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Military Lawyers: Release Gitmo Youths

Military lawyers for two young Guantanamo detainees urged the United States on Wednesday to follow the legally binding protocols it signed in 2002 on child soldiers and release the juveniles now being held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz and Marine Maj. Eric Montalvo timed their press conference to a day-long open meeting of the U.N. Security Council on children and armed conflict. They singled out U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice's statement reiterating American opposition to child soldiers and support for council action against those governments and militias that persist in recruiting and using them.

Ruiz said it was important that the United States first acknowledge that "we have issues in our own backyard that we very much need to address ... before we presume to lead the world."

Ruiz represents Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was 14 or 15 when he was accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade during a 2002 battle in Afghanistan. Khadr was the subject of a story in 2007, in which Bob Simon examined the teenager's unique status as the only minor in modern history to face war crimes charges.

Montalvo represents Mohammed Jawad who is accused of throwing a grenade that injured two American soldiers and their interpreter in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 16 or 17.

A third juvenile, Mohamed el-Gharani from Chad, who was accused of being a member of al Qaeda in 1998 when he was 11 years old and was arrested in Pakistan at age 14, is also at Guantanamo despite a U.S. judge's order in January for the military to release him, they said.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict bans the recruitment of children under the age of 18 and orders states that sign it to demobilize any child soldiers and accord them "all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social integration."

Ruiz said the United States, as a signatory, has "the responsibility to take people who come into our jurisdiction as child soldiers and help them reintegrate, help them be educated in our society."

"That has basically been ignored by the past administration," he said, but it's now time for President Barack Obama to look at the the United States' obligations under the protocol "and bring us back into compliance."

Obama established an Executive Review Committee which is going over the cases of the remaining Guantanamo detainees, including Khadr and Jawad. It was given 180 days, and at the president's order, prosecutors in Guantanamo sought and won a 120-day freeze on proceedings in pending cases. That freeze expires on May 20.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that about 30 detainees have been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay. Holder met with reporters in Germany ahead of a speech appealing for Europe's help to close the U.S. military detention facility.

Montalvo accused the U.S. government of "breaking the law to go after these (young) people."

"They need to stop," he said. "They need to go back and look at what they're doing and say, `are we following the law'?"

Montalvo said children under 18 don't have the maturity and capacity to understand the consequences of their actions which is why child soldiers don't understand mortality in the same way as adults. "So even if these children did do everything that the government said that they did, they are a child at that time," he said.

"They were dropped on an island, shackled, hooded," Ruiz added. "They were approached by dogs. They were kept awake. It took 2 1/2 to 3 years for the guys on Guantanamo to even talk to an attorney."

Last week, a Canadian court ruled that the government must ask the U.S. to return Khadr to Canada but the government later said it has 30 days to decide on an appeal. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to get involved in Khadr's case, saying the U.S. legal process has to play itself out.

Ruiz said Khadr "has been denied for years the protections that should have been afforded to somebody the age of 15 who came into hands of the armed forces."

"He has been held for years without being segregated from adults, ... without any possibilities for education, reeducation, or anything that would provide him the ability to reintegrate," Ruiz said. "Given that track record, given seven years of basically languishing in that prison on that island, our position is he ought not to be prosecuted."

The 10 minutes of video - selected by Khadr's Canadian lawyers from more than seven hours of footage recorded by a camera hidden in a vent - was released in July 2008. It provided the first glimpse of interrogations at the U.S. military prison. The video showed Khadr weeping, his face buried in his hands, as he is questioned by Canadian intelligence agents over four days in 2003. His lawyers hoped to pressure Canada into seeking Khadr's return with the video, but the government's position was unchanged.

Khadr's case was interrupted by Obama's review process. Ruiz said he was informed on Tuesday that the judge will resume it on June 1 unless the administration intervenes. The defense is asking the U.S. to send him home immediately, Ruiz said.

Montalvo said a judge ruled that Jawad had been tortured, and the lead prosecutor had resigned over the military prosecution system, saying Jawad should not be prosecuted because he was a child.

"He's been incarcerated since he was approximately 16 years old," Montalvo said. "He was taken off the streets of Afghanistan and thrown into cages and held there up until now, and he's still not adjudicated."

"We want to get him out of a cage and put him back into a society with his family and rehabilitate him," he said.

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