Omar Khadr’s long journey to freedom divides Canadians

Sunday 06/08/2017
Ruled by emotions. Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr seen at a home in Mississauga, Ontario, on July 6. (AP)

The truth is that no one really knows what role Khadr may have played in the death of Speer.

When Omar Khadr was 11, his extremist father took him from his home in Alberta, Canada, to fight for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In 2002, when he was 15, Khadr was part of a firefight with US troops who invaded Afghanistan after 9/11.

By the time the shooting was over, Khadr was wounded and the only al-Qaeda member alive in the area. During the fight, a US Army medic named Christopher Speer was killed.

As the only al-Qaeda member left alive, and despite the absence of evidence he was the one responsible, Khadr was blamed for Speer’s death and sent to the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Under international law, Khadr should have been treated as a child soldier and separated from the adult prisoners. In those days, however, the Bush admin­istration really didn’t care much about following international law. During his years in captivity, Khadr alleges he was tortured and coerced into signing a confession. Khadr became the only child soldier prosecuted for war crimes in the years since the protections against just such a prosecution were put in place.

And that’s where the problems for the Canadian government started.

A group of lawyers in Canada heard about Khadr’s situation and started legal proceedings on his behalf. In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Khadr’s rights under the Cana­dian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been severely violated. The conservative Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, ignored the ruling and let Khadr stay in the prison in Cuba.

When Khadr’s lawyers peti­tioned to have him returned to serve his sentence in Canada, in 2010 the Supreme Court again ruled that his rights as a Cana­dian had been seriously violated. Again, the Canadian government did nothing until 2012 when he was repatriated to Alberta.

Because the US Supreme Court had twice ruled that the military trials at Guantanamo Bay were illegal under US and interna­tional law, Khadr’s Canadian lawyers appealed his conviction. The judge in the case could see the writing on the wall and released him on bail. (That appeal is proceeding.) Khadr then sued the Canadian govern­ment for violating his rights.

Which brings us to July 4 of this year. Current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the government had settled the suit with Khadr for $10.5 million. Trudeau also officially apologised to him.

That’s when the fireworks started.

Many Canadians were out­raged at the settlement and apology. Conservative politi­cians argued that the Canadian government had paid millions of dollars to an admitted terrorist. They said it showed that Trudeau was soft on terrorism. Other Canadians, who were not so outraged, pointed out that the facts of the case meant that the government had no choice but to settle.

Trudeau made just that argument. He said he under­stood why people were upset but, if the Canadian government had fought Khadr’s suit, it could have resulted in $30 million-$40 million in legal fees and court costs alone and probably a much larger settlement. Conservatives argued that the government might have won the case if it had stayed the course but almost every prominent lawyer inter­viewed by Canadian media said Khadr had the law on his side and that Trudeau made the right decision.

As we have learned, however, facts often don’t matter. Emo­tions rule the day. Many Canadi­ans, furious with Trudeau’s actions, donated to a US fund to support Speer’s family and the family of another US soldier blinded during the same attack who had tried — unsuccessfully — to have Khadr’s settlement frozen. (A Utah court had already awarded the families $134 million in a wrongful death suit against Khadr.)

The Conservatives’ all-out attack on Trudeau and Khadr­seems to have misfired. Two polls taken towards the end of July, well after the Khadr settlement was made public, indicated that Trudeau’s Liberals had gained support and that the Conservatives had lost it. This might signal that the Conserva­tives and much of the main­stream media misread what a majority of Canadians thought bout the Khadr matter.

The truth is that no one really knows what role Khadr may have played in the death of Speer. There is no disputing the facts, however, that he was convicted as a child soldier despite prohibi­tions in international law and that he was tortured during his time at Guantanamo Bay.

If previous Canadian govern­ments had fulfilled their legal obligations at the time, the chances are Omar Khadr would have been back in Canada much sooner and the lawsuit that so divided Canadians might never have happened.