Good news from Canada, finally, as former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Khadr has been “reclassified as a medium-security risk,” and will be moved from Edmonton, where he is currently held as a maximum-security prisoner, to Bowden Correctional Institution, north of Calgary. The move will probably take place in the next few weeks, as the Edmonton Journal described it on Friday.
Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, has persistently been treated with disdain by the Canadian government, which, for ten years, failed to stand up for his rights as a Canadian citizen and a juvenile prisoner.
When Khadr finally agreed to a plea deal at Guantánamo, just to be sent home, the Canadian government dragged its heels regarding its own part of the bargain. After the plea deal was agreed, during his trial by military commission at Guantánamo in October 2010, Khadr was supposed to spend just one more year at Guantánamo followed by seven years’ imprisonment in Canada after his repatriation, but it took 23 months for him to be returned, and, since his return, he has been held as a maximum-security prisoner, even though he has never been a high-risk prisoner.
Dennis Edney, the Edmonton lawyer who has been representing Khadr for ten years, explained how the decision to reclassify Khadr as “medium-security,” which was taken by Kelly Hartle, the warden at Edmonton, “reflects a ‘plethora of evidence’ from US authorities and Canada’s prison ombudsman that Khadr never was a maximum-security threat,” as the Edmonton Journal described it.
In September, on Khadr’s 27th birthday, I reported how Ivan Zinger, the executive director of the independent Office of the Correctional Investigator, wrote in a letter to Anne Kelly, senior deputy commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, “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.” Zinger added that Khadr had “shown no evidence of problematic behaviour while in Canadian custody,” and also stated, “According to a psychological report on file, Khadr interacted well with others and did not present with violent or extremist attitudes.”
Zinger also 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 its article about Khadr’s reclassification, the Edmonton Journal noted that, when Khadr was returned to Canada last September, the US authorities described him as a “minimum-security risk based on his behavior in Guantánamo,” and this was also noted by Ivan Zinger.
As Edney stated, “They [the US authorities] should know; they held him for ten years.” He added that the reclassification was “long overdue,” adding that Khadr “should be designated minimum risk,” which is clearly true.
Nevertheless, the redesignation provides what the Edmonton Journal, describing Edney’s comments, called “a better possibility” that Khadr “will have access to the kinds of rehabilitation programs prisoners must complete to earn parole.”
Edney himself said, “My hope is that education will be available and the wonderful work by the King’s University College professors will continue,” adding that what will happen will become clear after he has talked to the warden and parole officer at Bowden. The reference to the King’s University College professors is primarily a reference to Arlette Zinck, the English professor who has been working with Khadr since he was in Guantánamo, and even got to visit him there before he came home. For further information, see my articles, “‘A Child’s Soul is Sacred': Omar Khadr’s Touching Exchange of Letters with Canadian Professor,” and “Meet the Canadian Professor Who Has Been Teaching Omar Khadr at Guantánamo.”
Omar Khadr’s legal challenge to the Canadian government for violating his rights, and important revelations about his plea deal at Guantánamo
While Khadr waits to be moved, further revelations of the injustice of his treatment have emerged in an affidavit filed in Canada’s federal court as part of a $20-million lawsuit against the Canadian government’s violation of his rights. The violation of his rights was confirmed in a ruling in January 2010 by Canada’s Supreme Court, based on his interrogation by Canadian agents at Guantánamo in 2003, when he was just 16, which was powerfully exposed in the documentary film, “You Don’t Like The Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo.”
in his affidavit, Khadr states that he only agreed to the plea deal in Guantánamo because, as Colin Perkel described it for the Canadian Press, “he knew the Americans could have held him indefinitely” — even if he was acquitted.
“I was left with a hopeless choice,” Khadr states in his affidavit, adding, “If I wanted the chance to eventually return to my home of Canada, I would have to be found guilty of crimes as determined by the US government, which could then lead to me serving my sentence in Canada.”
Without reaching a plea deal, Khadr “would have faced the possibility of life-long detention,” as Colin Perkel put it, and what he himself describes as “continued abuse and torture” at Guantánamo.
As Colin Perkel also explained, “The entire agreement, including the agreed stipulation of facts, was put together by the American government,” according to Khadr, who “also makes it clear that — in contrast to the agreed facts in the plea deal — he has never believed Jews or Americans should be killed or deserve to die.”
He also “says he never willingly joined an al-Qaida terrorist cell,” as Perkel described it, adding that his affidavit states, “Any participation in al-Qaida-related activities was at the demand of the adults around me,” and that this is “the first time Khadr has addressed such issues publicly.”
Khadr also states that the US case against him “was based in part” on evidence supplied by the Canadian intelligence officials who interviewed him at Guantánamo, and Perkel also noted that documents filed with the affidavit reveal that Canadian intelligence officials “knew the Americans would only grant access” to Khadr “if they would share information with the US,” a fact that, it is hoped, will be hard for the Canadian government to shake off, as it continues to claim that it has done nothing wrong.
Khadr also states in his affidavit that he has no recollection of the firefight that led to his capture, when, according to his plea deal, he threw a grenade that killed a US Special Forces soldier, Sgt. Christopher Speer. As the Toronto Star noted, he states in his affidavit, “I have no memory at all of that day or anything at all about a grenade being thrown at any US soldiers. During the firefight in question I absolutely did not, as stated in [the plea deal’s] stipulation of fact, plan to kill any soldiers, nor did I attack any after the firefight was over and the Americans entered the compound.”
As Colin Perkel noted, however, if he had denied these actions at Guantánamo it “would have left him unable to enter the plea deal” that led to his repatriation.
According to the US authorities, a plea deal at Guantánamo is not supposed to be challenged, but Khadr is appealing his conviction in the US, as I discussed here, “on the basis that the offences to which he pleaded guilty — including murder in violation of the rule of law — have no validity in either international or American law,” as Colin Perkel put it, adding that his affidavit states that, contrary to US assertions, “he never signed away his rights to appeal that conviction.”
In a final condemnation of his treatment at Guantánamo, Khadr states in his affidavit that, after pleading guilty, his “detention conditions deteriorated and he was interrogated for up to nine hours a day for nine or 10 days at a stretch.”
In conclusion, I am heartened by the news from Canada, and I hope that it signals two major steps towards Omar Khadr’s release from prison, and the unacceptably delayed opportunities that he needs to rebuild his life.
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.
On Facebook, Waris Ali wrote:
Good to see more good news coming out from Guantanamo in recent weeks in terms of transfers and of course this with Omar. After the lack of progress of the last couple of years, seems like things are finally moving in the right direction.
Thanks, Waris. Yes, progress indeed, after three years of inaction. Now we need Shaker to be freed (to the UK, of course, and under no circumstances to Saudi Arabia), and for Obama to make the big, bold move of releasing some of the many dozens of cleared Yemenis.
Christopher Caster wrote:
Sergeant Robert Bales, of the Kandahar massacre, from the very beginning was placed in “his own accommodations” in a “medium-to-low security” prison. I bet they feed him lobster and steak. He’s a Wounded Warrior, mentally, poor thing. I really wish someone would dig out something about the conditions he’s kept in, for purposes of comparison. I’m sure the Americans would come out of it hugely shamed.
Thanks, Christopher, for the comparison. I might add that the most despised convicted criminals on the US mainland – serial killers and mass murderers – have rights that the men at Guantanamo, for the most part never charged, tried or convicted of anything, don’t have; namely, family visits. That’s barbaric, but it’s rarely mentioned in the media.
Amy Phillips wrote:
Thanks, Amy. Good to hear from you!
[…] Source […]
Thanks Andy. I wonder whether Stephen Harper’s embattled cabinet members will be able to spare the energy to try to denounce or over-ride the administrative decisions of officials within the prison system?
Of course there was no justification for their peers to ever have classified Omar as a high security risk in the first place — it seems the initial officials knuckled under to political pressure from Harper.
With regard to Sergeant Robert Bales, and the USA’s obligation under the Geneva Conventions to try suspected war crimes by their own soldiers the same way they try foreign suspects — the warrant officer who slowly and painfully suffocated the Iraqi General — by sitting on his broken ribs, was sentenced to being fined two months pay, and two months “confinement to barracks”. This confinement to barracks allowed him to continue to get dressed, and show up for his daily duties, and only applied to his off-duty hours. That is, he wasn’t allowed to leave his barracks, when off duty, to go to the NCO’s club, etc. I think he was even allowed to go the mess hall. I would be very surprised if his buddies didn’t hang out with him, in the barracks, out of solidarity.
This warrant officer — I am blocking on his name — was (apparently) coached by a CIA official. It seems some testimony strongly suggesting this, was in camera. Maybe this explains the remarkably light sentence.
The torture occurred prior to Saddam’s capture, when US officials were still deeply wedded to the false narrative that all the elements resisting the US occupation were trained by the former Saddam regime — so obviously any of Saddam’s generals would have to know where the Saddam regime had placed hidden arms caches. Sadly, anyone who followed the Iraqi resistance to the US occupation saw that the resistance only really kicked into gear AFTER Saddam’s capture and his execution, as many potential recruits feared the US would make a deal with Saddam that would see him restored to power. They didn’t feel safe resisting the USA until Saddam was out of commission.
Brutal strong-man dictators like Saddam don’t stay in power by undermining their aura of fearlessness and invincibility by planning for failure. Saddam never did place hidden arms caches, and never did recruit secret cells to disrupt an occupation.
Neither the Warrant Officer, or his CIA coach, could claim that mental health difficulties justified kid-glove treatment. Their torture should have been a more serious charge than the “murder in violation of the laws of war” charge levelled at Khadr.
Poor Omar — his case is too complicated for many Canadians, who still so shocked by the charges and allegations that they didn’t apply their own critical faculties, and assumed the charges justified considering him a war criminal and terrorist.
Because his story is so complicated my advice to him, now that he is in a better position to start getting his real story out, would be to follow the example of Terry Hicks, David Hicks dad.
When both Omar and David Hicks were still in custody, the clip from Omar’s mother and sister Zaynab, were they said, “of course he fired back — the Americans had killed his friends”, was routinely broadcast. Terry Hicks, in contrast, stuck largely to one single point, something like, “I would never claim my son was an angel — all I request is that he get a fair trial.”
It would have been immeasurably better for Omar if his mother and sister had said the same thing.– just give Omar a fair trial.
Now that he has more of a chance to get his story out, and particularly after he is released, I would recommend he pick a couple of talking points, and stick to them — that he should say something like:
My story is complicated, the most important thing I would like my fellow Canadians to know about me are that: where-ever my dad took me, all through-out my childhood, I always thought of Canada as my real home; and, that every day, since the day I was captured, I have looked forward to the day when I can re-integrate back into Canadian society, and make a positive contribution to Canada.”
I would recommend he let other people make the case that he was a child when captured; that there seems to have been evidence that either Sergeant Speer had been wounded by friendly fire, or by an adult combatant.
It was good news, and surprising, that the prison warden reduced Khadr’s security classification right after a court decided the government’s maximum classification was legally correct, and right after the responsible Minister and the Prime Minister vowed to fight any effort to reduce Khadr’s punishment for his “heinous crimes”.
Earlier the prison warden was overruled by the Minister when he wanted to allow Khadr to speak to the media and I would have thought he’d be overruled on this too but apparently not. The judge stressed that the decision on classification was non-discretionary. But, that meant ignoring everything that was so unusual and problematic about the US process.
In any case it does seem there are people in the Correctional Services department who are willing and able to give Khadr a fair chance, somehow, in spite of a government that has been pandering to, and encouraging, the irrational hatred that has developed toward Khadr, particularly among their core conservative supporters and right wing media.
I find Omar’s account that he couldn’t remember anything of the day of the attack credible. I believe that the shock of heavy bombardment, or really painful, life-threatening wounds, routinely drown out people’s memory of shocking, painful events.
Add to that the shocking war crime of with-holding his pain medication, to enhance his interrogation under the cruel murderer and war criminal Joshua Claus — and Claus’s torture — I am sure that made recovering his memory even more painful.
Thanks, arcticredriver, for the miserable story of the US warrant officer who murdered an Iraqi general, and basically got away unpunished. I think, in contrast with Omar’s treatment, it serves to highlight the change after 9/11, whereby US military personnel can do no wrong, but anyone who opposes the US is a war criminal/has no rights/can be tortured, abused and even killed with impunity.
Thanks, arcticredriver, for the comments about Omar, and perceptions of him. Unfortunately, I think that a large number of Canadians don’t care about the complications or nuances of Omar’s case. As we see repeatedly from comments online, people would like the Canadian government to be able to wash its hands of Omar. How many times, for example, have you read about how he should be sent back to where he came from, as though he wasn’t born in Canada?
I imagine Omar will have good coaching on what to say and do – although I suspect most of it will come from him anyway. If in doubt, though, Dennis Edney and Arlette Zinck are both very eloquent.
Thanks, Diane, for your attention to the details. I think there certainly are people within Correctional Services who see Omar’s case on its own merits, rather than through the lowest common denominator position taken by the government, which is guilty of trying to enshrine racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia as national policy.
Thanks, arcticredriver. Yes, I too can see why Omar would have no recollection of the events of that day – especially if he essentially played no part in the hostilities, and was pretty swiftly wounded severely and buried in rubble which seems to me to be a likely scenario.
I suspect that the reason the US chose Omar Khadr as the person to blame for the death of Sgt Speer is his family connections.
Prosecuting Khadr was a way of punishing Omar Khadr’s father.
Thanks, Carlyle. You may well be right. I certainly believe that the Canadian government – and all the unfettered bigots, racists and Islamophobes in Canada who delight in putting Omar down at every opportunity – have been content to blame him for the perceived sins of his father.
In a piece by Paul Koring, Globe and Mail reporter based in Washington D.C. he stated that Speer was dressed in Afghan garb and without a helmut when he attacked the compound. He wrote this piece on Nov. 7, a day before the Pentagon lawyer Sam Morison launched the appeal to overturn all Khadr’s convictions.
I don’t think that information is widely known but it seems to be part of the arguments put forward in the appeal. If Speer wasn’t dressed in military garb and was involved in an attack on others, then I think this makes him an unlawful combatant as per Geneva Convention. Do you understand this to be the case as well? Hard to understand how Speer’s death was a “military death” in that case, Of course, the US has essentially declared martial law on the world , as the Pentagon lawyer says, and so they can invent crimes and designate enemies how they like
As always, thanks for your work!!!
Great to hear from you, and thanks for the comments. I had missed that information provided by Paul Koring, which is very interesting, although my understanding is that not wearing a uniform wouldn’t actually make him an “unlawful combatant,” although theoretically it would according to the twisted rationale of the Bush administration after 9/11. I always wondered what would have happened if a US soldier, out of uniform, was captured and deprived of their rights on the same basis that the US did with its “enemy combatants.” It would have highlighted the hypocrisy of America’s actions, I’m sure, although, as you point out, “the US has essentially declared martial law on the world, and so they can invent crimes and designate enemies how they like.”
[…] 2. Omar Khadr (ISN 766, Canada) had the announcement of his intended trial by military commission (for the third time) made by Attorney General Eric Holder on November 13, 2009,. Khadr accepted a plea deal in October 2010, in which, in exchange for a guilty plea, he received an eight-year sentence (consisting of one more year at Guantánamo, followed by seven in Canada) instead of the 40-year sentence delivered by a military jury. He was repatriated to Canada in September 2012. In November 2013, his US lawyer, Sam Morison, announced that he was challenging his conviction, and Khadr’s own comments are here. […]
Andy, although Helen is unlikely to return to this discussion two years later, I’d still like to record my two cents on Sergeant Speer’s uniform, or lack there-of, and several issues flowing from that.
While the Third Geneva Convention has three explicit criteria combatant that have to met to be considered lawful combatants, and one of those criteria is routinely paraphrased as having wear a uniform, that passage of the GC actually only requires a “fixed distinctive marking, visible from a distance.” While I am not a lawyer, I gather a special hat, t-shirt, vest, or armband could be sufficient to meet that criteria. Michelle Shephard’s book has some photos GIs took in the minutes after Omar was shot. All but one of them seemed to be wearing at least elements of a real uniform, like military boots, military pants, or a military web-belt. Some of them also wore Palestinian style scarves, IIRC. Even so, I suspect their scraps of uniform would be sufficient for them to qualify as lawful combatants.
None of the GIs is wearing a helmet. I don’t think any of them were wearing any body-armour either.
Since Speer died of a head wound, not wearing a helmet was tragic, not from a uniform point of view, but from the point of view of his safety. It is hard to understand why the remaining soldiers weren’t promptly reminded to put their helmets on. Perhaps his comrades thought “We are special forces guys. We are the really tough ones. We will sacrifice the possible life-saving benefit of wearing a helmet in order to have greater situational awareness of the extra peripheral vision and hearing of not wearing a helmet.” I was very surprised when I visited the Armed Forces pavilion at the Canadian National Exhibition a few years ago to see the Canadian LAVs were not equipped with seat belts, even though several dozen soldiers had died when they vehicles had crashed, or rolled over.
When I write about Sergeant Speer I always want to remember that everything we know about him suggests he was an honourable soldier. His comrades describe him risking his life to enter an active minefield to rescue and treat some wounded Afghan children.
However, some accounts describe his colleagues giving the other men in the compound summary battlefield executions. Those accounts describe one GI stopping a more junior GI from giving Omar a summary battlefield execution.
If some of Speer’s comrades committed the war crime of giving summary battlefield executions that wouldn’t dishonour Speer, who was already mortally wounded, and not in a position of trying to stop them.
I don’t admire Layne Morris, the GI who lost the sight of one eye in the firefight, and who regularly emerges to try to blacken Omar’s character. Reporters routinely interpret his comments on Omar’s training, character, motivation as if they had some special significance — when he never met Omar and his hateful and bigoted comments are based on the same press reports as the rest of us.
My friend Joshua Boyle, who did a lot more research on the firefight than I have, informed me that there were elements of several units on site by the time the compound had been bombed, and the file of soldiers that included Sergeant Speer entered the compound. Nominally, they were all special forces, of one sort or another. But Speer’s unit had been in Afghanistan about one month, and I think this was their very first battle.
My friend Joshua identified Lieutenant Colonel Roger Watt, aka OC-1, the officer who forged a deceitful rewrite of his after-action report at the request of the Prosecution, to make it easier to convict Omar. In his report OC-1 claimed he had “years of combat experience”. I hadn’t understood how any US soldier could claim this, since they USA hadn’t any protracted wars since Vietnam. Well Joshua’s research clarified this. Watt was a reservist. He was a soldier on certain weekends, and one month a year during his vacation from his day job. He was a cop during his day job, and he had spent years as the leader of SWAT team squad.
Even if SWAT team cops wear military style helmets, body armour, and military style uniforms, even if they carry military style weapons and receive miltary style training, I find it disturbing to think he considered his cop duty as “combat” — when soldiers and SWAT team cops should have very different rules of engagement.
Thanks for the comments, arcticredriver. I appreciate your efforts, and those of Joshua Boyle, to dig into and expose the lies and distortions surrounding the firefight that led to the capture of Omar Khadr.
There is also a disturbing resonance to the fact that a US policeman could portray his job as “combat,” when so many Americans are, rightly, concerned about the increasing militarisation of the police.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: