following a firefight with US forces in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old. Khadr has been in US military custody for six and a half years – nearly a third of his life.

Omar Khadr’s trial is due to begin on 26 January, six days after the new President takes office. Khadr is accused, among other things, of having thrown a grenade that killed a US soldier.

There is broad global recognition that the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is a serious abuse in itself. This is reflected in the fact that no existing international tribunal has ever prosecuted a child for war crimes.

A joint letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers calls on President-elect Obama, after inauguration, to suspend the military commissions, drop the military commission charges against Omar Khadr and either repatriate him for rehabilitation in Canada or transfer him to US federal court and prosecute him in accordance with international juvenile justice and fair trial standards.

The five organizations also called on the President-elect to act on the case of Mohammed Jawad, another Guantánamo detainee charged for offences he is alleged to have committed when he was still a child. He currently does not have a scheduled trial date.

Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad are charged with “war crimes” under the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA), legislation that has left the USA on the wrong side of its international obligations. Among other things, military commission procedures under the MCA do not comply with international fair trial standards and contain no juvenile justice provisions. In violation of international law, information obtained under cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or other unlawful methods can be admitted into evidence. Both Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad have been subjected to such treatment and to repeated interrogations without access to legal counsel.

In September 2006, Barack Obama, then a Senator, described the passage of the MCA as a “betrayal of American values” and in February 2008 he referred to the military commission system as “flawed”.

On Sunday, the President-elect restated his commitment to closing the Guantánamo detention camp, but added that it could take some time as “it is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize”.

Abandoning the military commission system in favour of full and fair trials in ordinary US courts must be a core part of ending the unlawful Guantánamo detention regime. Stopping the imminent trial of Omar Khadr is an easy first step. For the trial to go forward would be a travesty of justice.