Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is threatening the integrity and independence of the penal and parole systems by publicly characterizing Omar Khadr as a remorseless, radicalized al-Qaeda terrorist upon his return, according to Canada’s criminal lawyers.
“When I read the quote I was immediately concerned,” said Norm Boxall, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, in an interview. “When the matter is going to be proceeding before a specialized tribunal, public officials should not comment on the outcome, because it can taint the process.”
On Saturday morning, Mr. Toews – who had insisted two days earlier he was still mulling over whether to permit the Canadian citizen’s repatriation – held a news conference announcing that Mr. Khadr had just been transferred from a U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay to Canada’s corrections systems.
At the time, Mr. Toews said he had had no option but to allow the repatriation of the Canadian citizen.
But he also issued a statement saying that several issues about Mr. Khadr had caused him “concern” about whether his correctional officials could manage the case – including that Mr. Khadr still “idealizes” his al-Qaeda-linked father, that Mr. Khadr had had “meetings involving senior al-Qaeda leadership” as a teenager and that the decade Mr. Khadr spent in prison had “radicalized” him.
Mr. Toews added in a Sept. 28 statement that Mr. Khadr’s “known accomplices” had included al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his No. 2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Mr. Khadr’s Canadian family lived for a time in a bin Laden compound.
In 2001, at age 15, Mr. Khadr was part of an al-Qaeda faction involved in a deadly firefight with U.S. Forces, lobbing a grenade that killed an American soldier before he was shot three times and captured. He was held for the next decade by the Americans as an “illegal enemy combatant.” In 2010, he pleaded guilty to war crimes in a plea bargain deal that allowed for him to serve the bulk of an eight-year sentence in Canada, pending government approval.
Mr. Toews’ remarks are controversial because while he was the government minister tasked with overseeing Mr. Khadr’s repatriation, he is also the minister who presides over the Correctional Service of Canada.
Mr. Toews also appoints and renews the adjudicators for the National Parole Board – the same patronage appointees who are charged with determining any given individual prisoner’s liberties.
Now these same officials who must now try to figure out whether to allow Mr. Khadr out of prison and onto parole in coming months, or whether to lock him up until his sentence expires in 2018.
Lawyers for Mr. Khadr wonder whether Mr. Toews’ remarks too clearly telegraph to his officials what he would like to have happen.
“Frankly that’s outrageous that the Minister has said that,” says John Norris, one of Mr. Khadr’s lawyers, who argues his client is an excellent candidate for rehabilitation.
“The only true thing he [the Minister] has said is that this is not supposed to be a political process. The rest of it is an attempt to influence the decision makers in a way that’s quite inappropriate,” said Mr. Norris.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated Mr. Khadr had not previously been accused of associating with senior al-Qaeda leaders. In fact, one of the charges Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty to included associating with Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.