By Tony Keller
October 28, 2010 - "National Post" Canada
In the 1930s, that great legal innovator Joseph Stalin introduced the show trial. The accused would stand up in court and willingly, even eagerly, confess to the most fantastical crimes. At the first great show trial, in 1936, Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and other former senior Communist party members admitted to being members of a terrorist organization. They said they had plotted to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders. In the following years, as Stalin's purges picked up steam, show trials featured increasingly incredible stories, usually involving the accused admitting to being agents of Western imperialism.
What made men confess to things that were unlikely, sometimes impossible and usually unsupported by other evidence? Torture. Sleep deprivation, beatings, and threats against their wives and children. To stop the pain, you had to confess to whatever it was that the interrogators wanted to hear. And then you had to get up in court and willingly confess to it all over again.
The trial of Omar Khadr has been called a travesty of justice, a violation of the rule of law, a kangaroo court and lots of other things beside. But what it really was, was a show trial.
On the main charge, "murder in violation of the laws of war" (a crime that doesn't appear to even exist in international law, given that combatants who kill other soldiers in combat are not violating the laws of war), the chief evidence against the then-15-year-old child soldier was his own confession. And that confession, made years ago and long since recanted, was obtained under conditions that any normal human being would describe as torture.
Omar Khadr was captured in 2002 in Afghanistan. He was the only survivor after a firefight and an air strike on an al-Qaeda position. He had been wounded in his shoulder and in both eyes, shot twice in the back and was near death. It was alleged that, just before he was shot, he had thrown a grenade at attacking American troops, killing one of them. As already noted, he was 15 years old.
He then spent several months in the hellhole that was Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, where he claims -- credibly, given all that we know about what went on at Bagram -- that he was subjected to sleep deprivation, the chaining of his hands above his head for hours, that he was hooded and threatened by dogs, and sometimes forced to urinate on himself because he was not unshackled to go to the bathroom.
His chief interrogator at Bagram admitted to telling the teenage boy that unless he co-operated, he would be sent to a U.S. prison, where a group of black men would gang rape him to death. Ponder that for a moment.
He was interviewed about 25 times by this interrogator, Joshua Claus. Claus was also the interrogator for an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar who was chained to the ceiling and beaten to death in Bagram in 2002; Claus pled guilty to his involvement in the affair and received a five month sentence. In a lovely Orwellian touch, the U.S. government insisted that reporters covering Khadr's trial not name Claus, but instead refer to him as "Interrogator 1."
In Bagram, Khadr confessed that he had thrown the grenade that killed an American soldier. No one saw him do this, so his confession is really the only evidence of the act. Last summer, U.S. military judge Colonel Patrick Parrish ruled that the confession, despite the obviously coercive circumstances under which it was made, had been freely given, and could be used against Khadr in court.
This week, Omar Khadr was offered the following choice: plead guilty, or face two different routes to life in prison. He could go to trial, and thanks to a confession that would be laughed out of any real court of law, he'd probably be convicted. But even if the court somehow found him not guilty, the U.S. reserved the right to detain him indefinitely as an enemy combatant. The only sure way to get out of jail early was to tell his interrogators what they wanted to hear.
On Monday, Khadr was even forced to cop to other crimes, including the killing of two Afghan soldiers, something he wasn't even charged with, and for which the prosecution appears to have had no evidence. And, in a nice touch that Stalin would have appreciated, Khadr appears to have also been forced to sign away his right to sue his jailors for the various forms of deprivation and abuse that he was subject to. In court on Monday, Col. Patrick Parrish repeatedly asked Khadr to confirm that he was agreeing to these terms willingly, that he really, truly, sincerely wanted to plead guilty all of his own accord. Khadr said yes. They could have told him to confess that he had simultaneously piloted all four hijacked planes on 9/11, and he would have done it.
And so the Bush administration project of ridding the world of terrorism by means of torture comes full circle. The U.S. military and CIA, ordered to use force to extract information from detainees, something that violated not just U.S. military tradition but U.S. military law, had to come up with new interrogation techniques, and quickly. They turned to history, including copying communist coercion-based interrogation models, such as those that captured American troops had been subjected to during the Korean War.
The original communist torture techniques, which for a time inspired the standard operating procedures at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo and the secret black sites, were not designed to elicit truth. They were designed to produce false confessions: That was the whole point. They were designed to force people to say what interrogators wanted to hear -- yes, I am a capitalist stooge, yes I am a Trostkyite, yes I am a terrorist.
And now Guantanamo's very first military tribunal has its first guilty verdict, thanks to those methods of coercion first perfected for the Soviet Bloc show trial. My God, what have we done? Somewhere in hell, Joseph Stalin is smiling.
NOTE: This article can no longer be found on the National Post website. Instead, is an article reporting how Canadians are afraid now that the arch terrorist, Khadr, has been allowed into Canada by the Harper government which is soft on terrorism.