The ongoing saga of Omar Khadr’s incarceration

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mahmoud

Sha'ban 11, 1433 2012-07-01

News & Analysis

by Tahir Mahmoud (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1433)

Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, now nearly 26 years old, was supposed to have returned to Canada from Guantanamo Bay at the end of October under a deal brokered between the US and Canadian governments.

He continues to languish in the American gulag because his own government, Canada, is dragging its feet and refusing to help facilitate his transfer. Both his family and his lawyers are upset at Ottawa’s foot-dragging despite giving assurances in writing in October 2010 that it would have no objection to his return after he had served one additional year in Guantanamo Bay as part of the plea bargain that was struck with his American captors. At a press conference in Ottawa on June 21, Khadr’s American lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, criticized the Canadian government for failing to live up to its obligations.

In return for pleading “guilty” to crimes he had never committed, the Americans offered to sentence Khadr to a prison term of eight years in a trial at the much-tainted military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay. He would serve one year in the American gulag before being returned to Canada for the remainder of his sentence. The Canadian government signed onto the deal barely hours before the military tribunal proceedings were to commence. Theoretically, he should have been home at the end of October 2011. He has languished in solitary confinement in the American torture chamber for an additional eight months and counting.

He was captured in July 2002 after a firefight between American troops and some Taliban fighters in the village of Ayubkhel in eastern Afghanistan. He was shot twice in the back, the bullets narrowly missing his heart. While an American soldier wanted to kill him by shooting him in the head, a paramedic stopped him. Khadr was accused of throwing a grenade that had killed an American soldier Christopher Speers, a charge he vehemently denied throughout his interrogation under torture and subsequent incarcerations.

On June 1, the United Nations committee against torture issued a stinging rebuke of Canada for being complicit in the human rights violation 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.

After his July 2002 capture, Khadr was transferred to the American air force base at Bagram and then flown to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in October 2002, chained to the floor of a military plane like an animal. He remained in Guantanamo without trial until October 2010, the only Western citizen not repatriated to his own country. He finally entered a guilty plea to 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.

Last April, an aide to Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the government was considering the transfer request. “The government of Canada has just received a completed application for the transfer of prisoner Omar Ahmed Khadr,” spokeswoman Julie Carmichael said in Ottawa after Khadr’s lawyers publicly complained that the Canadian government was dragging its feet on a written agreement. “A decision will be made on this file in accordance with Canadian law,” the spokeswoman said. So far it hasn’t.

In May 2008, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Ottawa was complicit in the abuse of Omar Khadr’s Charter Rights when agents of the spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Agency (CSIS), interrogated him at Guantanamo in April 2003. During the interrogation, Khadr told CSIS agents that he had been tortured but they paid no heed. Instead, they told him, he was receiving “good medical” attention. Khadr’s Canadian lawyers forced the government to release the video of that interrogation through a court challenge and forced the government to admit its agents were in violation of his rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter.

If Canadian and international laws had been followed, Khadr would not have ended up in Guantanamo. He was badly wounded in the American attack on the Afghan village compound in July 2002. Shrapnel from grenades thrown by American soldiers during the attack injured him blinding his left eye completely. The US accused Khadr of throwing a grenade that killed Sergeant Christopher Speer. The field report prepared by an American officer after the firefight contradicted these allegations but consumed by hatred and determined to punish the juvenile for simply being there, the Americans were in no mood to adhere to the rule of law or care for truth.

Even while his wounds were still raw, he was flown to Bagram Air Base that soon gained notoriety as a torture chamber, and his interrogation began. He was forced to sit while his feet were chained to a bed ripping his raw wounds open and causing profuse bleeding. He was denied pain medication and repeatedly questioned, punched and kicked by American soldiers among them the notorious torturer Joshua Klaus, and Damien Corsetti. Klaus was charged with the beating death of a 24-year-old Afghan taxi driver Dilawar Khan in April 2002 who happened to drive near the site in Kabul where a bomb had exploded a few hours earlier. Klaus was given a five-month sentence — yes five months for beating an innocent person to death — and discharged from the military. Corsetti had the decency to later admit that he was involved in torturing Khadr and expressed remorse for doing so especially to someone he described as a child.

Despite Khadr’s age — he 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 the 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 mujahideen (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 have 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. He could sue for millions in damages although the Canadian government has put in place rules under which Khadr would not benefit from any damages awarded to him by a court in Canada.

Contrast this 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 while he was still in a US prison. Khadr was a child when captured in Afghanistan. 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.

It is interesting to note that while the US was determined to convict Khadr on murder charges, it is now anxious to get rid of him. The reason is not because the US has realized it convicted an innocent person and wants to make amends. The real reason is that unless Khadr is out of Guantanamo Bay, other prisoners with whom the US wishes to strike similar plea deals will not agree. They see Khadr’s example; he was a child when arrested in Afghanistan. He was brutally tortured there and in Guantanamo Bay and after a plea deal he still languishes in solitary confinement. This is hardly the kind of deal other prisoners find attractive. When the military trial of five men — Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abd

al-Aziz Ali, Walid bin Attash and Mustapha al-Hawsawi — opened in Guantanamo on May 4, they rejected the authority of the court and refused to participate in its proceedings denouncing it as a farce. They are not wrong. Many American legal experts have declared the military tribunals a travesty of justice but the US still insists it is a country governed by the rule of law.

The rightwing Canadian government is being as difficult as it can to delay Khadr’s return. For instance, it has raised the issue of who will pay for his transportation costs from Gunatanamo to Toronto. Theoretically, the Canadian government should foot the bill but it refuses to do so saying Khadr and his family should be responsible. Neither Khadr nor his family is in any position to do so. Then there is the question of Khadr’s flight not being permitted to trespass US airspace because he has been declared a “terrorist” by a kangaroo court. Informed sources in Washington, DC say that the US has agreed to waive its own rule to permit the plane carrying Khadr to fly over its territory during his journey to Canada. Further, the US will pay the cost of his flight, just to get rid of him.

Once back in Canada, Khadr would be eligible for parole under Canadian law. Had he been convicted as a juvenile in Canada, he would have been free long ago. He has already spent more time, most of it in inhuman solitary confinement, than would be required if he were serving time in Canada.

Janice Williamson, professor in the department of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, has just released a book 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 and continue to do so to punish an innocent person only because of their frustration that they cannot secure a conviction against him in their own courts of law.

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