“A Child’s Soul is Sacred”: Omar Khadr’s Touching Exchange of Letters with Canadian Professor

1.11.10

Note: A detailed response to the 40-year sentence handed down by Omar Khadr’s military jury on Sunday will be published soon. Although largely symbolic, as Khadr’s plea deal involves an eight-year sentence instead, it nevertheless provided a suitably grim epitaph to a week of events in which the staggering injustices of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” were revealed to have been thoroughly revived and reinvigorated under President Obama.

At Guantánamo last week, following Omar Khadr’s acceptance of a plea deal in which he followed a script dictated by the Obama administration and pleaded guilty to invented war crimes including being an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent,” who had committed murder in violation of the laws of war, the Military Commission circus moved on to a sentencing phase, in which the prosecution and the defense produced witnesses for the deliberations of a seven-member military jury.

Following the often inexplicable rules of the Military Commissions, the jury members made their own decision about an appropriate sentence for the Canadian, delivering a sentence of 40 years on Sunday. This was a largely symbolic victory for the government, and would only have had any practical significance if it had been  less than the eight years negotiated as an open secret at the heart of the plea deal, but it was still deeply shocking, and particularly so in light of some little-reported facts about Khadr’s case that emerged during his sentencing hearings last week, regarding his appetite for learning and his openness to positive, constructive thinking about the world.

As I explained in a previous article, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses last week was a dubious psychiatrist, Michael Welner, who attempted to portray Khadr as an unrepentant terrorist, and, at one point during his generally hysterical appearance in the Guantánamo courtroom, claimed that Khadr had “read only Harry Potter and the Quran,” and had memorized the latter while “marinating inside [the] radical Islamic community” in Guantánamo.

Even leaving aside, for a moment, the slanderous nature of his comments about the atmosphere within Guantánamo (which is belied by the accounts of those released from the prison — most recently here), and also leaving aside the problems with al-Qaeda terrorists reading the pagan adventures of Harry Potter (which I discussed here), Michael Welner’s appraisal of Khadr’s reading habits was exposed as a lie by Khadr’s defense team.

In what was described by Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald as “a feisty and at times disorganized cross-examination,” one of Khadr’s lawyers, Air Force Maj. Matthew Schwartz, got Welner to “pull from his notes more of [Khadr’s] reading list,” revealing that he had also read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, and “unnamed thrillers by John Grisham and steamy novels by Danielle Steel.”

If further proof was needed that the attempt to portray Khadr as an unreconstructed terrorist was thoroughly deceptive, this came with the exposure to the court, by Khadr’s defense team, of a two-year exchange of letters between Khadr and Arlette Zinck, an English professor at King’s University College in Edmonton.

In his letters, as the Edmonton Journal explained on Saturday, Khadr “expressed his gratitude” to Zinck “to know I am not alone now,” and discussed other books he had read, including Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. As the Journal also explained, having obtained copies of the letters, which are available here and here, “He often signed off saying he hoped to meet Zinck and King’s students one day and possibly attend the small Christian college.”

The fact that Nelson Mandela’s book left a deep impression on Khadr can be seen from his reference to Mandela in a statement he delivered to the court on Thursday, when he said, “During my time here, as Nelson Mandela says, in prison, the most thing you have is time to think about things. I’ve had a lot of time to think about things. I came to a conclusion that hate, first thing is, you’re not going to gain anything with hate. Second thing, it’s more destructive than it’s constructive. Third thing: I came to a conclusion that love and forgiveness are more constructive and will bring people together and will give them understanding and will solve a lot of problems.”

The Journal also noted that, in a letter in April this year, Khadr wrote a page on his thoughts about the book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, which must have affected him profoundly, as Beah was forced to fight in Sierra Leone as a boy soldier at the age of 13, and, as the Journal described it, “committed terrible violence but survived and was rehabilitated.”

Without dwelling on how neither the US nor Canadian governments had fulfilled their obligation to rehabilitate him, under the terms of the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which obliges signatories to “[r]ecogniz[e] the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and to ensure “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict,” Khadr wrote:

After I’ve finished reading A Long Way Gone, I was struck by the simplicity, truthfulness and the straight-from-the-heart fact of it. A Long Way Gone is the best example to what humans have reached from horrors they committed to the way they cured it and especially in the child field, a treatment that guaranteed success and cureness, a way that leaves no traces of the horrors that have scarred the soul.

In the most powerful passage, which ought to cause undying shame to those in the United States who have persisted with prosecution of Khadr, or, like the Canadian government, have washed their hands of him, he wrote:

Children’s hearts are like a sponge that will absorb what is around it, like wet cement, soft until it is sculptured in a certain way. A child’s soul is a sacred dough that must be shaped in a holy way.

Describing the relationship between Khadr and Zinck, the Journal explained that Zinck “took on the role of professor, urging Khadr to do a lot of reading and writing so he can one day apply to university as a mature student. She also wrote from her faith, urging him to react to his difficult surroundings with love and strength and remember that ‘God keeps you close.’”

In a telephone interview from Guantánamo on Friday, Zinck said that she “began writing to Khadr in November 2008 because her Christian faith asks people to comfort those in need, including prisoners,” and explained that her inspiration came from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, chapter 25, verse 35, in which “Christ commands His disciples to comfort the sick, feed the hungry and thirsty and provide support for prisoners,” adding that, “Out of that grew the idea to encourage Omar to get an education.”

Describing how it became clear that Khadr is a “voracious reader,” Zinck also explained that the young man she came to know through the letters was a “polite, thoughtful, intelligent person.”

As a result of the exchange of letters, a group of students at King’s University College organized a public meeting to discuss Khadr’s case, at whch 700 people turned up, who “actively pushed” for him to receive a fair trial.

Moreover, on Friday, Khadr told his sentencing hearing at Guantánamo that he would like to attend King’s University College, and Zinck told the hearing she would “write a letter of recommendation for Khadr if he applied to attend the college.”

The following are excerpts from the letters between Zinck and Khadr.

October 23, 2008, Khadr to Zinck:

I got your letter and picture, was very surprised by them. So thank you very much for them, I’m in your debt and what you showed is more than I expected and that you are a true friend and as they say: The true friend is not in the time of ease but in the time of hardship.

January 22, 2009, Khadr to Zinck:

I have received your response so thank you very much … Your letters are like candles, very bright in my hardship and darkness. About myself, what can I say? We hold on to hope in our hearts and the love from others to us and that keeps us going until we reach our happiness.

October 18, 2009, Zinck to Khadr, as part of “a long letter with daily lesson plans and writing assignments, urging him to choose a novel, Huckleberry Finn or Harry Potter, and write an essay”:

See if you can do a little bit each day. You want to strike a balance between challenging yourself and to do a little more than is easy and putting undue pressure on yourself … [D]on’t feel discouraged about the time you are spending in Guantánamo right now. Live it fully. Be kind to those around you. Know that there are many of us here at home who are thinking about you. Right now you have time to read slowly and think deeply. Believe it or not this is a blessing if you will see it as such. I hope this modest plan will help to give your studies shape. Everything is an opportunity to learn, Omar. Some of the world’s most important stories have been written by men in prison. Your circumstances will teach you things that other people will never know. Be a good student of the lessons that life is presenting to you right at this moment. They are precious, uniquely yours and irreplaceable.

February 5, 2010, Zinck to Khadr:

Whenever you are lonesome, remember you have many friends who keep you in their prayers. Each morning at 9 o’clock, I include you in mine. I know you are likely busy and preoccupied these days but I hope you have had time to do some reading. Reading provides an education that no school can provide. Will you take a few minutes sometime before Mr. Edney [one of Khadr’s Canadian civilian lawyers] leaves to write me a one-page essay on whatever aspect of Huckleberry Finn most interests you. Attached are a few words on how to write a good essay … When you come home you can apply to university as a mature student. I wish we could correspond more regularly. I have tried to send a letter by way of Amnesty International but I suspect that did not reach you. Take care, dear Omar, and let me know which books you are going to read next.

February 17, 2010, Khadr to Zinck:

About me, I’m OK. More nonsense (novel) reading than good reading. Here is the list of books I’ve read since our last letter: Great Expectations, The Broker (John Grisham,) A Long Way Gone, Three Cups of Tea, the four books of Twilight series. [Khadr added that he was reading Grisham novels before he got back to “school stuff”]. The problem is some things here are so stressful you need some novels to get you out of this place. Educational things need more peace of mind. But I guess I have to do with what I have, some of this and some of that. On a separate paper, I will try to write something about the book you asked me but don’t get surprised. It’s my first time to write such a thing.

May 23, 2010, Khadr to Zinck:

Thank you for your letter and thanks for the compliment, I don’t think I deserve it. Before I end, I say again your letters are one of the most important things for me down here. I treasure them and reread them, they mean a lot.

July 18, 2010, Zinck to Khadr, on the eve of pre-trial hearings:

Omar, are you sure that this is the moment to fire your US lawyers? … The problem is that the moment you fire your lawyers, the forces of evil and injustice win … [T]hings are moving behind the scenes even if we can’t see them. We need to have faith that something good may yet happen. As you know, Omar, you are a pawn in a high stakes game of chess. If you quit before the trial begins, you lose … Be strong, Omar. Stand tall … Choose to be loving, patient, kind. As Mahatma Gandhi has said, we each need to be the change that we want to see in the world … You have done a wonderful job to date of seeing the best in everyone around you and finding ways to be fully human in an environment that seeks at every turn to deny your humanity. The strongest, most compelling thing you can do is react with LOVE to everything and everyone you encounter. This will take every ounce of strength you have but you will not be alone as you do this important work. God keeps you especially close when people are mean. He takes our suffering and makes something beautiful with it. If you ask for God’s help, He will provide you with strength you did not know you could muster.

Note: The picture of Omar Khadr above is a courtroom sketch by Janet Hamlin, and is reproduced courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

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. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on The Public Record and Uruknet.

12 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention “A Child’s Soul is Sacred”: Omar Khadr’s Touching Exchange of Letters with Canadian Professor | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Susan Hall, Elie Levasseur, LeanBrains, skdadl and others. skdadl said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: “A Child’s Soul is Sacred”: Omar Khadr’s Touching Exchange of Letters with Canadian Professor – Read it and weep: http://bit.ly/dAlvMs [...]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Anna Brown wrote:

    Excellent article, Andy. Thank you for posting this. It’s a must read.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Karen Martin wrote:

    Hi Andy, I visited to your webpage. Question for ya…will you eventually have another book published to include the material say from the past year?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Anna and Karen. Much appreciated.
    And Karen, I’d love to do another book – ideally, an overview of post-9/11 detention and the “War on Terror,” updating all the legal challenges, Military Commissions, habeas, how Obama has drifted into inertia, and why …
    Any agents or publishers out there?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    Thank you all for caring and posting. I think we should write at LEAST EVERY WK TO OMAR. Every time we write to him we should send a letter or two to a Pres., legislator, paper or someplace to remind them of this “horror” they have supported.

  6. EML says...

    Thank you so much for this, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Cheshire Cat wrote:

    That would be awesome Andy. :-) I’d pre-order it.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    The correspondence between the prof. and Omar is very touching and I think every teacher, & Jr.-Sr. High School student should read it.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Me too, Susan. Proving that the pen is mightier than the sword …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks, Cheshire Cat. I should probably start thinking seriously about it …

  11. Faraz Siddiqui, Toronto says...

    Thank you Andy for revealing this side of the story: a young man’s strength amidst the tragedy that befell him. I will share this with my friends and colleagues in the fight for civil liberty, human rights and social justice. we have omar in our prayers and hope the best for him.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Faraz. Good to hear from you.

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