Khadr’s return to Canada followed a monstrous travesty of justice in the US. Under the terms of a plea deal in October 2010, in his trial by military commission, he admitted to being an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent,” and to throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier at the time of his capture during a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, even though the evidence suggests that he was face down and unconscious, having been shot in the back, when the grenade was thrown. Disgracefully, he was also obliged to admit that, by partaking in combat with US forces during wartime and in an occupied country, he was a war criminal.
Khadr agreed to the plea deal solely in order to leave Guantánamo, receiving an eight-year sentence (as opposed the 40-year sentence arrived at during his trial), with one year to be served at Guantánamo and the remaining seven in Canada.
Most importantly, Khadr was just a child when he was seized, even though, as a juvenile — those under 18 when their alleged crimes take place — he should have been rehabilitated, according to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which both the US and Canada are signatories, rather than being tortured and otherwise abused in US custody, and abandoned by his own government.
On his return, it was reasonable to assume that he would soon be freed, as courts up to and including the Canadian Supreme Court had ruled that his rights had been violated when Canadian agents interrogated him at Guantánamo. In 2010, the Court stated, “Interrogation of a youth, to elicit statements about the most serious criminal charges while detained in these conditions and without access to counsel, and while knowing that the fruits of the interrogations would be shared with the US prosecutors, offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”
However, the Canadian government has behaved appallingly since Khadr’s return, first imprisoning him in isolation in Millhaven Penitentiary in Bath, Ontario, where he was classified as a maximum security prisoner (a situation that prompted me to write an article entitled, “Canada’s Shameful and Unending Disdain for Omar Khadr“), and then transferring him to Edmonton Institution in Alberta, another maximum security prison, in late May, after a request made by his long-standing civilian lawyer, Dennis Edney.
At the time, it was reported that he had had a terrible time in Millhaven. As the Toronto Star explained:
Dennis Edney, Khadr’s lawyer, says the 26-year-old was only in Millhaven’s general population for three weeks, during which time his life was threatened after a disagreement with another inmate in the prison cafeteria.
According to Edney, Khadr was helping serve meals in and responsible for distributing pats of butter. “An inmate wanted more than he was entitled to and Omar refused,” Edney said. “He was threatened with being stabbed and there was talk of a contract being put out on his life so the institution intervened to protect him by putting him in segregation.”
The Toronto Star also explained:
The news was welcomed by Edmonton university professor Arlette Zinck [also see here and here] and her team of volunteer instructors, who have been working with Khadr for years. Zinck, who twice visited Khadr in Guantánamo and testified at his sentencing hearing, [had] tried to continue her teachings in Millhaven, both in person and through written correspondence. She said Khadr has been assessed at a Grade 12 level and has gone through official certification testing up to Grade 10.
But there [had] been some difficulties that surpass what he faced in Guantánamo, she said. A package of reading materials, which included Roch Carrier’s classic, The Hockey Sweater, was denied and returned to Zinck this spring with the note: “school materials that are not authorized.”
Khadr had read Carrier’s story while in Guantánamo as part of what Zinck called her “Cross-Canada reading tour,” which also included Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute. “It was Gitmo-approved but didn’t make it through Corrections (Canada),” Zinck said. “But this is not about Corrections Canada being miserable,” she added quickly. “The personnel I’ve interacted with have been professional, caring and just plain kind. The problem is the parameter within which they’ve been asked to work.” [a reference to the fact that Khadr had been assessed as a “maximum security” inmate].
A month ago, the Canadian government received another blow to its crediblity regarding its treatment of Omar when, as The Canadian Press described it, Canada’s prison ombudsman said that prison authorities “ignored favorable information” in “unfairly branding” Khadr as a maximum security inmate.
In a letter to Anne Kelly, senior deputy commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, Ivan Zinger, the executive director of the independent Office of the Correctional Investigator, “urges another look at Khadr’s classification,” as The Canadian Press described it.
Zinger wrote, “The OCI has not found any evidence that Mr. Khadr’s behaviour while incarcerated has been problematic and that he could not be safely managed at a lower security level. I recommend that Mr. Khadr’s security classification be reassessed taking into account all available information and the actual level of risk posed by the offender, bearing in mind his sole offence was committed when he was a minor.”
Zinger, who also called Khadr’s case “unique and exceptional,” added that Khadr had “shown no evidence of problematic behaviour while in Canadian custody,” and noted that the US authorities “had categorized him as minimum security” — a particularly pertinent point to highlight the injustice of his treatment in Canada.
“According to a psychological report on file, Khadr interacted well with others and did not present with violent or extremist attitudes,” Zinger wrote.
The Canadian Press noted that the classification was important, as Arlette Zinck pointed out, because “it affects Khadr’s day-to-day prison existence, such as his access to programs, as well as on his potential for parole.”
Although prison officials have sought to defend the maximum security classification, claiming that Khadr “poses a moderate escape risk and sparks high public safety concerns,” Zinger, whose letter was written a day before Khadr was moved to Edmonton, disagrees. In the letter he cited a US military psychiatrist as saying Khadr “showed no signs of aggressive or dangerous behaviour,” and “consistently verbalized his goal to conduct a peaceful, pro-social life as a Canadian citizen,” and noted, “Our office questions the rationale for not using these professional and expert assessments on file.”
In response to Zinger’s letter, Dennis Edney said that the prison ombudsman’s concerns were “more evidence of a Conservative government campaign to demonize Khadr,” as The Canadian Press described it. “This report contradicts the fiction put out by the Canadian government that Omar Khadr poses a security risk,” Edney said, adding, “The government has long known Guantánamo officials viewed Omar as a ‘good kid.’”
A month ago, Edney went to court to try to oblige the government to transfer Omar to a provincial jail, “calling his incarceration in Edmonton Institution illegal given that Khadr was 15 when he committed the offences to which he pleaded guilty.” A court date has been set for September 23, and if you can help with Dennis Edney’s legal costs, then please visit the Free Omar Khadr website and follow the instructions there.
On Omar’s birthday, it remains clear, unfortunately, that the Canadian government has no intention of backing down. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who made Omar’s life a misery, has moved on, but his replacement, Steven Blaney, has inherited the same script. Responding to Edney’s lawsuit, he said, “The Government of Canada will vigorously defend against any attempted court action to lessen his punishment for these crimes.”
One day, I hope, Canadian government officials will be held accountable for violating Omar Khadr’s rights, and wilfully prolonging his imprisonment, but for now we need to stand with Dennis Edney to, at the least, get him moved from a maximum security institution to one more suited to a “good kid,” who has never been a security threat.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
Thank you Andy for again an excellent article about Omar. And thank you so much for sharing the fundraising campaign for Omar’s lawyer Dennis Edney. Fingers crossed for Monday the 23th. Lets hope there will be a fair decision and justice will finaly be on Omar’s side.
Hi Andy Once again thanks for this piece on Omar Khadr. Yes, we await the day when the Canadian (Harper) government will be held accountable for its actions. i think Omar Khadr will haunt us for many years and will leave a shameful legacy for Canada.
Thank you, Aaf, and thanks for everything you’ve been doing to publicize Omar’s case. I do think there’s been movement in the right direction – from Millhaven to Edmonton. I just wish the government would let Omar go. He’s suffered enough, and continuing to demonize him only furthers the Canadian government’s long foray into the completely unacceptable treatment of a juvenile and a citizen.
Thank you, Helen. Great to hear from you. While researching this today I came across an article in the Toronto Sun about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, in which it was noted that he “isn’t ruling out compensation for Omar Khadr for the time [he] served in Guantanamo Bay.” Trudeau said, “Omar Khadr needs to be treated the way we treat Canadians according to the rules that exist, according to the laws and principles that govern,” adding that he should be treated like “any Canadian who as been incarcerated outside of the country.” He also said, “We need to be fair to the way we treat Canadians, and if people don’t like the way the laws are now, well then, they need to change them.”
Trudeau’s comment that Omar “needs to be treated the way we treat Canadians according to the rules that exist” is hugely important, but of course far too many Canadians ignore it. A poll to accompany the article, asking, “Do you think Omar Khadr has been treated fairly by the Canadian government?” shows 78% of respondents agreeing with the question. That’s a sad reflection on notions of justice in Canada, sadly.
On Facebook, Sara SN wrote:
Helen Sadowski wrote:
let’s all tweet this article as well
Annie Maher wrote:
Such a powerful article – very painful to once again review the “monstrous travesty of justice” that Omar continues to suffer.
Thanks, Sara, Helen and Annie. I hope Omar hears that there have been many people thinking of him on his birthday, and hoping that he gets his life back. My son is now nearly 14, so nearing the age Omar was when he was first captured. It’s extremely difficult for me to think about someone just a little older than my son being locked away until the age of 27, when he was not of an age to be responsible for his actions in the first place.
Pauline Kiernan wrote:
Oh it never ends. Sharing. Thank you Andy. Px
Yes, if it’s not the US or the UK, then it’s Canada, Pauline. What is it about WASPs and institutionalized injustice?
Sara Naqwi wrote:
Thank you so much for marking this important date and adding our website and fund campaign. Greatly appreciate it.
You’re welcome of course, Sara. I’m just sad to note that I’ve been writing about Omar on his birthday since 2007!
One item stands out for me, in the outline above, of what Omar has had to endure: “Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who made Omar’s life a misery, has moved on, but his replacement, Steven Blaney, has inherited the same script. Responding to Edney’s lawsuit, he said, “The Government of Canada will vigorously defend against any attempted court action to lessen his punishment for these crimes.” –
The phrase “inherited the same script” is accurate, because that is what this government operates on – a script from Harper. If they are interrupted in their script they look utterly panicked until they are able to resume where they left off. It is downright frightening.
In every report on Omar, it is mentioned that he ‘confessed’… but what is not mentioned is that he made that confession under duress. If he had not done so, his sentence would be the original 40 years.
I don’t know what in hell bothers this government about Omar specifically, but it is obvious that it will take dynamite to make them move from their present position.
Thanks, Ruth, for the powerful, heartfelt comments. I find, with racist politicians, that it’s often hard to tell if they’re entirely convinced by what they say and do, or if they’re content just to play to the lowest common denominator. One of the big problems with the world today is that politicians are just venal and power-obsessed, and don’t even bother to attach values to their greedy ego-tripping. Once upon a time we could have expected them to do more of the patronizing patrician thing; now they do nothing to try to educate people, and, with a right-leaning media fomenting racism and xenophobia, and people using the internet primarily to reinforce their own prejudices, we’re in big trouble. The comments pages of American, British and Canadian newspapers online are full of such hatred that it’s a wonder that it’s still generally safe to walk the streets.
Thank you for these details. I happened to watch a documentary on Omar at a film festival in Bombay about 4 years ago and have been following on all developments ever since. Can the UNO or any other Human Rights body intervene and set this young man free. The US kills many or accidentally kills many during war time. Omar has been asked to confess under duress. Everyone knows this. 12 years in that horrifying place is unimaginable. How many petitions etc will have to be signed before Omar gets his freedom?
Thanks for keeping space for Omar in your writing.
Your analysis of the motives of many politicians today is sadly accurate. Real values are regularly trumped by a blind pursuit of perpetual power. Rather than leading towards a societal vision, we find leaders who prefer (and seek to cultivate) an electoral that is Selfish, Stupid, and Scared. Policy is crafted based upon appeal to Gut rather than Intellect. Misinformation replaces Education. Fear is the incumbent’s best friend.
Sadly for Omar, he has been made into a politically inexpensive scapegoat around whom the Conservative government has created a lie-filled mythology that leaves most Canadians “Stupid” and renders many who don’t dig beyond the government sound bites “Scared”. You mention the hate-filled comment pages and I am reminded how, for a Conservative government in need of the support of centrist voters to hold power, Omar represents (pardon the analogy) a bone on which their party’s more ravenous elements can be left to chew ferociously, all the while distracted from more controversial (and electorally costly) issues like abortion, capital punishment, gay rights, etc.
The good news is that they can only keep the truth that is embodied in Omar himself hidden away for so long. Omar will someday be free (God willing, someday soon) and the truth that he embodies will, on that day, make all of us a bit more free.
Thanks for the comments, zoneofsilence. I imagine if international bodies made a point of shaming the Canadian government publicly, something might happen, but as it stands politicians can – and do – claim they’re only abiding by the terms of the plea deal that Omar made at Guantanamo, and that everything is lawful. The important next step is for Omar to be moved out of a maximum security facility, but at least, after 10 years in severe isolation in US custody, he can have visits from friends and family. I imagine that means the world to him.
Very well put, Robert, on all fronts – both regarding the stench of what passes for politics today, and the truth about Omar, which will finally be revealed when he is released in Canada. I’m looking forward to seeing him publicly with Arlette Zinck, who has been such a wonderful mentor to him – and such a good Christian – when the last of his shackles are removed.
Jehan Hakim wrote:
Happy birthday to Omar! What a bittersweet day
Yes indeed, Jehan. Thanks for the comment.
great article …
i hope everyone supports Dennis Edney for any funds required so he may try to free Omar.
i hope Omar is a free man after Sept 23.
i hope God gives everyone a reward and blessings for everyones efforts and help to free Omar.
Thanks, Fahde. Good to hear from you.
I sent Omar a birthday card the other day, but it will probably be late. I note that this post arrived in my newsfeed only at the end of the day today, the 20 th. The behaviour of this government disgusts me. Harper and Toews in particular as they espouse Christian values. What a travesty!
Sorry to hear that the article didn’t get to your newsfeed until the 20th, Helen. Not sure why that is.
As for politicians who claim to be Christians, we have the same problems here in the UK. The Tories are not holding a former child prisoner and US torture victim in prison, but they are doing all they can to attacks immigrants, the poor, the ill, the unemployed and the disabled – and they too have the nerve to call themselves Christians.
Dennis Edney is a very admirable guy. His pro bono work on Omar’s behalf, while he was in Guantanamo, was extremely costly. The charter from Florida to Guantanamo was about $5,000, leaving aside the other expenses, and lost income, for work he didn’t perform in Edmonton must have chewed a very considerable hole in his retirement fund.
Now that Omar has been transferred to Edmonton, where Edney and his partner Nathan Whitling live, there should be nominal travel expenses.
Thanks, arcticredriver. Good to hear from you. Yes, Dennis reminds me of some other attorneys for the Guantanamo prisoners, from small firms, who haven’t had the benefit of the big budgets for pro bono work available at major firms. These men and women have really made sacrifices for their clients.
Nme Ofthestate wrote:
Thanks for your heroic work for this poor kid, Andy.
Thanks, Nme. In some ways, Omar’s story has always particularly interested me, although in some ways he’s just one of many Guantanamo prisoners whose stories drew me in when I first began researching and writing about them seven and a half years ago. This injustice is so enduring that it’s somewhat surprising to me to realise that the first big article I wrote about him was nearly six years ago: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2007/11/14/the-trials-of-omar-khadr-guantanamos-child-soldier/
Put me there, I deserve it more than him.
Andy the really galling thing about the unrecognized sacrifices of dedicated lawyers like Edney, Whitling, Gorman, and Stafford-Smith, is how many bitter American “patriots” there are who (1) call the captives’ attorney’s traitors; (2) denounce them for collecting “a fortune” from US government coffers for defending the “terrorists”.
I read, and sometimes participate, in the discussions some newspapers allow after articles on Guantanamo. Some memes seem unkillable. Of course the US government doesn’t pay civilian lawyers to help the captives. Of course providing legal assistance to everyone, even those who might be guilty, is in the best traditions of US justice; And I challenge anyone on the right to call themselves a US patriot — if they don’t believe in the principle of the presumption of innocence.
Andy, can I comment on two different related Guantanamo topics?
Carol Rosenberg has reported that a former Guantanamo captive, ISN 237, sometimes called Mohammed al Alami, received high-profile eulogies after dying fighting Assad, in Syria. I know some commentators will try to use his death to justify the opening and operation and indefinite detention of captives in Guantanamo. I know they will argue that his death proves he is a member of al Qaeda, or an al Qaeda sympathizer.
The document from his CSRT was only 3 pages long — one of the briefest. It is hard to get a sense of his personality from the published transcript. It is clear he denied all the allegations against him.
I noticed that, although he should have had an ARB hearing in 2005, there is no record one was convened. Maybe we should ask Ron Flanders to explain this gap.
My understanding of the anti-Assad resistance is that it is made up of a constellation of groups, and that constellation includes groups some regard as clones of al Qaeda. Well, did al Alami and bin Shakaran (who spoke at his funeral) join a group that was somehow affiliated with al Qaeda, or did they join a more moderate group?
The other question regards the most recent report on “recidivism”. Of course, to use the dictionary definition of recidivism, only those previously convicted, who then commit a further crime, should be considered “recidivists”. Individuals who spent years of detention, without charge, who have never been convicted, should not be called “recidivists”, even if they are caught red-handed. They may have been converted to terrorism in Guantanamo, or after their release, when their detention record prevented them from finding a job.
The most recent release lists a large number of the suspected or confirmed “recidivists” as having been killed. Well, some of us have been following what has been published on the public record about the captives. We know of a much smaller number of former captives who have died than the authors of the report with the recidivism claims.
Back in 2007 Commander Gordon claimed the US didn’t track former captives, after their release. Either this was, um misinformation, or they have started doing so, since then. I suspect most former captives who die get listed as suspected jihadists, whatever the circumstances.
The McClatchy interviews showed a population of former captives that included a large number of individuals who were so chronically depressed they were at risk of suicide. Some of these deaths are probably suicides.
Many of the McClatchy interview subjects were fearful, both of the authorities, and of the Taliban. They told their interviewers that the local Taliban regarded their relatively early release as a sign they were collaborators. I think I read about at least one guy the Taliban did kill.
Nice comment, with a name like that!
Thanks, arcticredriver. Always good to hear from you, and thanks for your thoughts about al-Alami and bin Shakaran. For the record, here’s the Miami Herald report and the video: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/17/3633584/ex-guantanamo-detainee-dies-fighting.html
On recidivism, you make some good points, and I think you may be correct, but in general, I have to say, the claims are so wildly exaggerated that they’re impossible to take seriously.
I have drafted a pair of letters to Steven Blaney, Minister of Public Safety.
Mr Minister, I read with alarm your position on the detention of Omar Khadr. I was alarmed to read that you were repeating the very flawed position of your boss Stephen Harper. Prime Minister Harper’s position, while Mr Khadr was still in Guantanamo, was that the Canadian diplomats couldn’t make efforts on Mr Khadr’s behalf because he “faced serious charges”.
I am sure the lawyers on your staff will inform you, if asked to be candid, that Mr Harper’s position was, at best, nonsense. Being a Canadian, an American, a British subject, doesn’t save a citizen of the consequences of committing a crime in another country. The role of Canadian diplomats should be to (1) make sure the Canadian suspect is being held in conditions that meet the international standards for health and safety; (2) make sure the Canadian suspects is charged and tried in a manner that meets standards acceptable to Canadian’s expectations for justice and fairness.
The USA generally does hold suspects and convicts in a safe, humane manner, and generally does charge and try them in a manner that meets Canadian standards for fairness and justice.
I believe the lawyers on your staff will tell you that it doesn’t matter whether a Canadian is held on relatively trivial charges, or the very most serious charges — Canadian diplomatic assistance to citizens should come when those citizens can’t expect a fair trial.
If the Khadr file you have been given doesn’t explain how patently unfair the Guantanamo Military Commission is then your staff has really let you down.
Mr Khadr’s negotiated guilty plea, at the end of six years of delay, was not a normal plea deal. Negotiated plea deals have played a role in Canadian and American jurisprudence for a long time. It is generally regarded as fair, because innocent suspects are expected to be able to hold out, until they are tried, and the evidence that will prove their innocence results in an acquittal, and — key point — a release, freedom.
If your staff hasn’t explained to you, it is the position of the US Government that they can continue to hold Guantanamo captives, indefinitely, even if they have been acquitted.
I am going to repeat this point. Under the Guantanamo Commission system acquittal does not guarantee freedom.
Under the Guantanamo system even men who know they are totally innocent, and would be sure to win eventual acquital, if they had a fair trial, have a strong incentive to agree to plead guilty. Under the Guantanamo system, a plea agreement is a captive’s only path to a guaranteed release date.
Your boss, Stephen Harper, and your predecessor, Vic Toews, clearly failed in their duties in a spectacular fashion. I know many human rights workers have argued that, by failing to follow their duty to work to try to make sure Mr Khadr faced a fair trial, they were complicit in a war crime.
I remind you of what happened to Augusto Pinochet on his last trip to the UK. He was charged with war crimes, in Spain, and Spanish officials sought his extradition from the UK. He spent over a year in the Chilean embassy in the UK, unable to leave, for fear of arrest. He was only able to return to Chile after appeals were made to allow him to leave on compassionate grounds, due to his advanced age and ill-health. You are a young man, and compassionate grounds due to advanced age and ill-health aren’t open to you.
Taking a position other than that taken by your boss may be bad for your political career, in the short term. But, it is the right thing to do. In addition, it may save you from foreign war crimes charges, from a foreign war crimes conviction.
I am going to write you a second letter, that leaves aside justice, fairness, your political future, and your ability to travel outside of North America without fearing arrest, and which addresses purely the public safety element.
Here is the second letter:
Mr Minister, in an earlier letter I wrote to you about the justice and fairness aspects of your policy statements about Omar Khadr’s detention. In this letter I want to addresses the purely public safety aspects of his detention.
I read every newspaper article about Mr Khadr. Some newspapers allow readers to leave comments to some of their articles. And I have participated in many of those discussions. Unfortunately those discussions bring out some of the most ignorant members of the public — readers routinely state Omar should be deported back to whereever he came from — when of course he was born here in Canada.
There was this other reader who said that even though he believed Mr Khadr was guilty, he felt he should be allowed all the usual paths to rehabilitation Canada offers to convicts who exhibit good behaviour. He argued that the rest of Canada would be safer from the threat that jihadists in Canada would covertly try to recruit an adult Omar Khadr if he could get a job, if he had experience interacting with ordinary Canadians.
He argued that the Canadian public would be less safe if Mr Khadr was singled out for particularly harsh treatment — in spite of his good behaviour, and in spite of the expert opinions that he was an excellent candidate for rehabilitation.
In 2006 a Canadian journalist wrote a letter to Mr Khadr which contained six questions. I felt Mr Khadr’s answers were sincere — and hopeful. He wrote that he had always felt Canada was his real home. He wrote that he hoped he could return to Canada and live as an ordinary, unexceptional Canadian citizen. He wrote that he hoped could take up an occupation where he could help people.
Singling Mr Khadr out, for particularly harsh treatment is not in the interest of public safety.
Those are excellent letters, arcticredriver, and I hope that the minister has the decency to reply. More that that, I hope he takes your criticisms on board, as for justice and public safety are both ill-served at present, as you point out. In reality, of course, I expect Mr. Blaney to think about his career rather than the interests of justice and public safety, but your advice will be on the record – and I believe also that your mention of complicity in war crimes is important. If we are fortunate, our countries will not always be as committed to flouting international laws and treaties as they are today, and have been since 9/11.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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