Progress in Canada: Former Guantánamo Prisoner Omar Khadr Moved to Medium-Security Prison

17.2.14

For the first time since his return to Canada from Guantánamo in September 2012, Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen and former child prisoner of the US, has been downgraded from a high-security risk to a medium-security risk. The move punctures the prevailing rhetoric — from the government, and in the right-wing press — that Khadr is a dangerous individual.

This lamentable rhetoric is the product of three particular factors: racism and/or Islamophobia; a hypocritical refusal to recognize the rights of child prisoners, despite a Supreme Court judgment that was severely critical of the government; and a deliberate refusal to recognise that Khadr’s plea deal at a military commission trial in Guantánamo had nothing to do with justice and guilt, and was agreed to solely to secure his release from Guantánamo, and his return home to Canada, where he was born 27 years ago.

Khadr was just 15 years old when he was seized by US forces, in a severely wounded state, after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002. According to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which came into force in February 2002, and which both the US and Canada then ratified, juvenile prisoners — those under 18 when their alleged crimes take place — “require special protection.” The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities”, and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

Neither the US nor Canada respected Omar’s rights as a juvenile prisoner. The US subjected him to abuse, isolated him or held him alongside adult prisoners, and charged him with war crimes invented by Congress, while the Canadian government sent agents to interrogate him when he was just 16. This led to a ruling in the Canadian Supreme Court in 2010 that the visit and the interrogations had violated his rights — and that also featured in a harrowing documentary film, “You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days in Guantánamo,” which was made after the footage of the interrogations at Guantánamo was released as part of a court case.

It was a low point in the presidency of Barack Obama when, in October 2010, Khadr, a former child prisoner, accepted a plea deal in his trial by military commission, in exchange for an eight-year sentence — with just one more year to be served in Guantánamo and seven in Canada — in which he admitted that he was guilty of a variety of alleged war crimes, including killing a US soldier with a grenade, even though it was not his responsibility to plead guilty, even though there were profound doubts about whether actually threw the grenade, and even though the “crimes” to which he confessed had been invented by Congress.

What could be worse for a US president who studied law than to oversee the trial of a former child prisoner in which it became a war crime to engage in military conflict with US soldiers in wartime and in an occupied country?

The answer may be that the behavior of the Canadian government has been worse. After violating Khadr’s rights, the Canadian government dragged its heels regarding his release, so that he only returned to Canada in September 2012 (eleven months later than was agreed in his plea deal), and then imprisoned him in a maximum-security prison, bad-mouthed him as a “convicted terrorist,” and resisted efforts to downgrade him and move him to a medium-security facility where efforts to prepare him for civilian life can begin in earnest.

That only came to an end last September. As I noted in an article in December:

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.

Nevertheless, in October, in a court in Edmonton, Justice John Rooke, responding to a habeas corpus petition submitted by Khadr in September, issued a ruling ordering him to remain in a maximum security federal prison rather than being moved to a provincial prison, “limiting his chances for parole,” as the Toronto Star described it.

In December, however, Khadr was finally “reclassified as a medium-security risk,” a decision 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.

The Edmonton Journal speculated that Khadr’s move to a medium-security facility would take place early in the New Year, but it has only just happened now. Last Wednesday, one of his lawyers, John Kingman Phillips, explained that he had been moved to Bowden Institution in Alberta province, a medium-security facility, with a minimum-security annex. As AFP put it, accurately, the Canadian government had “resisted the 27-year-old’s transfer from a Canadian federal penitentiary to a more comfortable provincial correctional facility for petty criminals and young offenders, calling it an attempt to lessen his punishment.”

“We are pleased to see Canada finally acknowledge that Omar is not a dangerous individual,” Phillips said in a statement, adding, “We trust that this is the first step by Canada in providing Omar with treatment that is appropriate for someone who is a former child soldier.”

As the Calgary Sun reported, on Friday, after visiting Khadr at Bowden, Phillips said he “was looking very good today.” He also said that the prison move “falls into the ongoing objective of an eventual parole for Khadr,” as the Calgary Sun described it.

“I think the hope is now that there will be more of a recognition that his security level should be dropped down to minimum and he’s hoping to get into some programs and the sort of things that he needs to prepare him to re-enter Canadian society,” he said, adding, “The focus should be on rehabilitation, and that means trying to set it up so he’s got education, he has counselling and that sort of thing and to date he hasn’t had very much of that.”

Phillips also said, “We want him out. We want him to re-integrate into Canadian society.” He added, “If his name wasn’t Khadr, frankly I think we’d be having him go around from campus to campus and place to place talking about what it was like to be a child soldier. Instead we’ve treated him as if he were an adult criminal … and treated him poorly, from Canada’s perspective.”

He also noted that Khadr “is keen on getting his education and bettering himself,” as the Calgary Sun put it. noting, Philips called him “an amazing kid,” and said, “He works very hard and loves to study. He’s a gentle, nice man who for some reason managed to survive some of the worst incarceration conditions in the world and still is a human being.”

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).

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28 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Christopher Caster wrote:

    And which kind of prison is holding Sgt. Bales, the Kandahar massacre monster, excuse me, Wounded Warrior? I think it would be something important to determine, for comparative purposes. Last that I heard of it, he had “his own accommodations” in a medium-to-low security facility. Belonging to the Herrenvolk has its privileges.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Christopher. Yes, I believe you’re right to point out the contrast between the treatment of Sgt. Bales and that of Omar Khadr – and, for that matter, the men in Guantanamo, now 12 years into a seemingly unending regime of indefinite detention without charge or trial.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Pickett wrote:

    Canada will do its very best to screw Mr. Khadr. He shouldn’t have been in prison anywhere and he definitely shouldn’t be in any kind of prison here. I’m glad he got moved but it took years and I’m sure parole will be the same kind of endless and ridiculous process.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, agreed, Elizabeth. Unfortunately, I believe there are many people in a position of power and authority in Canada who will be trying to find a way to make sure that he serves his full eight year sentence and doesn’t get parole. That would mean him being freed in October 2018, and that would be a disgrace.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    Canada has actually been quite kind to Omar Khadr. Many say he still belongs @ Gitmo.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t think many people are saying that he should still be in Guantanamo, J.d. Remember, he was tried at Guantanamo, in the military commission system approved by Congress, and he agreed to a plea deal in exchange for an eight-year sentence. You can’t have it both ways. I thought you believed in the military commissions.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    Many say 2018 is too soon, considering he was convicted of murder.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh, J.d., come on. He agreed to the plea deal in Guantanamo that was specifically for an eight-year sentence. You can’t go back on that. That’s a ridiculous thing to say. Plea deals are plea deals – in Guantanamo as in the federal court system on the US mainland. You agree to plead guilty, and you get a fixed sentence in exchange for that. Don’t start trying to remake the wheel.

  9. Robert Betty says...

    If Mr. Gordon would like to re-open the plea deal, suggest that he pick any court in Canada to retry Omar’s case based on the facts and the evidence (as opposed to statements extricated under torture) and Omar and his lawyers would joyously meet him there tomorrow. That is all they argued for back when Omar was in GTMO – that he be repatriated to face a fair hearing in a courtroom that respects the rule of law.

    No court in the US, Canada or the UK would ever convict someone of murder just for being in the compound and there is no physical or eye-witness evidence that Omar himself even participated in the hostilities that day. Most of the evidence indicates that he was wounded while seeking shelter in a corner of an alley. Speaking of physical evidence, the vast majority of it was “misplaced” by the Americans – video and photos of the battle that day etc. Any that was not misplaced has likely been destroyed as that was a stipulation the Americans insisted on in the plea deal. That shouldn’t make us suspicious, should it?

  10. Afroze Ali says...

    Andy, thank you for your incisive article, as always. People should realize that if Omar had committed any crime, he would have been tried in a regular, lawful court. There wouldn’t have been the need to erect a hell hole in Cuba for him.

  11. Anna says...

    Mr J.d., whoever you are.
    So now you’re down to gratuitous insinuations with no factual support whatsoever?
    Although I cannot speak for others, I am tempted to paraphrase you: “Andy has actually been quite kind to you. Many think you’re a bore”. How about giving all of us a break? Go play your games elsewhere?

  12. Helen Sadowski says...

    J.D Gordon There has certainly been a lot of ignorance, contempt for the rule of law and our democratic institutions when looking at the treatment of Omar Khadr. That treatment was clearly condemned by both court systems in the US and Canada. I find the treatment of Omar Khadr reminiscent of the Alfred Dreyfus case in France when a Jewish soldier was accused of spying. Dreyfus was the victim of anti-Semitism, political interference at the highest levels, miscarriage of justice and some shoddy media reporting that was highly emotional and misinformed. Khadr is the victim of anti-Muslim attitudes and people who believe that rights can be given to some but not to others. Of course that is the beginning of fascism, when you target some people and say they are not deserving of a fair trial and deny them the protection of the law and their citizenship laws. That is what the Canadian government has done to Omar and so well explained by Andy.

    If you want to understand Omar Khadr’s case in terms of international laws of war, rule of law, what constitutes a proper and fair trial process I highly recommend a lecture given by Sam Morison, Pentagon lawyer who gave a lecture in Edmonton at Kings University last fall. Here is the link http://freeomarakhadr.com/2013/11/14/talk-sam-morison-omar-khadr-did-not-commit-a-war-crime/

  13. Diane 1976 says...

    There’s speculation a change to the immigration law is aimed at removing Khadr’s citizenship and deporting him. Dual citizens can be deported. Khadr has never been considered anything but a Canadian citizen but his father was born in Egypt and apparently Omar would be considered Egyptian under their law. The Conservative Party considered a resolution with the same goal. Many people likely most prevalent in the Conservative base want him deported.

    It seems the Minister would make this decision and the onus would be on the person to prove he’s not a dual citizen. Omar, of course, was born here in Canada and raised mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was never in Egypt.

    This seems far-fetched but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/02/07/canadas_new_citizenship_bill_a_trojan_horse_walkom.html

  14. Diane 1976 says...

    My link spread across the page or looks that way. Hope my post can appear anyway. Would appreciate your opinion on the issue in my post, Andy. Thanks.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Such great comments! Thanks, everyone.
    Robert, you succinctly nail what was wrong with Omar’s trial, and thanks for pointing out what kind of trial he should have had – one which certainly wouldn’t have ended with a phoney “war crimes” conviction.
    Afroze, thanks for making similar points.
    Anna, J.d., who recently described me as the head of Reprieve in a bizarre article for Fox News, is a former spokesperson for the US military under President Bush, in which role he was, for many years, a spokesperson on Guantanamo. Yes, really.
    Helen, thanks for the “roots of fascism” analogy, and for highlighting Sam Morison’s important speech.
    And Diane, I’m hoping to address the vile proposal to strip Omar of his citizenship in an article very soon, also looking at Britain’s disturbing new steps in this direction.

  16. Diane 1976 says...

    I don’t know if the government would do that but they didn’t deny it. I saw some info on the UK but don’t really see how this would work with Omar. I would have thought Egypt would have something to say about it. I noticed there’s a controversy over the dual citizenship of the deposed leader’s US born sons. He apparently granted them dual Egyptian citizenship using the same provision that could apply to Omar. But the military government is challenging it. So it’s not straightforward it seems. It’s a ridiculous idea but the government might just want people to think they’re trying or they might.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Diane,
    The proposal to strip Omar of his citizenship sounds to me like more of the usual racism/ xenophobia/ Islamophobia from the Canadian government, designed to make sure that they secure votes from the bigots whose bigotry they’re endlessly reinforcing. As well as the absolutely horrendous and completely unacceptable violation of people’s rights that is involved in claims that citizens can be stripped of their citizenship, it’s unclear to me how such a proposal would be workable. In Egypt, for example, is it being suggested that Omar’s distant relatives would somehow be compelled by the Canadian and Egyptian governments to look after him? What if someone doesn’t even have relatives in the country to which the government wants to send them?
    The reason I’m worried by recent British precedent is analogous rather than identical, but it too is deeply troubling, as what’s happening here is that our home secretary Theresa May has assumed the dictatorial right to strip British citizens of their citizenship when they go abroad if she suspects that they’re involved in what she defines as terrorism. This horrible state of affairs – fully supported by Parliament, I’m gutted to note – only applies to people born elsewhere and granted citizenship, not to anyone born in the UK, but if it stands then I’d suggest it’s the start of a slippery slope, and people born here will not be safe.
    To be honest, I find this whole area of government discussion profoundly unsettling, as it simply shouldn’t be happening at all.

  18. arcticredriver says...

    Commander Gordon, I appeal to your sense of civic duty and loyalty to your country. Could you please abandon inflaming public fears, using misconceptions and misinformation?

    As a witness to the Military Commission, how can you fail to acknowledge they don’t come anywhere near to a fair trial?

    As a witness to the Military Commission, how can you fail to acknowledge the Prosecution in Omar Khadr’s case tried, and were caught, using forged evidence?

    Public safety is not increased, it is eroded, when innocent men are made scapegoats. We have limited resources to devote to counter-terrorism. Every dollar, every effort, squandered on a wild goose chase because you and your Guantanamo colleagues want to play out the narrative that the captives were “the worst of the worst” and “very bad men” is a dollar that isn’t being used to counter a genuine threat to public safety.

    When we look back at ancient Rome, we ask ourselves, “how could they have been so stupid as to sweeten their wine with lead acetate? Didn’t they realize they were poisoning themselves with lead.”

    Well, in ten, twenty, thirty years from now, when global warming is an overwhelming problem for every single person on planet Earth, and the floods, droughts and crop failures it triggers are killing hundreds of millions of people a year, people will ask, “back in the 2001-2015 period, when it was clear how serious a public safety problem global warming was going to be, what were the spending their public safetfy funds on, anyhow?”

    And the answer will be, alarmists, like Commander Gordon, did their best to distract the public, with bogus claims that terrorism represented an overwhelming threat, and trillions of dollars were squandered on pointless wars and other pointless attempts to counter terrorism.

    [Commander Gordon's quote:] “Canada has actually been quite kind to Omar Khadr. Many say he still belongs @ Gitmo.” – See more at: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2014/02/17/progress-in-canada-former-guantanamo-prisoner-omar-khadr-moved-to-medium-security-prison/#sthash.uvD2lN1Q.dpuf

  19. arcticredriver says...

    Commander Gordon suggests that even a release in 2018 should be too early for Omar Khadr, because he was convicted of murder.

    In October 1970 dangerous militants from the FLQ, a violent separatist group in Quebec kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, and Provincial cabinet member Pierre Laporte. The cell that kidnapped Laporte murdered him. Cross was held for a grueling 60 days, and would certainly have faced the possibility he too might be murdered.

    Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau imposed martial law. Eventually the kidnappers holding Cross negotiated a flight to Cuba, if they released Cross.

    These kidnappers were (1) adults; (2) genuine, bona fide terrorists. But when asylum in Cuba didn’t work out for them, and they returned to Canada, they received surprisingly light sentences. With good behaviour they were given parole in less than a year, even the genuine murderers.

    Even if the prosecution’s narrative that Omar Khadr threw a grenade that mortally wounded Sergeant Speer, and even if he had been an adult at the time, I dispute that this could meaningfully be called a “murder”.

    Commander Gordon, you are suggesting that a 16 year sentence was not long enough. Well, if bona fide adult terrorists, who kidnapped someone, and then strangled him, received two year sentences, how can you suggest Omar Khadr should serve a longer sentence — even if he were guilty?

  20. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy

    Commander Gordon is, once again, wrong on almost every point. Unfortunately, from following the comment sections of online newspaper article about his case, I am afraid the one point Commander Gordon got right is that there are still hot heads who write “send him back to GITMO” or “send him back to where-ever he came from”.

  21. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, with regard to the idea that if his last name wasn’t Khadr, Omar would receive much better treatment — I really regret his mother and sister didn’t choose an approach like that of Terry Hicks, David Hicks’s dad.

    When he spoke he had a simple point, if I recall it was, “I would never claim my son was an angel. All I am asking is to see him get a fair trial”

    Omar’s mother, and sister, famously came up with all kinds of justifications as to why it was OK for Omar to shoot back at the Americans. This was a terrible mistake — and premature. They really had no idea if Omar had shot back. And their comments became fodder for guys like Layne Morris to talk as if they knew Omar was aching to kill Americans.

    Someday I would like to feel confident I knew whether Omar’s dad was merely friendly with Osama bin Laden, or if he had ever provided meaningful help to OBL’s terrorist enterprises. The community of Arabs in Afghanistan wasn’t that large. It would be surprising, if, over the years, their paths hadn’t crossed. I still think it is possible we will learn he was essentially what his surviving family says he was — the director of a small charity that raised funds from moms and pops in Canada to run schools, orphanages, and training programs for widows.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for all your well thought out out comments, as ever.
    In order:
    1. Very well put about Commander Gordon, and making your “appeal to [his] sense of civic duty and loyalty to [his] country.” In the bigger picture, he’s just one of many – far too many – people caught up in the profiteering and warmongering of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. And I agree about how global warming – or catastrophic climate change, as it should always have been called – which is the elephant in the room that is being dangerously ignored.
    2. Those Canadian sentences sound very short, I must say, but nevertheless it remains the case that there is no argument for Omar having received a sentence at all, when the real story is that he was a juvenile convicted of invented “war crimes” through a plea deal that he only agreed to in order to get out of Guantanamo.
    3. The trouble with that is the position being taken by elements of the Canadian government, who do indeed seem to want to “send him back to wherever he came from” – meaning Egypt, his father’s homeland, even though Omar was born in Canada.
    4. Yes, I agree about Terry Hicks’ approach – and I too would like to know exactly what Omar’s dad was raising money for. It seems that, after 9/11, we’ve been encouraged to see all Muslim funding as being for terrorism, when that’s clearly untrue.

  23. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy — one of the things we know about how the Khadr children were raised is that they made sure their daughters received an education. If I am not mistaken both the girls and the boys in the orphanages they ran received an education.

    Educating their daughters, and the girls in their care, strongly suggests an idelological independence from the Taliban. I think it strongly suggests he never swore fealty to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

  24. arcticredriver says...

    I don’t think I mentioned this before. I attended the Toronto premier of You don’t like the truth. Amnesty International had rented a beautiful old repertory cinema — one I had never been in before.
    Afterwards there was a Q&A with the directors — lovely gentlemen.

    After the Q&A I spoke with a couple of Omar’s siblings on the pavement, outside. His eldest brother, Abdullah, had spent the previous five years in jail, fighting extradition to the USA. He had just won his release, and I had an opportunity to congratulate him. Abdurahman and Zaynab I had met at other events.

    Omar’s baby sister was there, as well. She would have been about 18. Unlike Zaynab and her mom, she was only wearing a headscarf, not the full-face niqab. I told her that I hoped she wasn’t experiencing any harrassment at school over her family connections. She told me that, luckily, no one had made the connection.

    I think it is just an accident, not ethical concerns, that has kept her name out of almost all newspaper reports, and I never use it. I shouldn’t base my opinion on a cursory meeting, but she seemed like a nice, ordinary, Canadian girl.

    RCMP Sergeant Khourie had drafted an affadavit, back in the early 2000s, where he voiced the opinion that the entire Khadr family were associated with terrorism. That struck me as so ridiculous, as he wasn’t even excluding Zaynab’s child — still a toddler, and the baby sister, who I thought was too young to be associated with terrorism.

    I wonder if she would have any interest in attending that college in Edmonton that is saving a space for Omar?

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting point about education in the orphanages, arcticredriver. I hadn’t heard that before, and I agree – it suggests a crucial lack of ideological conservatism.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks also for the comments about Omar’s youngest sister, arcticredriver. I believe you have correctly identified hysteria and lies in the affidavit you mention. If only that sort of distortion was a one-off …

  27. arcticredriver says...

    Further news Ombud raps officials over Omar Khadr; Amnesty urges judicial review of case

    * In a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, the Office of the Correctional Investigator urges prison authorities to take into account evidence that Khadr poses minimal threat and should be classified as such…
    * But the ombudsman argues the change doesn’t go far enough, given that Khadr pleaded guilty in October 2010 before a U.S. military commission to war crimes he committed in Afghanistan as a 15 year old…
    * Most importantly, perhaps, CSC officials note they have no information to indicate he “espouses attitudes that support terrorist activities or any type of radicalized behaviour.”…

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very interesting, arcticredriver. Thanks. I’ll write about it soon. Very glad to see that the prison ombudsman continues to do his job based on the facts, unlike the government.

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