Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.
There's a long and shameful list of Canadian Muslim men whose lives have been substantially wrecked by their own government. Omar Khadr is among those most grievously mistreated by both Liberal and Conservative governments past. Now a new "Free Omar" campaign has been launched by a small group of his volunteer supporters. I fervently hope all who believe in justice will endorse it.
After his lifelong ordeal, Mr. Khadr deserves nothing less. His remarkable story must be only too familiar now – his controversial family, its ties to Osama bin Laden, the firefight where an American soldier was killed, his arrest for that death although legally a child, 13 years in prison, abused, his rights repeatedly violated, until finally freed on bail less than a year ago. Yet even now justice has not been fully served.
In his early years as a prisoner, the Liberal government seemed more concerned about placating George W. Bush than protecting Mr. Khadr's rights. For the Conservatives, it was more personal. They loathed him as the personal incarnation of all that was evil about terrorists.
Yet at every stage of Mr. Khadr's extraordinary voyage there have been many persuasive reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt. Until Trudeau, his governments never once did so.
Mr. Khadr was no seasoned jihadist. The Afghan firefight in which an American soldier was killed was actually his first and only battle. Mr. Khadr himself was badly wounded. There is at least a reasonable possibility he did not kill Sgt. Christopher Speer at all.
Under the Geneva Conventions, which govern the rules of war, soldiers who kill other soldiers in battle are not committing crimes. Otherwise, how could we have civilized wars? Yet Mr. Khadr was found guilty of a crime that wasn't a crime when it happened – if it happened at all. And he's the only person in modern history to be tried for killing another soldier during a battle.
From the first, well before any trial, Mr. Khadr was treated by his American captors as guilty. Over the years, including when he was still legally a child, he endured physical and psychological torture, solitary confinement, endless interrogation, post-traumatic stress, and was subjected to a kangaroo court disguised as the American military justice system. A series of Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, consistently denied him his rights. On his lawyer's advice, he confessed to his "crime" for fear he'd never otherwise get out of Gitmo.
Most troubling, perhaps, he was 15 years old when he was captured. Canada, like most of the world, has long considered anyone in a conflict who is under 18 to be a child and requiring protection. Except Omar Khadr.
Once he was finally allowed to serve part of his sentence in Canada and was released into the hands of his devoted friend and lawyer Dennis Edney and his wife Patricia. the public was finally introduced to Mr. Khadr. It was a stunning revelation. (See the Patrick Reed-Michelle Shephard documentary Guantanamo's Child.) He has emerged from his ordeal as a thoughtful, gentle man who has, amazingly, forgiven his tormentors. He may well be the world's greatest role model for post-conflict reconciliation. Me, I'd be full of hate, bitterness and the lust for vengeance.
But surprisingly, his case isn't over yet. Way back in 2004 – a testament to how long he's endured – a civil suit was launched against the Canadian government seeking compensation for the many violations of Mr. Khadr's fundamental rights; this included the participation of Canadian officials in his torture and abuse in Guantanamo Bay (it's vividly documented in the film You Don't Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo). That was 12 years ago. Over all these years, until just now, the Canadian government continued to fight Mr. Khadr's legal team at every level of court, all at the taxpayers expense. Mr. Khadr's team won every time, the courts handing down a series of humiliating judgments against Ottawa. But the costs to Mr. Khadr's people rose inexorably.
His legal advisers insist that "Canada has a legal and moral responsibility to offer Omar Khadr remedy for the suffering and denial of justice he has incurred since his capture by U.S. forces. forces in 2002." Who can disagree? So one demand of the Free Omar campaign is for the Canadian government to settle this suit and award a remedy of $20-million plus for the many violations of his Charter rights.
They also want an inquiry to fully investigate the Canadian officials whom the Supreme Court and Federal Court ruled violated Omar's fundamental and Charter rights, and they want help annul Mr. Khadr's phony Guantanamo "conviction" that's now before the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review.
The Conservative caucus owes Mr. Khadr his youth. Tom Mulcair owes him, finally, some serious attention. The Liberal government has huge debts to him as well. Some members of today's government were also members of the Liberal government that so shabbily mistreated him and denied his rights from the get-go. Happily, the Trudeau government recently announced they would not proceed with the Conservative government's mean-spirited appeal of Mr. Khadr's release on bail.
That's a good beginning. Now I hope thousands of Canadians go to www.freeOmar.ca and demand that their government offer Mr. Khadr the justice he deserves for the many years of his life that they wickedly stole from him.