Canada’s Shameful Scapegoating of Omar Khadr
Last week, the Canadian government received a formal request for the return of Omar Khadr from Guantánamo Bay. Julie Carmichael, an aide to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, told the Globe and Mail, “The government of Canada has just received a completed application for the transfer of prisoner Omar Ahmed Khadr. A decision will be made on this file in accordance with Canadian law.”
Khadr, who was seized at the age of 15 after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, accepted a plea deal in his war crimes trial at Guantánamo in October 2010, on the basis that he would serve an eight-year sentence, but with only one year to be served in Guantánamo.
However, as the Globe and Mail described it, the government of Stephen Harper “has been reluctant to accept Mr. Khadr,” and “diplomatic wrangling over his transfer has persisted.” Despite this, as I noted last month, the US government has been putting pressure on the Canadian government, because US officials need other prisoners to be reassured that, if they accept plea deals in exchange for providing evidence against other prisoners, the terms of those plea deals will be honored.
Playing this down, and also playing down Canada’s own responsibility towards Khadr, a Canadian official explained, “The United States basically asked Canada for a diplomatic favor and Canada previously agreed to look at a request of this nature favorably. The US needs to get rid of this guy for their own reasons.” The source added that the Americans were “bending over backwards” to ensure Khadr’s return, and would have to “bend their way around a number of their own rules” to make that happen, and also suggested that Vic Toews had “little choice but to accept Mr. Khadr’s return, which would happen at US expense.”
All of the above was economical with the truth, because Canada’s involvement in accepting the return of Khadr was obviously discussed at the time of the plea deal, and the talk of doing favors is, therefore, designed only to make the Canadian government appear tough.
This is nothing new, as the Canadian government has persistently ignored Khadr’s rights, abandoning him at the age of 15, when officials were supposed to call for his rehabilitation as part of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which both Canada and the US are signatories. Moreover, the Canadian government has done nothing to prevent the kind of racism that has involved a regular outpouring of hostility towards Khadr. This is so out of control that numerous Canadian citizens have decided that it is appropriate to talk of not allowing Khadr to return to Canada, even though he was born in Canada and is a Canadian citizen.
Typical of this was a poll conducted last week on CBC News’s “Your Community Blog,” which asked the question, “Should Omar Khadr be allowed to return to Canada?” as though there was a legal option to prevent his return, when there is not. Fortunately, 53 percent of those who voted said yes, compared to 43 percent who said no, although that is still an alarmingly large minority of Canadian citizens who don’t understand what nationality and citizenship mean, and who also don’t seem to believe that a prison sentence — and any notion of punishment — should be finite.
These voices include journalist and Sun TV host Ezra Levant, who has written an entire hate-filled book about the alleged threat posed by Khadr, but whose approach is “so obsessional that it sometimes seems like a manifestation of clinical mental illness,” as another journalist, Jonathan Kay, recently explained.
Moreover, last Thursday, as the Toronto Sun explained in a news report, Vic Toews conceded that the government would not block Khadr’s return. Some commentators had speculated that the government “was considering using a clause in the International Transfer of Offenders Act to keep … Khadr out of Canada on national security grounds.”
Toews explained, “Under the International Transfer of Offenders Act, he is a Canadian citizen. He is also a Canadian citizen under the Charter which entitles him to come back to Canada, eventually.” He added, “The issue is when does he come back to Canada? That’s a determination I have to make and I haven’t made any decision in that respect yet.”
A decision is expected soon, but in the meantime opponents of Khadr’s return should also reflect that, under Canadian law, he will be “eligible for parole next year after completing one-third of his sentence, and statutory release after completing two-thirds.” Toews pointed out that “it would be up to the National Parole Board to decide when to integrate Khadr back into society.” The Toronto Sun also pointed out that the government was “bracing for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit,” based on the fallout from a Canadian Supreme Court ruling in 2010 — conveniently ignored by the government — which stated unambiguously that Khadr’s rights were violated in US custody.
In defense of Khadr — and providing some necessary humility — the Toronto Star ran an editorial last Thursday, pointing out that “the abuse he has suffered with the complicity of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government and that of its Liberal predecessors has shamed Canada,” adding, “His expected return from Guantánamo Bay, while welcome, does us no great credit either.”
Seeing through the official line about Canada doing the US a favour, the Star noted, “Such is the shabby close to an infamous case in which Ottawa refused to go to bat for one of our own,” and delivered the following verdict on Khadr’s US ordeal:
US President Barack Obama once declared Gitmo a “legal black hole” predicated on a “dangerously flawed legal approach” that “compromised our core values.” Khadr finally buckled to that ugly system in 2010 and surrendered the guilty plea to murder and war crimes that it was designed to elicit. His plea bargain was a “hellish decision” to preclude trial in a sham court and the risk of a life sentence.
The Star also reminded readers that Khadr “was pushed to fight in Afghanistan by his al-Qaida-linked father,” and that US officials “threatened him with gang rape, denied him counsel, deprived him of sleep, and set a precedent by charging him with war crimes as a juvenile.” Also noting that he had “spent far more time behind bars than he would have in Canada, had he been convicted here in a credible court of murder as a young offender,” the Star concluded its pertinent editorial by stating:
[A]s Canada’s allies successfully lobbied to free their nationals from Gitmo, the Harper government wilfully neglected Khadr. It never forcefully protested his mistreatment, criticized his prosecution, or asked for leniency. It took the obtuse view that justice was taking its course. It washed its hands of a young Canadian, leaving him to his fate. It failed a citizen, and disgraced itself.
It is rare, at Guantánamo, for another government to have behaved as appallingly as the US, but in Khadr’s case it has long been clear, to anyone capable of viewing it objectively, that the Canadian government has matched America’s abuse towards Khadr every step of the way, and it is time for this disgraceful situation to be brought to an end.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield.
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