Opposing Omar Khadr’s repatriation is un-Canadian

I’m 26 now, nearly a decade out of high school and working on my second university degree. But seldom does a day go by on which I don’t feel great nostalgia for my teen years.

Teenagehood, for me, was the epoch of SuperSoakers and water balloons, of snowballing passing cars on quiet residential streets, and fleeing post-haste to escape the wrath of an irate motorist. It was the era of my most memorable successes, earth-shattering disappointments, tears of unbridled joy, laughter to dissemble my sorrow. Teenagehood was my metamorphosis: the balance of an awkward, agonizing transition from boy to man, filled with equal parts pride in my victories, and shame over my missteps.

I grew five inches taller in the space of two years. I learned humility before a cheering crowd, to admit my faults before the irascible visage of a school headmaster, to accept responsibility, make amends and move on. I felt the incomparable joy of falling in love, and the ineffable anguish of losing it. I forged indelible friendships. I learned who my true friends were. And by degrees, I began to piece together what it all meant, who I was, why I was here.

Teenagehood was the single most crucial formative period of my existence. I can’t imagine who I would be today without it.

Critics may allege that my advocacy for the repatriation of Omar Khadr to Canada rests on sentimentality, not reason. They may charge that I pity a young man who relinquished his own vernal years to the cold, cavernous corridors of the US Military’s ignominious detention facility at Guanatanamo Bay. Indeed, I do pity Khadr, whom US forces apprehended at the age of 15, three years before he would have been eligible to vote, an age at which I could barely fasten my own necktie.

But it’s not compassion that compels me to speak out in favour of Khadr’s repatriation; it’s my reverence for justice, and the principles for which I believe Canada should stand.

A watchtower near the American-controlled Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, where Canadian citizen Omar Khadr is currently incarcerated. Image c/o The National Guard/flickr

Khadr’s “conviction” a sham

It’s not uncommon for media to incorrectly report the circumstances of Khadr’s legal case. I’ll endeavour to set the record straight.

Khadr,  the son of a Jihadi, is an alleged child soldier. When American forces apprehended him, in 2002, he was badly injured, with shrapnel in his skin and two gunshot wounds.

However, he is not a “convicted terrorist” as many media organizations have reported; indeed he has never been properly convicted of any criminal offence, let alone the most serious of the accusations against him, murder in violation of the law of war (a law for which President Obama, incidentally, appears to have little regard). The primary evidence against Khadr, to this day, consists of confessions he allegedly made to U.S. officials at 15, which his defence lawyers have maintained were elicited through torture.

Rather than face near-certain conviction, Khadr pleaded guilty to five charges, including the slaying of U.S. soldier Sgt. Chris Speer (a special forces combat medic) with a grenade in Afghanistan. He entered the guilty plea in 2010, eight years after his initial capture, and after his interrogators had threatened him with gang rape.

In other words, if Khadr had been on trial for murder in Canada, assuming he had been 18 at the time of the alleged offence, his murder confession probably would have been inadmissible in court. Nonetheless, a U.S. military judge ruled that Khadr’s admission was voluntary, not the product of coercion.

Furthermore, even if Khadr did, in fact, kill a U.S. soldier, he was a minor at the time.

Of course, to many people, a confession seems a damning bit of evidence, even a lynchpin in a criminal investigation . But let’s consider the circumstances.

In evaluating the reasons why Khadr may have confessed to the charges, one must bear in mind the benefit he expected to receive from such an admission. U.S. authorities promised Khadr, as a condition of the plea bargain, the opportunity to serve the final seven years of an eight-year sentence in Canada, after remaining one more year at the notorious detention facility.

For a man Khadr’s age, or any other human being offered a glimpse of light at the end of what seems an endless cavern of pitch black, surely a false confession is not inconceivable in the absence of corroborating evidence.

Of course, I don’t mean to asseverate that Khadr certainly did not commit the offences to which he confessed, but the fact is, we don’t know. And in Canadian and American law, all individuals are presumed innocent until their guilt is legally demonstrable. Many innocent individuals are convicted wrongfully, even pursuant to due process and multiple appeals.

So suffice to say, I have my doubts. And I’m not alone.

Over the years, Khadr’s defence counsel have argued that U.S. authorities have repeatedly manipulated the circumstances of the case in order to enhance the likelihood of conviction, allegations you can read more about here.

Why repatriation?

Ostensibly, the best reason to repatriate Khadr, is because doing so would fulfill Canada’s end of the bargain.

As mentioned above, U.S. officials have already agreed to return him to Canada to complete the final seven years of his sentence, a transfer that should have occured in 2011. And some are growing restive over the Canadian government’s dithering – particularly after Public Safety Minister Vic Toews suggested Canada had been “duped” into accepting Khadr’s transfer.

Let’s just say, the Harper government’s agreement to the transfer in 2010 was undoubtedly voluntary.

“Duped my ass,” an official in the Obama administration, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Toronto Star.

“Is this videotape seriously going to be a revelation? Canadians didn’t know (Khadr) came from a jihadi family?” the official continued. “Ottawa knew about this and the fact is, if they’re worried, they’ll have plenty of time to observe him while he serves out his sentence in Canada.”

The videotape to which this U.S. official refers, is an interview performed by Dr. Michael Welner, a military psychologist who concluded that Khadr represented a threat to Canadian society. But, to put it mildly, the evidence Welner offers to substantiate his views is hardly persuasive – an issue explored in detail by foreign affairs columnist Thomas Walkom.

Welner’s appraisal has been rejected by psychiatrists, lawyers, and many others who have had any contact with Khadr. So the reason why Ottawa – and especially Toews – have placed so much emphasis upon it in particular, is perplexing.

Is Toews just looking for an excuse to avoid following through with Canada’s end of the deal? Or is he truly convinced that Welner’s assessment is not only accurate, but a basis for a definitive conclusion?

It’s a safe bet that Toews, and only Toews, will ever know the answers to those questions.

In any event, there is another, even more compelling reason to support Khadr’s return: because it’s consistent with Canadian values, including our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And indeed, in 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld rulings by lower courts, indicating that Khadr’s Charter rights had been breached – specifically his legal prerogatives to life, liberty, and security of the person. However, the SCC also overturned lower-court rulings demanding Khadr’s repatriation, effectively leaving the decision in the federal Conservatives’ hands.

What’s really at stake

The Omar Khadr case is about much more than one alleged child soldier incarcerated at a Caribbean penitentiary unlawfully controlled by the U.S. government. It’s a question of principle, with the potential to reflect profoundly on Canada’s image in the world. It’s a matter of how we perceive ourselves, and what we strive to represent.

Do we want to be a country that permits the detainment of our own citizens in foreign countries, under potentially inhumane conditions, when we’ve been offered every opportunity to right the situation? Do we want to further entrench our growing reputation as a nation that enables torture, as we did in Afghanistan, blithely looking the other way and covering our ears to muffle the screams?

Or do we want to be a nation that assumes responsibility, takes control, and proudly brandishes our rubicund Maple Leaf as a universal symbol of freedom, integrity, and the rule of law?

I know what kind of country I want Canada to be, what kind I believe we should be. That’s why I urge my government to afford Khadr the justice that is the rightful desert of every Canadian, and every human being.


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