This weekend saw two prominent stories involving Canadians returning to their country to face legal penalties for serious crimes committed abroad – one a convicted child rapist, the other an exploited child. The difference in their treatment says a lot about Canada's priorities.
The first, Christopher Neil, is an admitted serial sexual exploiter of children, caught in Thailand after officials decoded the computerized swirl patterns he'd used to disguise his face in numerous photos in which he sexually assaulted children.
After having served his full sentence of three years and three months in Thailand, he was allowed to fly back to Canada. He strolled into Vancouver airport on Friday night and was arrested by the RCMP on precautionary grounds. As RCMP Corporal Mat Van Laer told reporters, Canadian officials felt "confident enough that some form of monitoring would be a good idea in this case."
The second, Omar Khadr, was not allowed to return home on his own, but was brought back in shackles, despite having already spent 10 years in the ultra-high-security U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He will face another six years in the penal system in Canada. Canada's government has taken unprecedented efforts to prevent him being returned to his home country, even as every other Western country has fought to get its Guantanamo inmates returned to their soil.
The discrepancy does not end there. If Mr. Neil was a confessed exploiter of children, Mr. Khadr was, among other things, an exploited child. There is no ambiguity in this: He was 15 when he lobbed a grenade at American soldiers during one of the initial skirmishes of the Afghanistan war, after his political-extremist family persuaded him to fight.
As such, he was a young offender under Canadian law – a fact acknowledged by Canada's courts, which have suggested that his Guantanamo convictions are unconstitutional – and a child soldier under every international legal definition. This fact was acknowledged by the United Nations secretary-general's special representative for child soldiers, who told courts in 2010 that Mr. Khadr is an example of "the classic child-soldier narrative: recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely understand."
The fact that Canadian officials are treating a badly mistreated child soldier far worse than an admitted child rapist should be a source of national embarrassment.
Clive Stafford Smith, the British civil-rights lawyer who has acted on behalf of at least 128 Guantanamo inmates, said that he is shocked by Canada's behaviour: While other countries fought to have their Guantanamo inmates repatriated, Canada fought very hard to keep Washington from releasing its sole inmate, the youngest in the system and the last of between 15 and 21 children to be released from the prison. Only after Mr. Khadr had agreed to plead guilty to terrorism – a dubious charge, given that his victims were soldiers, not civilians – was return to Canada even made a possibility.
"It is a sorry state of affairs when you have to be found guilty before you can be set free," Mr. Stafford Smith said from his offices at Reprieve, the London-based penal-justice charity. "This is the system with which Canada has been complicit. I am sad that Canada has behaved so badly over Guantanamo. I have always held Canada in high esteem, but the country has let us (and the rule of law) down on this score."
Mr. Stafford Smith points out that to continue to pretend that Omar Khadr was not a child soldier would represent an abandonment of core Canadian values – and of generally accepted morality.
"There were, we are told, equal reasons why the current pope was not considered responsible for his membership in the Hitler Youth when he was precisely the same age (15)," he notes. "Certainly we did not try the Pope at Nuremburg, thank goodness, and it is fairly ludicrous that the US decided to try Omar Khadr as if he were an adult."