Omar Khadr Urges Canadian Government to Respect the Law While Dealing with National Security Issues


In the wake of last week’s attacks in Ottawa by a lone gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a soldier at the National War Memorial and also attacked Parliament Hill, and another attack in Quebec, where a warrant officer was run over and killed, the word “terrorism” has been used liberally, and the Canadian government has rushed to release a new bill, the “Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act,” which, if passed, “will expand the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service,” as the Globe and Mail reported.

The paper stated that sources had told them that the government was “weighing new tools to deal with citizens who openly support terrorist attacks on Canadians or back groups that urge this goal,” and that “the country’s top Mountie”  — RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson — was “calling on the government to make it easier to restrict the liberties of suspects in terror cases.” When senior officials start talking openly about restricting liberties, alarm bells should always start ringing.

In another chilling passage, the Globe and Mail noted that the government “has already signalled it’s looking at lowering the threshold for preventive arrests.” That is chilling, of course, because “preventive arrests” overturns the accepted concept of the law as something that is designed to deal with crimes that have taken place, not crimes that may or may not take place in the future.

In response to the Ottawa attacks, there have also been many voices calling for restraint, not least Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the New Democrat Party, who yesterday took exception to the use of the word terrorism in relation to the attacks. “I don’t think that we have enough evidence to use that word,” he said after an NDP caucus meeting.

The Toronto Star, noting that Mulcair “said he based his opinion on reports that Zehaf-Bibeau had been struggling with mental illness, for which he had tried to seek help,” also noted that Mulcair said of the government, “They’ve used the word [terrorism] from the get-go. It was the word that they used immediately before any of this other information was out there and frankly the information that is now available to the public comforts me in my choice not to use the word terrorism in describing the act that took place here.”

He added, “It doesn’t take away from the horror of what took place. It doesn’t make it any less criminal, but I think there is a distinction to be used and when you look at the background of the individual and what was actually going on, that the use of that word was not the appropriate one. That’s our point of view. That’s my point of view.”

Anyone who has been looking closely at Canada’s counter-terrorism powers since 9/11 — or, perhaps more accurately, its powers in relation to what it claims to be terrorism, even if that term is inaccurate — will be alarmed by the tendency to hysteria of some of the current discourse.

After all, since 9/11, Canada has introduced a system of house arrest, on the basis of secret evidence, enforced by security certificates, even though the use of secret evidence ought to alarm anyone who believes in the necessity of open justice to prevent executive overreach or the protection of the intelligence services from scrutiny. This regime continues to blight the lives of people like Mohamed Harkat, persecuted by the government for 12 years, even though he has never been charged or tried with any offence.

Then there is the monstrous injustice of Canadian complicity with the Bush administration in the rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria, where he was tortured, and the betrayal of other Canadian citizens to the Syrian regime in the early years of the “war on terror” (see the section on Syria in my 2010 report for the UN about secret detention here).

Another glaring injustice is, of course, the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen abandoned for ten years in Guantánamo — with the exception of visits by Canadian agents that, the Canadian Supreme Court eventually ruled, violated his rights. Khadr’s story is a disgrace. He was just 15 years old at the time of his capture in Afghanistan in July 2002, but instead of recognizing their UN treaty obligations to recognize him as a juvenile who cannot have been responsible for his actions, because he was under the care of his father, and to rehabilitate him rather than punishing him, both the US and Canada treated him as though he was not a child, with the US abusing him while the Canadian government either turned a blind eye, or, with the visits by intelligence personnel, actively aided the Americans in their abuse.

Eventually, the US put Khadr forward for a kangaroo court trial on invented war crimes charges, and, in October 2010, he accepted a plea deal as the only means of guaranteeing his release from Guantánamo, which guaranteed him an eight-year sentence — with one more year to be served in Guantánamo, followed by seven years in Canada.

The Canadian government then dragged its heels on securing Khadr’s release for nearly a year, and, since his return, has continued to demonize him, and to oppose his transfer to a medium-security prison where he can apply for parole. That battle was finally won by Khadr, but he remains the victim of unacceptable lies and distortions by the government.

As a result, it was heartening to see that, on Tuesday, the Ottawa Citizen published an op-ed by Khadr in response to the latest fears about terrorism, entitled, “Misguided security laws take a human toll,” which I am cross-posting below. As well as reflecting on his own case, and its bearing on the current situation, Khadr also mentioned a conference on Wednesday, “Arar +10: National Security and Human Rights a Decade Later,” about which a short report was published in the Ottawa Citizen, providing a brief summary of what took place.

Below is Omar Khadr’s timely op-ed. Please do share it if you find it useful.

Misguided security laws take a human toll
By Omar Khadr, Ottawa Citizen, October 28, 2014

Ten years ago the Canadian government established a judicial inquiry into the case of Maher Arar. That inquiry, over the course of more than two years of ground-breaking work, examined how Canada’s post-Sept. 11 security practices led to serious human rights violations, including torture.

At that same time, 10 years ago and far away from a Canadian hearing room, I was mired in a nightmare of injustice, insidiously linked to national security. I have not yet escaped from that nightmare.

As Canada once again grapples with concerns about terrorism, my experience stands as a cautionary reminder. Security laws and practices that are excessive, misguided or tainted by prejudice can have a devastating human toll.

A conference Wednesday in Ottawa, convened by Amnesty International, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the University of Ottawa, will reflect on these past 10 years of national security and human rights. I will be watching, hoping that an avenue opens to leave my decade of injustice behind.

I was apprehended by US forces during a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002. I was only 15 years old at the time, propelled into the middle of armed conflict I did not understand or want. I was detained first at the notorious US air base at Bagram, Afghanistan; and then I was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for close to 10 years. I have now been held in Canadian jails for the past two years.

From the very beginning, to this day, I have never been accorded the protection I deserve as a child soldier. And I have been through so many other human rights violations. I was held for years without being charged. I have been tortured and ill-treated. I have suffered through harsh prison conditions. And I went through an unfair trial process that sometimes felt like it would never end.

I am now halfway through serving an eight-year prison sentence imposed by a Guantánamo military commission; a process that has been decried as deeply unfair by UN human rights experts. That sentence is part of a plea deal I accepted in 2010.

Remarkably, the Supreme Court of Canada has decided in my favour on two separate occasions; unanimously both times. Over the years, in fact, I have turned to Canadian courts on many occasions, and they have almost always sided with me. That includes the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Alberta Court of Appeal.

In its second judgement, the Supreme Court found that Canadian officials violated the Charter of Rights when they interrogated me at Guantánamo Bay, knowing that I had been subjected to debilitating sleep deprivation through the notorious ‘frequent flyer’ program. The Court concluded that to interrogate a youth in those circumstances, without legal counsel, “offended the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.” That ruling was almost five years ago.

I had assumed that a forceful Supreme Court ruling, coming on top of an earlier Supreme Court win, would guarantee justice. Quite the contrary, it seemed to only unleash more injustice.

Rather than remedy the violation, the government delayed my return from Guantánamo to Canada for a year and aggressively opposed my request not to be held in a maximum security prison. It is appealing a recent Alberta Court of Appeal decision that I should be dealt with as a juvenile under the International Transfer of Offenders Act.

No matter how convincingly and frequently Canadian courts side with me, the government remains determined to deny me my rights.

I will not give up. I have a fundamental right to redress for what I have experienced.

But this isn’t just about me. I want accountability to ensure others will be spared the torment I have been through; and the suffering I continue to endure.

I hope that my experience — of 10 years ago and today — will be kept in mind as the government, Parliament and Canadians weigh new measures designed to boost national security. Canadians cannot settle for the easy rhetoric of affirming that human rights and civil liberties matter. There must be concrete action to ensure that rights are protected in our approach to national security.

National security laws and policies must live up to our national and international human rights obligations. I have come to realize how precious those obligations are.

That is particularly important when it comes to complicity in torture, which is unconditionally banned.

I have also seen how much of a gap there is in Canada when it comes to meaningful oversight of national security activities, to prevent violations.

And I certainly appreciate the importance of there being justice and accountability when violations occur.

I want to trust that the response to last week’s attacks will not once again leave human rights behind. Solid proof of that intention would be for the government to, at a minimum, end and redress the violations I have endured.

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 six-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, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Barbara Cummings wrote:

    Andy, wow, I am thrilled.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    looks well 🙂

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s great that he got an op-ed published, Barbara, and yes, he looks really well, doesn’t he, Carol? Both the US and Canada have done so much to demonize him, and yet he’s clearly a fine young man.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Yes, thanks for updating us Andy, just shared with a prisoner group… BTW are you interested in submitting a couple of questions to Muallah Fazlullah leader of Pakistan Taliban. I said access could be easier so they replied by setting up open Q and A but finishes tomorrow, link here… they will likely reply by video…

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting project, Carol, but I’m not well versed enough on current issues regarding Pakistan and the Taliban to pose any questions!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    OK no problem 🙂 Do however give political prisoner Rolf Kaestel a plug please…no one cares about this case

    Even his victim wants him freed…

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, thanks for this and the photo of Omar Khadr. I hope he is well, as he looks. The very least the Canadian government can do is treat him better than he was in Guantanamo. I think Omar Khadr makes a lot of good sense in what he says to fellow Canadians. I hope they listen.

    More to the point, he has been locked away under trumped up charges and should sue for his freedom and massive compensation. I still can’t get over how angry I am about what happened to him.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Yes its very bad … as is case of Kaestel locked up for over 33 years, kept incarcerated for highlighting US bio terrorism which killed my family and others…

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Willy. Anger is entirely appropriate when reflecting on the treatment of Omar Khadr. I too hope that one day he will receive some sort of compensation, but for now I think all of us can settle for his freedom. He is so obviously a young man with a great deal to offer, who has not been permanently damaged by his treatment. It enrages me that the Canadian government has fought his release very step of the way, refusing to get him back from Guantanamo in a timely manner then holding him in maximum-security prison. With his move to a medium-security facility, he can now apply for parole, and I believe he is getting more visitors too, all of which can only help, as he so evidently absorbs in a very positive manner expressions of love and support. I still recall the power of the first report about him by Arlette Zinck, the English professor who corresponded with him in Guantanamo (and visited him before his release), and is still very close to him in Canada:

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for those links, Carol. So much injustice in this world …

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Yes… he is being punished way way beyond his original crime for highlighting experiments on live prisoners … Nazis were hung for same…

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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