It is difficult to imagine that a 15-year-old, handcuffed to a stretcher after surgery, bullet holes in his chest and his eyes full of shrapnel, would feel anything but coerced during an interrogation. Yet a U.S. military commission judge ruled yesterday that statements given eight years ago in these circumstances by the Canadian Omar Khadr to U.S. authorities at a prison camp in Bagram, Afghanistan, were reliable and not the product of coercion.
Bagram was a terrifying place to be for anyone. "Those who refuse to cooperate inside this secret CIA interrogation center are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, according to intelligence specialists familiar with CIA interrogation methods," the Washington Post reported in December, 2002. "At times they are held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights - subject to what are known as 'stress and duress' techniques."
The environment was, by its nature, coercive. Screams from other prisoners could be heard. Interrogators threatened Mr. Khadr with rape by several men. One man who interrogated him was later court-martialled for beating another prisoner. Mr. Khadr was sometimes hooded and chained with his arms pinned high against a fence.
And he had no reason to believe he was protected from danger. He was in a legal black hole - he had no lawyer, no access to a judge, no possibility of contact with any adult with a stake in him.
Did interrogators, recognizing the dangers to a future fair trial, bend over backward to warn him of the uses to which their information would be put? No. He was given no "Miranda" warning that his statements could be used against him. People in the United States would be in an uproar if information were extracted from any other accused criminal, whether juvenile or adult, as it was from Mr. Khadr.
The possibility of coercion underscores the dangers of putting on trial a juvenile for war-crimes rather than, as has been the near-universal practice since the Second World War, treating those who enlisted them in illegal militant groups as the war criminals, and working toward rehabilitation of the juvenile. It is much more difficult for young people to protect themselves from being coerced. It is a painful irony that the 15-year-old who was coerced by his family to be a terrorist could then be coerced by a democratic state to give evidence against himself.
Barack Obama, in changing the Bush-era rules of the military commissions, promised that coerced evidence would not be used. Yesterday's ruling is not an auspicious start for the first trial under Mr. Obama's supposedly fairer system.