Omar Khadr marks a fateful anniversary this week: 10 years trapped within the Kafkaesque injustice of the U.S. “war on terror.”
On July 27, 2002, after a firefight in Afghanistan, he was taken into custody, held first for three months in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Very soon after his arrest, Amnesty International wrote to the Canadian government, pressing for his rights to be protected. But a decade later, this 25-year-old Canadian citizen remains at Guantanamo Bay, and Canada has barely whispered a word of concern.
After a 2010 plea deal, Mr. Khadr has been eligible for transfer back to Canada for almost nine months – since Oct. 31, 2011. That needs to happen without further delay. Instead, Mr. Khadr has once again had to turn to the courts in an effort to force the federal government to keep the promise it made to let him return to Canada.
July 27, 2002, was indeed a tragic day. At the end of the firefight and U.S. airstrikes, five U.S. soldiers lay wounded. One – Sergeant Christopher Speer – died 11 days later. Two Afghan fighters were killed. Mr. Khadr was near death. He was evacuated by U.S. forces and received medical treatment that saved his life. He remains blind in one eye.
He was just 15 years old that day and should never have been on that battlefield in the first place. The various adults in his life, including his own father, cajoled, encouraged and allowed him to take part in the fighting, contrary to international standards that prohibit drawing kids into war. But that crucial human-rights reality – Omar Khadr, child soldier – has been ignored at every turn by U.S. and Canadian officials.
The rights violations only mounted thereafter. He was interrogated more than 100 times, frequently with tactics that likely amount to torture or ill treatment. The Supreme Court of Canada has found that interrogations conducted by Canadian officials were unlawful. He was held for several years without charge, denied access to family visits and, in the early stages, legal assistance. His treatment breached juvenile detention standards.
I travelled to Guantanamo three times in 2010 to observe the military commission trial against Mr. Khadr. It was a travesty at every turn. Proceedings held on a secretive military base, judged by a military colonel, prosecuted by military lawyers and decided by a jury of military officers hardly represent the level of independence expected in a fair trial.
One particularly memorable witness was psychiatrist Michael Welner, who concluded after just eight hours of interviews that Mr. Khadr was a violent jihadist beyond redemption. His analysis was based on the ravings of a discredited, bigoted Danish psychologist who believes Muslims are genetically defective. Anyone who has spent extensive time with Mr. Khadr, including a child psychiatrist who is also a retired U.S. brigadier general and a Navy captain and was a senior legal officer at Guantanamo for two years, has come to precisely the opposite conclusion. But now we have word that it is Dr. Welner’s work that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews wants to review before deciding on the transfer application. It’s hard to read this as anything other than yet more delay.
Canada’s role has been a disgrace. Three prime ministers, representing two different political parties and presiding over five different governments, could have taken action. Those prime ministers were served by a total of eight different foreign ministers and five defence ministers, all of whom had the opportunity to do right by Mr. Khadr. None did. Now Mr. Khadr’s fate rests in Mr. Toews’s hands, and still nothing.
Contrary to the decade of political indifference, a staggering number of Canadian court rulings have gone in Mr. Khadr’s favour. The Federal Court has sided with him four times, the Federal Court of Appeal twice. Most notably, the Supreme Court of Canada has, on two occasions, concluded that Canada has violated his rights. The second of those judgments was rendered in January, 2010, but more than two years later, the government has failed to provide a remedy for the violations.
The courts have always grasped the concerns at the centre of this case. Numerous UN human-rights experts have also urged Canada to protect Mr. Khadr’s rights, including the UN Committee Against Torture just last month. All have been ignored.
Other governments have lived up to their side of similar plea deals. The Sudanese government accepted the return of one of its nationals from Guantanamo earlier this month. The U.S. wants detainees to believe that plea deals mean something and must be particularly frustrated that a close ally like Canada continues to stall.
But it shouldn’t take a court order, UN criticism or U.S. pressure. Canada should simply do the right thing.
With a stroke of his pen, Mr. Toews can sign the transfer request and at long last put human rights first by bringing Mr. Khadr home from Guantanamo Bay. And this sorry decade-long chapter will be brought to a close.
Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.