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Omar Khadr's lawyer Dennis Edney speaks to media in Edmonton, on May 7, 2015.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Under the moon in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after gruelling days working on the defence of Omar Khadr, Scottish soccer player-turned-lawyer Dennis Edney would find small moments to share a laugh or story with human-rights colleagues, sometimes with a dram of whisky, before the sun rose on another day of trial.

“That impish, humorous side of Dennis was just such a reflection of the fact that he was a man with an immense heart,” said Alex Neve, former secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. “That is what fuelled his determination to push back against injustice and that is what gave him what often seemed like inconceivable strength and depth to keep going.”

Mr. Edney, whose efforts played a crucial role in the release of Mr. Khadr, one of the youngest detainees in the infamous U.S. military prison in Cuba, died on Dec. 30 at the age of 77 from dementia, said a death notice in the Edmonton Journal.

Mr. Neve, who described Mr. Edney as his “treasured colleague, irreverent co-conspirator and dear friend” said he leaves behind a rich legacy, one that inspires others to call out injustice “no matter how steep the climb.” He said Mr. Edney’s desire to take on Mr. Khadr’s case, amid the so-called “war on terror” and limited public sympathy for someone facing allegations of terrorism, speaks to his conviction for justice.

“The combination of the enormity and the fundamental importance of the challenges that were at stake made him rise even higher to the challenge,” Mr. Neve said in an interview. “I really saw Dennis as a scrapper. … He was prepared to fight the good fight against what was wrong and to defend what was right – and, to a certain extent, regardless of the odds.”

Mr. Edney spent more than a decade representing Mr. Khadr who was 15 years old when he was captured by American soldiers in a deadly Afghan firefight in 2002. The teen was accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces member. Mr. Edney met the boy in Guantanamo after cold-calling his family in Toronto to ask if he had legal representation.

During a 2015 discussion with the Empire Club of Canada, the lawyer said there were a “fair few times” where he considered walking away from the Khadr case, which came at great personal cost to him and included three Supreme Court of Canada proceedings.

“I always realized that if I walked away, I’d have to spend my life lying to myself, making up some excuse [as to] why I walked away. And I’d always have this image of a young boy chained to the floor in a secret prison in Guantanamo,” he said. “I couldn’t live with that and so I continued on.”

He became a thorn in the side of then-prime-minister Stephen Harper and his conservative government. “Mr. Harper is a bigot. Mr. Harper doesn’t like Muslims,” Mr. Edney said after a Supreme Court hearing in 2015.

Alberta Court of King’s Bench Justice Nathan Whitling, who formerly served as Mr. Edney’s mild-mannered co-counsel for Mr. Khadr, said: “In all my years in the legal profession, I’ve never met a lawyer more dedicated to his clients.” The legal duo have been widely celebrated as paragons of pro bono (unpaid) work – both recipients of the 2008 Canadian National Pro Bono Award.

Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty to war crimes because he was left with what he described as a “hopeless choice” to get out of Guantanamo Bay. A Supreme Court of Canada decision later found intelligence officials obtained evidence from Mr. Khadr under “oppressive circumstances,” such as sleep deprivation, during interrogations at Guantanamo Bay in 2003, which was shared with U.S. authorities.

In 2017, the Canadian government paid a $10.5-million settlement and apologized to Mr. Khadr for the role its security officials played in the abuses he suffered as a teenage prisoner at Guantanamo.

Mr. Edney participated in the young man’s legal defence at the naval base in Cuba and in Canada where he returned in 2012. Eventually, when he was freed on bail three years later, Mr. Edney took him into his own home.

The lawyer told the audience at the Empire Club of Canada that if he had to do the case all over again, he would.

“I have become a better man through Omar, through taking on this case,” he said. “This story is not just about a boy who was detained and abused. His story is also about how we, as individuals, define ourselves as a society and what we are prepared to stand up for.”

The work of Mr. Edney now serves as inspiration to others, such as Avnish Nanda, an Edmonton-based lawyer focused on social justice. He said Mr. Edney was a hero of his and, by example, taught him to be tenacious and creative when there is no clear path to justice.

“In this profession, we love to lionize ourselves as the vanguards of justice – but we often don’t live up these ideals. Law school, our institutions and the structural forces of practice orient us toward safer paths, making it easy for us to ignore where we are needed most,” Mr. Nanda said. “Edney never accepted that. He took on the real work, in difficult times, at no pay, to ensure our country reflected the just and equitable society that we claim to aspire for.”

Mr. Edney was born on Dec. 19, 1946, in Dundee, a coastal city in eastern Scotland. He was a “lorry driver’s son” and played low-level professional soccer before becoming a lawyer on the cusp of his 40s, according to a Scottish tabloid that profiled the expatriate in 2012. His death notice said he also worked as a miner, truck driver and carpenter before receiving his law degree from the University of Northumbria in England in 1987.

Shortly after his schooling, Mr. Edney returned to Canada and set up his own law practice in Edmonton, which he called home for the better part of the past 45 years. He received several honours during his legal career, including the 2009 Human Rights Medal awarded by the Lieutenant-Governor for British Columbia and the honorary title of Queen’s Counsel (now King’s) in 2011 for exceptional merit and contribution to the legal field.

“Dennis put his heart and soul into everything. His legal practice reflected his passion for justice and his indomitable spirit,” his death notice said.

The Scottish tabloid said Mr. Edney exemplified the country’s characteristic working-class stubbornness, a trait that Mr. Edney told the paper underlaid his career trajectory: “What has made me a fighter, taking on governments, is my own Scottish character. We don’t like to see the underdog being picked on.”

But his “ultimate and enduring passion” was his family, said his death notice, which describes Mr. Edney as a loving husband to his wife, Patricia, whom he married just six weeks after they met in 1986, and a dedicated father to his two sons, Cameron and Duncan. It says Mr. Edney once travelled to China to see Cameron and his wife, Julie, “just for a hug” and often drove from Edmonton to Saskatchewan to watch his other son play hockey. The family’s dogs were also “exceedingly spoiled” by him.

Mr. Neve, who was among a small group of people allowed to observe Mr. Khadr’s trial in Guantanamo, said the first time he met Mr. Edney in person, at the Andrews Air Force Base to travel to Cuba, the conversation centred on family.

Publicly, in a message of condolence, Mr. Neve wrote: “Above all you reminded us all that there is nothing more cherished than the abiding love of family and the splendid gift of friendship. Well except maybe a 25-year Glenfiddich.”

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