Omar Khadr’s long, tortuous journey to freedom

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mahmoud

Ramadan 14, 1436 2015-07-01

Special Reports

by Tahir Mahmoud (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 5, Ramadan, 1436)

Omar Khadr has finally won freedom, thanks to the dogged determination of his lawyers Dennis Edney and Nate Whittling. It wasn’t easy; the Harper regime fought them tooth and nail but the courts finally sided with Omar Khadr.

One of the most shameful episodes in Canadian history ended in May. Omar Khadr, now 28 years old, was released on bail when Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby ruled on May 7 that he posed minimum risk to public safety after spending 13 years in various prisons around the world. Even the last institution where he was held, in Edmonton, said he was a minimum risk prisoner. The courts took these considerations into account before granting bail.

Since his release on bail, Khadr has been living with his lawyer Dennis Edney, whose wife Patricia has taken in the boy (now afull grown man) as her son. In one of the most revealing aspects of this long, tortuous episode in which Khadr was held at Afghanistan’s notorious Bagram prison before being hauled to the even more notorious torture chamber at Guantanamo Bay, not a single Muslim family was willing to offer help. Most Muslims in Toronto, gripped by fear even shunned his much-vilified family.

The rightwing government of Stephen Harper tried hard to keep Khadr behind bars to serve his full eight-year sentence, but failed. Spending nearly a million dollars of public funds, the Harper regime used different ruses — he is a “convicted terrorist,” he poses risk to society, his release would damage Canada’s international standing and diplomatic relations, especially with the US (claimed by Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney) — but successive courts have rejected all these arguments.

A spokesman for the US State Department had already dismissed the suggestion on May 1 that Washington’s relations with Canada would be affected by Khadr’s release. American officials have said they were trying to find ways to release the remaining prisoners held at the notorious torture camp at Gitmo. Of the nearly 700 prisoners that were locked up in cages like animals at Gitmo — the “worst of the worst” in the infamous words of the notorious former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — the Americans have dared put only three on trial at the military tribunal. Legal experts have denounced the Gitmo tribunal as a kangaroo court that was designed to secure conviction, not give the prisoners an opportunity for proper legal defence. Further, a mere 115 prisoners now remain at Gitmo. Whatever happened to the “worst of the worst” and why have the likes of Rumsfeld, former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and their moronic president, George Bush not been put on trial as war criminals?

Khadr has appealed his convictions in the United States for war crimes. The appeal is proceeding in a US Court and his lawyers feel reasonably confident that these would be overturned. Most of his convictions were secured under torture. The torture report, however, was ruled inadmissible by the military judge at Khadr’s trial at the kangaroo tribunal at Gitmo. On June 12, The US Court of Appeal in the District of Columbia ruled in a 2–1 decision in the case of another Gitmo detainee Ali Hamza al-Bahlul that his conviction by the military tribunal was unconstitutional. Bahlul was accused of involvement in conspiracy that the judges ruled did not constitute a war crime. This ruling will only reinforce Khadr’s case and prove the military tribunal as a sham.

Khadr’s story

Omar Khadr may not be a household name globally but in Canada he and his family are well-known if only because they have been so widely vilified by the Harper regime as well as much of the media, barring a few notable exceptions. He has been called a “convicted terrorist” while his family is referred to as an al-Qaeda family.

Omar’s father, Ahmed Said Khadr was an engineer who worked in Ottawa. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he became involved in helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. At that time, the entire Western world was “helping” the Afghans, then referred to as the mujahidin — freedom fighters — before they were turned into terrorists because they started to challenge the West’s hegemony and manipulation of Afghanistan.

During the Soviet occupation, a large number of Arabs also came to help and set up base in Peshawar, Pakistan from where they moved with the various Afghan groups into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Once the Red Army was driven out of Afghanistan in February 1989, many relief organizations and workers moved into Afghanistan to help the brutalized and traumatized people. Ahmed Said Khadr also went into Afghanistan along with his family.

It was under these circumstances that Omar and his other siblings came to reside in Afghanistan. For a time they lived in the same compound in Jalalabad where Osama bin Laden was residing. Even Osama had not gained the notoriety that he later acquired. In fact, in December 1989, according to Pakistani politician and former cricket star Imran Khan, Osama was brought to Pakistan in a CIA plane from Afghanistan. He (Imran) said he was invited by the US embassy in Islamabad to meet Osama bin Ladin.

Omar Khadr’s life was turned upside down by the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001 following the attacks of 9/11. The US accused Osama of being the mastermind behind those attacks; he repeatedly denied this and even expressed the opinion that it could be an “inside job,” a view held by a large number of people both inside the US and elsewhere. There is also much skepticism among observers about the official version of the US Senate 9/11 Inquiry Commission report. Also, 28 pages of the report have been redacted amid speculation that these point to deep “Saudi” involvement with the attackers. It is no secret that at least two of the Saudi hijackers had received funding from then Saudi ambassador in Washington, Bandar bin Sultan’s wife. The hijackers had also visited Bandar’s mansion in Colorado just before the attacks.

The US and allied invasion of Afghanistan drove the Taliban from power. The Khadr family, like many other Arabs were also scattered across Afghanistan. Omar Khadr was separated from the rest of his family and ended up with a group of Taliban fighters in Khost, eastern Afghanistan where he was captured in July 2002 after a firefight with American troops in the village of Ayubkhel. The Americans had demanded all the people inside the compound come out with their hands above their heads. When the Taliban refused, US planes were called in to bomb the compound. When all went quiet, the American soldiers assuming everyone inside was dead went into the compound but it was at this stage that a firefight erupted because some Taliban had survived the aerial attack.

Khadr was shot twice in the back, the bullets piercing his frail body, narrowly missing his heart. While an American soldier wanted to shoot him in the head, a paramedic stopped him. Khadr was accused of throwing the grenade that killed an American soldier, Christopher Speers. Since his release on bail, Khadr has admitted to tossing the grenade over his head to “scare the Americans” but he is not sure whether Speers was killed by his grenade or someone else’s. According to the first field report compiled by American soldiers at the scene, there was another person beside Khadr who had also survived the aerial assault on the compound. He was the one who had shot Speers before getting killed.

After his July 2002 capture, Khadr was transferred to the American air force base at Bagram outside Kabul. He remained unconscious for a week but as soon as he recovered, his interrogation under torture started. A notorious American soldier, Joshua Klaus, who a few months earlier (April 2002) had beaten an innocent Afghan taxi driver, 24-year-old Dilawar Khan to death, started interrogating Omar. With his wounds still fresh and bleeding, he was forced to sit up and answer questions. If he refused or could not, he was beaten.

Damien Corsetti, another American soldier has since confessed to torturing Khadr and expressed remorse for what he had done to someone he described as “only a child.” Corsetti had tears in his eyes when he made the televised confession. Not so with Klaus, who faced a dishonorable discharge from the army for beating an innocent Afghan to death.

In October 2002, when Khadr’s wounds were still raw and shrapnel lodged in different parts of the body (he lost sight in his left eye due to shrapnel), he was flown to the Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) prison camp, chained to the floor of a military plane. Several days prior to his 20-hour flight to Gitmo, Khadr and other prisoners were denied food and given only a periodic sip of water so that “they wouldn’t need to go to the toilet during the flight”!

Prisoners were chained in extremely stressful positions. Their feet were shackled to the floor and the chain was then run from there across their body around the neck that was kept about a foot above the floor. Thus, the prisoners could neither sit up nor lie down. Their eyes hooded, they were kept in this extremely painful position throughout the 20-hour journey. Khadr’s situation was even worse because of his raw wounds. After an hour or so, their limbs became numb.

Upon arrival in Gitmo, when they were dumped on the tarmac, they could not stand up because their limbs were completely numb. That invited the wrath of the sadistic guards; the shackled prisoners were punched and kicked and ordered to stand up. Much as they wanted to, they could not.

Gitmo turned out to be even more horrific than Bagram. At this illegally occupied Cuban island, the prisoners were out of reach of international law, international sight, and cut off from the world. The US could do whatever it wanted to do with them and it did. Omar Khadr’s plight was particularly bad. He was accused of being an al-Qaeda member; every American soldier took his personal revenge.

He was kept in solitary confinement where the cell was barely 6ft x 6ft. There were no windows; these cages were worse than those for animals. As far as the Americans were concerned, these people were worse than animals because the American rulers had designated them “worst of the worst.”

Omar Khadr was one of the youngest prisoners at Gitmo. There was one other prisoner, a 10-year-old Afghan tea boy, who had been picked up in Kabul. He was released six years later when the Americans discovered he was completely innocent. No apology or compensation was offered. Khadr was their prized catch; he had a “lot of information” about al-Qaeda as well as Osama bin Ladin, or so the Americans thought. His interrogations went on endlessly. If the interrogators did not like the answers they wanted to hear, severe punishment resulted.

For many years, Khadr was either chained to the floor in a fetal position and forced to urinate on himself or chained with his hands tied to the ceiling. Given his wounds, these were not only painful but the wounds were further opened by such stretching. He was denied pain medication. At times, dogs were set upon him as he was chained to the metal cage door. The dog’s claws would sink into his wounds, scratching and opening them. There are reports that he was even water-boarded.

In April 2003, when a group of Canadian agents from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) visited him at Gitmo, he thought they were there to help him since he was a Canadian citizen. Little did he realize that they came to interrogate him, not help him, even while he told them how he was tortured. The CSIS agents mocked him and told him he was receiving “good medical attention.” The Americans even threatened to send him to Egypt where a soldier who was fond of young boys, would rape him. The video of that interrogation was finally released under a court order when his lawyers took the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled in 2008 that CSIS agents had violated Khadr’s Charter rights.

He remained in Gitmo without trial until October 2010, the only Western citizen not repatriated to his own country. He finally entered a guilty plea for murder and war crimes under a plea bargain many say was initiated only to avoid trial in a sham military court and an automatic life sentence that would have kept him in prison forever. Under the deal, he was given an eight-year sentence. Speers’ family was especially flown to Gitmo to appear before the military tribunal to say how much she had “suffered” as a result of Khadr’s killing of her husband.

Harper regime conspired against Omar

The jury at the kangaroo court sentenced Khadr to 40 years in prison but it did not know that a plea deal had already been finalized. Under the deal, Khadr would serve one year of his eight-year sentence in Gitmo and then be repatriated to Canada to serve the remainder of his term there. The rightwing Canadian government was part of the deal, yet a year later, it dragged its feet and refused to make a formal application to the US to send Khadr to Canada.

On June 1, 2012 the United Nations committee against torture issued a stinging rebuke of Canada for being complicit in the human rights violations of Khadr and urged Ottawa to swiftly sign off on his transfer to his country of birth. Alex Neve of Amnesty International as well as several members of parliament from Canada’s opposition party, the NDP, joined the UN call. The report also chastised the Canadian government for other human rights violations, especially against First Nations People as well as three Canadians of Arab origin that were sent to Syria to be tortured.

Khadr was finally repatriated to Canada in October 2012 and sent to the Milhaven Penitentiary in Kingston. He was locked up with hardened criminals. He turned out to be an exemplary prisoner. The wardens had no complaints against him. In 2013, his defence lawyer Dennis Edney submitted an application to court to have Khadr transferred to Edmonton where the lawyer lives with his family. The court accepted the application and Khadr was transferred to Edmonton Max prison. He was badly beaten up by rapists and murderers immediately upon arrival. “The warden called me to say Omar was very scared and crying,” said lawyer Edney at a gathering in Toronto on June 6.

If Canadian and international laws had been followed, Khadr would not have ended up in Gitmo. Despite his age — Khadr was barely 15 at the time of his capture — the US refused to treat him as a child soldier or even acknowledge his status as a juvenile that are required by the Geneva Conventions. He should have been provided education and rehabilitated as soon as possible.

Instead, the US turned him into a “poster terrorist” because his father, Ahmed Saied Khadr was involved in charity work in Afghanistan at a time when the US itself was supporting the Afghans against the Soviets. After the Soviets were driven out in February 1989, the Americans turned their backs on Afghanistan and the Afghans, hitherto called mujahidin (or freedom fighters), were branded as terrorists. Ahmed Khadr was accused of being an al-Qaeda “financier” and the Khadr family came to be called “al-Qaeda family.” The senior Khadr was killed by Pakistani forces in North Waziristan in October 2003.

The rightwing Conservative government in Canada led by Stephen Harper has accused Khadr of being a “terrorist” and “danger” to society, allegations dismissed even by American psychiatrists who examined Khadr. The Canadian government’s foot-dragging springs from two factors: first, its rightwing ideology that treats virtually all Muslims as either terrorists or potential terrorists; second, the government’s fear that Khadr would launch a lawsuit against Canada for its agencies’ complicity in his torture and its refusal to provide him the legal protection due a Canadian citizen.

In a landmark ruling, a Federal Court Judge, Richard Mosley ruled in October 2014 that Khadr should be allowed to claim that the Canadian government conspired with the Americans to torture him and breach his rights. The ruling means that Khadr can significantly increase his $20 million lawsuit in which he has accused the Canadian Federal government of complicity in his arbitrary detention at Guantanamo Bay where he was subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, including prolonged sleep deprivation and torture.

One cannot help but contrast Khadr’s mistreatment with the special treatment accorded to Conrad Black, a convicted felon, who had repudiated his Canadian citizenship. His entry permit to Canada was approved in May 2012 while he was still in a US prison. Khadr was a child when captured in Afghanistan in July 2002. His defence lawyers forced him to accept the plea bargain over his strenuous objections and protests; he insisted he was innocent of the charges. His lawyers had to plead with him to accept the deal so that he would have a chance to get out of the Guantanamo torture chamber in a year’s time.

But for his lawyers — Dennis Edney and Nathan Whittling — Khadr would still be rotting away in Gitmo. He is out on bail and lives with Edney’s family in Edmonton. There are strict bail conditions but those are still better than what he has faced over the last 13 years.

Omar’s case as part of the Canadian narrative

Janice Williamson, professor in the department of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, released a book in 2012 that she edited, Omar Khadr, Oh Canada. The book contains some 30 essays, articles, poems and screenplay excerpts dealing with Khadr’s background, his incarcerations, the actions and inactions of Canadian authorities and the implications raised by his legal case. While the various authors differ on many points, they are unanimous in their conviction that Khadr’s treatment has been shameful and unjust.

“He is a citizen who has been wronged and he deserves justice,” Professor Williamson said. “He also deserves to be treated like a human being. The fact that many of us are completely disinterested in his case — I mean he’s a human being, who even now is in solitary confinement. He’s been in solitary confinement since October 2010.”

“When people look back on this era after 9/11, they will see that some Canadians, Muslims and Arabs — were shamefully mistreated,” Williamson said. “And I think one of the reasons why Canadians can’t see that is because there has been a wave of hysteria that has swept through Canada.”

The Khadr saga reveals the hypocrisy of Western governments and their claims to upholding the rule of law and standing up for justice. In Omar Khadr’s case, these governments — American and Canadian — have trampled on every rule because of their frustration that they cannot secure a conviction against him in their own courts of law.

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