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October 01, 2007

Child Prisoners in America's War on Terror

by Steven Miles

Editor’s Note: This brief article by Dr . Steven Miles, who is honored elsewhere in this issue as our Human Rights Hero, is illustrative of the human rights issues on which his recent work as a bioethicist has focused.

The stories of child prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other “war on terror” prisons have been largely ignored. German media and Norwegian officials credibly cite a Red Cross report that more than one hundred children were detained in various prisons in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that three of the sixty or so children once imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay were less than fifteen years old. One was a Canadian national who was denied access to consular officials. No statistics exist for child prisoners in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government has tried to suppress the story of its child prisoners. It has not released a census. Reporters are not allowed to photograph their quarters or their Geneva Convention-mandated educational programs. The Abu Ghraib photographs depict men being abused; the pictures of children and women being abused remain classified.

The children’s stories are scattered in tens of thousands of pages of declassified Defense Department documents. Some disturbing incidents that are reported therein are listed below.

  • One clause in a footnote in an appendix of a two-hundred-page report is the only official record of a child prisoner’s death. That footnote in the Army Surgeon General’s report is discussing a doctor’s allegation that he could not transfer sick prisoners to the hospital: “The interviewed physician from Camp Cropper [near the Baghdad airport] recounted a significant problem with detainees having advanced stage tuberculosis. [The physician] reports one child hemorrhaging from his cavitary TB and dying….” No other document describes this child who died bleeding into his (or her?) lungs while in U.S. custody. The Pentagon does not list this prisoner in its list of deaths. It has not released any death certificate, autopsy report, or investigation, as is mandated by Geneva Conventions that the United States says were applicable to its prisons in Iraq. We do not know whether the parents were told if, how, or when their child died. The lack of screening, isolation, and treatment or repatriation of a prisoner with tuberculosis violates another provision in the Geneva Conventions. We do not know if the child’s body was returned to the family to bury or if the family was informed of the location of the internment.
  • General Janis Karpinski, commander of Abu Ghraib, gave this sworn statement: “I specifically talked to the juveniles, because after one time that they brought some in, I saw a kid that was—he looked like he was eight years old. He told me that he was almost twelve. I asked him where he was from. He told me his brother was there with him, but he really wanted to see his mother, could he please call his mother. He was crying. So I never saw anything that was abuse or could be considered abuse.” Karpinski does not mention if she helped the boy contact his mother.
  • Army Specialist Samuel Provance testified before Congress how the frail sixteen-year-old son of Iraqi prisoner Hamid Zabar was stripped, doused with mud and water, and driven in an open truck around the prison yard on a cold winter night. The suffering boy was displayed to his father, who was under interrogation.
  • At Mosul prison in Iraq, a high school student, Salah Salih Jassim, was arrested along with his father. The student was not suspected of any crime. There have been numerous reports of abuse at this prison. The boy soon had a broken jaw, allegedly from being slammed on the floor by a soldier. An attending physician did not bother asking the boy how his jaw came to be broken; he did not even take off the boy’s shirt to look for other bruises.
  • U.S. soldiers kidnapped the three sons of Abed Hamed Mowhoush from their home in Iraq in late 2003. They left word that the boys would be held hostage until their father surrendered to U.S. forces. Mowhoush ransomed his sons with his life. After he surrendered, he was beaten and stuffed head first into a sleeping bag that was wrapped with twenty feet of wire. An interrogator sat on Mowhoush, who suffocated.
  • Sergeant John Ketzer watched an Abu Ghraib dog handler and another soldier allow a leashed but unmuzzled dog to “go nuts” and lunge at two children. The younger child cringed behind the older one, whom the soldiers derisively called Casper. This dog handler had allowed his dog to bite at least one prisoner and had engaged in competitions with another dog handler to see who could get a prisoner to urinate on himself. General George Fay, the U.S. Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, saw a photograph of this incident. It remains classified.
  • A fifty-eight-page sworn statement by a military intelligence officer describes the disposition of a newborn. “The female [prisoner] had moved from [the prison at Camp] Cropper to Abu Ghraib, was pregnant, and had given birth while in detention. [Name deleted] was working with JAG to turn the baby over to her family or to an orphanage.”

None of these incidents has been denied by the U.S. government. The memory and precedent of these shameful acts will be the legacy of U.S. foreign policy. They erode humane standards of law for prisoners of any age who are held by any government. They are crimes against the innocent, against each of us, and against humanity.


The Tuberculosis incident is on page 20–27 of this document:

The Mowhoush incident is described at:

Orphanage anecdote is at:

The dog urination contest was first described in General Fay’s report: on page 102 and more details were found at trial.

Karpinski interview:

The child with the broken jaw is at: and

The mistreatment of Hamid Zabar's son is described in this congressional testimony:

Steven Miles

Steven Miles, professor of medicine, is affiliated with the Center for Bioethics and is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.