Guantánamo: as child soldier Omar Khadr turns 21, US military lawyer William Kuebler criticizes Canadians for their indifference

24.9.07

Omar KhadrPrior to visiting Canada for a short tour to publicize the plight of his client, Omar Khadr (profiled here and here), US military lawyer Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler –- whose opposition to the US government’s system of trials by Military Commission was covered here and here –- issued a press release, which succinctly explained why it remains imperative for the Canadian government to act on his behalf.

“Allegedly indoctrinated and recruited as a child soldier in Afghanistan,” Kuebler wrote, “Omar was taken into US custody after being shot and critically wounded by US forces in a firefight [in Afghanistan] at the age of 15.” He continued: “Notwithstanding its leadership in international efforts to recognize child soldiers as victims in need of special protection and rehabilitation, Canada has remained virtually silent in Omar’s case, hiding behind vague assurances from the US government that Omar is receiving humane treatment and a fair trial in face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As a result, Omar now faces the prospect of being the first child to be prosecuted for ‘war crimes’ in modern history. He is to be tried before a military tribunal whose procedures are designed to secure convictions based on evidence derived from torture and coercion, and that fails to meet the minimum requirements for a fair trial under international law.”

Lt. Cmdr. William KueblerLast Wednesday, on the day that, unremarked and uncelebrated, Omar Khadr turned 21 in Guantánamo, Kuebler made a further appeal to the government and the people of Canada, explaining, as the Ottawa Citizen described it, that “Five years of incarceration in Cuba has stunted Khadr’s development at a late-adolescent level,” and that he “functions as a boy of 13 or 14 and does not have a full grasp of his situation.” “I would say generally he understands what’s happening, to the extent that any of us do,” Kuebler said in an interview on Omar’s birthday. “But it’s very clear he doesn’t have the same grasp as a normal 21-year-old man would. He has not received the social interaction. He has not received an education. He has not received any of the things that a person would need at that age to become a functional adult.”

Last month, Kuebler and his fellow lawyers –- Dwight Sullivan, Dennis Edney and Lorne Waldman –- persuaded the Canadian Bar Association to lobby for Khadr’s release, after a meeting at which Edney stated, poignantly, that, “when he saw Mr. Khadr recently, his client was so mentally debilitated that he wanted nothing more than crayons and some paper to colour on.” As reported by the Globe and Mail, Edney added, “Contrary to federal government assurances that Mr. Khadr is doing just fine, his client is actually ‘ill and going blind. He needs all sorts of help.’”

On his brief Canadian tour, Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler followed up on this success by attracting the attention of Liberal opposition leader Stephane Dion, who repeated a plea he made last month for the Conservative government to demand Khadr’s repatriation to Canada, and made a statement in which he declared, accurately, that “Canada is alone among western nations in not having secured the release from Guantánamo of one of its nationals.” He also said, as AFP reported, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper must finally ensure Khadr receives the same consular support that any other Canadian –- detainee or not –- would receive. It’s time for Canada to intervene, as so many other countries have done, to ensure that the charges against its citizens are dealt with, that he is tried in a legitimate court and that he receives due process.” Dion added that, if the US administration was unwilling to provide these assurances, the Prime Minister must “demand Mr. Khadr’s repatriation to Canada where he can be dealt with by our justice system, as has been the case with detainees from Australia, the United Kingdom and France.”

Despite securing legal support in Canada –- and apparently flying in the face of his own role as a lawyer –- Kuebler maintained throughout his visit that Khadr’s “hopes lie in a political, rather than judicial, solution.” He acknowledged that his client’s cause was unpopular in Canada –- not only because of the alleged terrorist activities of his father (who took the family to live in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden, and was killed in a firefight in Pakistan in October 2003), but also because of “controversial statements made by other members of his family” –- but insisted that “enough is enough,” explaining, “Really, what you have is the US government attempting to punish Omar for the alleged sins of his father and the Canadian government punishing him for the sins of his family.”

It was a bravura performance. One day, when all this is over, I expect that Kuebler and his fellow JAG lawyers –- in particular, Michael Mori, who struggled long and hard to repatriate David Hicks to Australia, and Charlie Swift, who fought a principled, career-destroying battle for another detainee, Salim Hamdan –- will be heroes in a Hollywood version of their story. For now, however, it remains to be seen if Bill Kuebler has persuaded the Canadian government of its hypocrisy in standing up for the rights of other child soldiers around the world, while singularly failing one of its own.

Note: For more on the story of Omar Khadr and his family, see my book, The Guantánamo Files. I could tell you some heartbreaking tales of Omar’s experiences as a lost and lonely child in Guantánamo, but that would be a betrayal of trust: I was told them by Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard, and they feature in her book on Omar, Guantánamo’s Child, which will be published next year. For an extensive article by William Kuebler about the injustices of the Military Commission system, click here.

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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

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