After defying international law by holding about 660 Muslims in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since January 2001, the US has been forced to admit that there are juveniles among the detainees. The admission on April 22 came after ABC television of Australia reported that children are being held at Camp X-ray. This has long been known to Muslims in Canada: two Canadian-born brothers, Abdul-Rahman and Omar Khidr, are held there. Abdul-Rahman fell into the hands of the Northern Alliance after he was wounded in battle; Omar was arrested by the Americans on July 27 last after a firefight in which he was alleged to have thrown a grenade at American soldiers. The Northern Alliance handed Abdul-Rahman, 21, to the Americans for money; Omar, 16, was taken to Guantanamo Bay earlier this year.
Muslims in Canada have approached the Canadian government on their behalf, yet they remain in limbo. With superhawks dominating the US government, Canadian entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. The Khidr brothers’ grandparents also live in Canada; some sectors of the Canadian media have accused them of "rearing terrorists" there.
The brothers’ father, Egyptian-born Ahmed Saeed Khidr, settled and married in Canada in the early seventies. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he worked for a Canadian charity helping Afghan refugees. In November 1995 Khidr senior was arrested by the Pakistani authorities, who alleged that he was involved in the car-bombing of the Egyptian embassy. On a visit to Pakistan, Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien intervened on his behalf and he was released. He has been accused in some reports of being a "financier" of al-Qa’ida; no evidence has been produced, but the mere mention of al-Qa’ida is enough these days to transform anyone at all into a terrorist. Khidr senior may well be the victim of this kind of witch-hunt, although he has disappeared; his last known place of residence was in Afghanistan. Some Egyptians were accused of involvement with September 2001, so it seems likely that Khidr senior is considered guilty by association.
Whatever the truth about Khidr senior, the detention of his sons, especially Omar, raises troubling questions. US officials miss no opportunity to lecture others about the Geneva Conventions, but are totally indifferent themselves to the same rules; consistency has never been American officialdom’s strong point. Lieutenant-colonel Barry Johnson, when challenged about the juveniles in Guantanamo Bay, said on April 22 that all were "captured as active combatants against US forces" and are "enemy combatants". Johnson refused to say how old the youngest is; reports are that he may be 13.
The detention of minors has outraged campaigners against the indefinite detention of nearly 660 males from 42 countries. They are held on suspicion of having links with al-Qa’ida or with Afghanistan’s erstwhile Taliban government, mostly without any evidence. In March, 19 Afghans, one of them 90, were released after being held for 18 months. Neither they nor those still in detention have been charged or allowed access to lawyers. "That the US sees nothing wrong with holding children at Guantanamo Bay and interrogating them is a shocking indicator of how cavalier the Bush administration has become about...human rights," says Alistair Hodgett of Amnesty International; "[the youths’ detention] reflects...our concerns that the US never...determined the legal status of those held in the conflict," says James Ross, legal advisor of Human Rights Watch.
There is growing feeling among Muslims that if the detainees were white and non-Muslim, Western governments’ attitudes would be different. On April 23 Zafar Bangash, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, raised the issue of the Khidr brothers with MP Aileen Carroll, parliamentary secretary to Bill Graham, the Canadian minister for external affairs, who was not even sure whether the two had had consular access. She then offered the astonishing excuse that Canadian travellers are clearly warned not to expect the government to rescue them if they fall foul of the law abroad. She was reminded that the Khidr brothers are denied their rights under the Geneva Convention that comes into force when people are arrested in war zones. John McCallum, the Canadian defence minister, was more careful with Zafar Bangash on April 17. His attention was drawn to the manner in which John Walker Lindh, an American-born Muslim who was arrested in Afghanistan, was treated. McCallum promised to take up the matter with the foreign minister.
Because of Washington’s anger that Canada refused to join the ‘war’ on Iraq, and the US’s threat that US-Canada trade could be affected, the chance of Ottawa’s taking a strong stand in defence of its citizens is slim. Last August Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen returning from Tunisia, was arrested in New York and deported to Syria. The Canadian government learnt of his ordeal a week later, yet Arar is still in jail in Syria. The Americans have not explained why a person travelling on a Canadian passport was arrested and deported to Syria. Arar has at least been visited by Canadian officials in Damascus. That points the differences between the "greatest democracy" on earth and a tin-pot dictatorship like Syria.