Number of juveniles held at Guantanamo almost twice official Pentagon figure

By Andy Worthington |

Canadian national Omar Khadr is still being held at Guantanamo Bay. Accused of murder, Khadr was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 when he was 15.

On Sunday, the Pentagon admitted that 12 juveniles — those under the age of 18 at the time their alleged crimes took place — have been held at Guantanamo Bay (as opposed to the figure of eight that was submitted to the UN in May). But a RAW STORY count, drawn from the Pentagon’s own records, reveals that the total number of juveniles held at Guantanamo is at least 22 — nearly double the official Pentagon figure.

In a submission to the 48th Session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (PDF), the Pentagon claimed that it had only held eight juveniles during the life of the Guantanamo Bay prison. It acknowledged that three Afghans under the age of 16 were released in January 2004 (as reported in the New York Times), stated that another three juveniles were repatriated between 2004 and 2006 and claimed that it was only holding two prisoners who were juveniles at the time of their capture: the Canadian Omar Khadr and the Afghan Mohamed Jawad, who are both facing a trial by Military Commission. The much-criticized Commission was created by the Defense Department as part of “terror trials” conceived in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Last week, the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, based at the University of California, issued a report pointing out that, contrary to the Pentagon’s assertions, at least 12 prisoners were juveniles at the time of their capture. The report correctly stated that, in addition to Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad, Mohamed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident born to parents from Chad, was still imprisoned. Just 14 years old when he was seized in October 2001, El-Gharani had traveled to Pakistan to study information technology, but had been rounded up in a random raid on a mosque, tortured in Pakistani custody and then held in U.S. detention, first in Afghanistan, and then in Guantanamo.

The report also asserted that the Pentagon had forgotten to include Yasser Talal al-Zahrani. Al-Zahrani, a Saudi national, was 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan, andwas one of three prisoners who died in Guantanamo (apparently by committing suicide) in June 2006.

After the report was issued, the Pentagon acknowledged that it had revised its figure from eight to 12, and said it had provided a corrected submission to the United Nations. Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon claimed that the problems arose because many of the prisoners did not know their dates of birth. But as the director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas explained the Center’s report had drawn on the Pentagon’s own sources, specifically the list of all the prisoners held at Guantanamo from January 11, 2002 until May 15, 2006, which included their names, nationalities, and dates of birth.

Close scrutiny of this list reveals that the Pentagon will need to revise its figures once more, as, by its own account, a total of 22 prisoners were juveniles at the time of capture. Moreover, contrary to the Pentagon’s account, five of these prisoners are still being held.

This imprecision seems to reflect the Pentagon’s lack of concern for whether prisoners were juvenile at the time of capture. Under the terms of Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict), the U.S. administration is required to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict,” but in May 2003, when the story first broke that juvenile prisoners were being held at Guantanamo, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a press conference, “This constant refrain of ‘the juveniles,’ as though there’s a hundred children in there — these are not children.”

Although the three juveniles released in January 2004 were held separately from the adult population and given some educational and recreational opportunities, there is no evidence that the rest of the juveniles held at Guantanamo received any preferential treatment whatsoever. In many cases, they were subjected to the kind of chronic abuse that has earned Guantanamo (and the U.S. prisons in Afghanistan) a reputation as facilities where the use of torture was routine.

The following is a list of the 22 juveniles held at Guantanamo:

Including Omar Khadr, Mohamed Jawad and Mohammed El-Gharani, five prisoners who were juveniles at the time of capture are still being held at Guantanamo. The two not previously mentioned are:

* Faris Muslim al-Ansari, a Yemeni, was 17 when he was seized crossing the Pakistani border. In Guantanamo, he explained (PDF, pp. 128-33) that his family had left Yemen when he was a child, and had moved to Afghanistan, where his father had fought the Russians. Denying an allegation that he was a Taliban fighter, he said, “I have never done anything military-related at all, and I don’t know anything about military fighting,” and added that he fled Jalalabad, where he was living with his parents, because “The Americans would target any Arabs, not just al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance would kill any Arab they saw.”

* Hassan bin Attash, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, is the brother of a “high-value detainee” charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, and was 16 or 17 when he was seized in Pakistan and transferred to the “Dark Prison,” a CIA prison near Kabul, which resembled a medieval dungeon, but with the addition of painfully loud music which was blasted into the cells 24 hours a day. He was then rendered to Jordan, where proxy torturers “worked on” him for 16 months. In Guantanamo, he told his lawyer that he was hung upside down, beaten and threatened with electric shocks, and added that afterwards he told his interrogators “whatever they wanted to hear.” In January 2004, he was rendered back to Afghanistan, and arrived in Guantanamo in September 2004.

In addition to the three juveniles released in January 2004 (Asadullah, Naqibullah and Mohammed Ismail), the following thirteen prisoners who were juveniles at the time of capture have also been released:

* Abdul Qudus, an Afghan, was 14 when he was sold to US forces by opportunistic Afghan soldiers. In Guantanamo, he explained (PDF, pp. 22-7) that he and Mohammed Ismail (one of the three juveniles released in January 2004) had been looking for work, and had ended up spending the night at an Afghan militia post. The following morning, the soldiers wanted to give them weapons and make them fight, and when they refused they were put in a car, delivered to the Americans, and accused of being with the Taliban. He was released in 2005 or 2006.

* Shams Ullah, an Afghan, was 15 or 16 he was seized by U.S. forces. In Guantanamo, it was alleged (PDF, pp. 71-4) that he had fired at U.S. and Afghan forces who had stopped him during a patrol. Shams had vague recollections of the events, but his uncle, Bostan Karim, who was seized separately, and is still held in Guantanamo, noted (PDF, pp. 138-50) that he had “a mental problem,” and explained, “When the Americans came to our house there was a Kalashnikov in our house and he knew that the Americans would take this gun. So, he took the gun and went to the mosque. The Americans asked him to stop and he didn’t stop, so they shot him and he became lame.” He was released in 2005 or 2006.

* Qari Esmhatulla, an Afghan, was 16 or 17 when Afghan soldiers stopped him as he walked home from visiting a shrine. In Guantanamo, he said (PDF, pp. 1-7) that he “admitted the things that were not true only to make them stop beating me,” and added, “I heard my captors talk about receiving a bounty from American forces for people they captured. They placed a grenade near me so they could have an explanation for arresting me.” He was released in October 2006.

* Peta Mohammed, an Afghan, was 17 when he was seized with two of the juvenile prisoners released in January 2004, after a raid by U.S. Special Forces on the compound of a warlord named Samoud. All were treated brutally in a U.S. base in Gardez and at Bagram, where, according to another released prisoner, Habib Rahman (PDF, pp. 84-9), they were abused until they admitted attacking U.S. forces. Mohammed was released in 2005 or 2006.

* Yousef and Abdulsalam al-Shehri, two Saudi cousins, were both 16 when they were seized in Afghanistan. Yousef was transported to a prison in Sheberghan run by Afghan warlord General Dostum, where he spent six weeks in horribly overcrowded conditions, surrounded by the dead and dying, before being transferred to U.S. custody. Abdulsalam was sent to Qala-i-Janghi, a fort run by Dostum, where several hundred prisoners were killed in bombing raids and by artillery fire after a number of them staged an uprising. The others, who hid in the basement, survived death by bombs and flooding. When asked at Guantanamo (PDF, pp. 158-66) if he took part in the uprising, Abdulsalam said, “How am I going to fight? With my fingers? I didn’t have a weapon.” He was released in June 2006 and Yousef was released in November 2007.

* Abdulrazzaq al-Sharekh, a Saudi, was 17 when he was seized after crossing the Pakistani border from Afghanistan. He had apparently been recruited to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance (PDF, pp. 35-42), and was released in September 2007.

* Rasul Kudayev, a former wrestling champion from the Russian territory of Kabardino-Balkaria, north of Georgia, was 17, according to the Pentagon, when he was seized in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Qala-i-Janghi. He was released in March 2004, but was arrested in October 2005, after 300 gunmen attacked government buildings in his hometown, and tortured horribly in police custody, despite protesting his innocence.

* Haji Mohammed Ayub, a Uighur (a Muslim from China’s Xinjiang province), had fled to Afghanistan to escape Chinese persecution, and was 17 when the settlement he shared with other Uighurs was bombed by U.S. forces (PDF, pp. 49-55). Seized by Pakistani villagers and sold to U.S. forces, he and four other Uighurs were released in May 2006 and sent to Albania, the only country prepared to accept them, where they have no work opportunities, and no prospect of ever being reunited with their families.

* Two Pakistanis, Mohammed Omar and Saji Ur Rahman, were, respectively, 17 and 15 years old when they were seized in Afghanistan and imprisoned in local jails for three months before being handed over (or sold) to U.S. forces. This year, they spoke to Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers (interviews here and here) as part of a survey of released prisoners, and it appeared that they had been recruited to fight, like thousands of other young Pakistanis, by militants connected to his madrassa (religious school). They were released in 2004.

In addition, two other Pakistani juveniles — Khalil Rahman Hafez and Sultan Ahmad (both 17 at the time of capture) — were released without their stories being told, and the 22nd juvenile prisoner was Yasser Talal al-Zahrani.

It remains plausible that the dates of birth of several other prisoners were recorded incorrectly by the Pentagon, and it should also be noted that Sami al-Haj, the al-Jazeera journalist released in May, told his lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve that he believed that at least two dozen other prisoners were juveniles when they were seized.

Hundreds of juvenile prisoners are still being held in Afghanistan and Iraq. In its submission to the UN in May, the Pentagon claimed that it had held “approximately 90” in Afghanistan since 2002, and was currently holding “approximately ten,” and had held “approximately 2,400” in Iraq since 2003, and was currently holding “approximately 500.” If Guantanamo is anything to go by, these figures may not be reliable at all.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press).