Moving on with Omar Khadr

In addition to a recent apology issued by the Liberal government, a lawsuit first filed in 2004, has been settled with a $10.5-million payout to Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who confessed to war crimes in 2010 and spent 10-years locked up at the notorious Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The Globe and Mail reported that the $10.5-million payment was payed out on Wednesday of last week and cashed the same day. 

The announcement comes 15-years after Khadr’s Canadian defence lawyer, Dennis Edney, launched a wrongful imprisonment civil suit, on the basis that Khadr’s rights as a Canadian citizen had been violated. The suit - originally pegged at $100,000, bumped to $60-million, and then brought down to $20-million - sought compensation for abuses of his rights during three visits from Canadian officials in CSIS and an official from the Foreign Affairs Intelligence branch. The visits occurred between 2003 and 2004 while Khadr was detained at Guantanamo Bay. 

News of the financial settlement and a government apology was met with fierce criticism from critics. 

Conservative MP Tony Clement said in a July 5 tweet, “to have Canadians pay $10-million is ridiculous and offensive.” 

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation which started an online petition opposing the liberals’ decision read, “This is offensive to many Canadians … Canadians should not be forced to pay millions of dollars to a killer.” The petition has since gained more than 52,000 signatures. 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called the move to pay out millions of dollars to a convicted terrorist “disgusting.” 

Former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner and Conservative defence minister Julian Fantino said, “Just think of what that money could do to help our veterans and their families who actually served the country.” 

The now 30 year-old Khadr, who at 15 years-old confessed to throwing a grenade which resulted in the death of U.S. army medic Sgt. 1st-class Christopher Speer in a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan, is not only virtually free while out on bail with few conditions, but also literally rich. 

Khadr pleaded guilty to five war-crimes in 2010, answering to charges placed against him in 2005 - three years after he first arrived at Guantanamo. The U.S. military commission presiding over Khadr’s case found him guilty of all charges, including: murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war, conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism and spying. It was Khadr’s confession as part of a plea bargain which allowed him to be transported to Canada to serve a reduced eight-year sentence in 2012, after already spending ten years behind bars at Guantanamo. Since being repatriated to Canada, he has recanted his confession, saying it was made under duress. Khadr originally pleaded not-guilty earlier in 2010, but amended his plea later in the year at the persuasion of defence lawyer, Edney. 

According to an agreed stipulation of facts read aloud during Khadr’s 2010 guilty plea, he admitted to having one-on-one training from al-Qaeda, learning how to use rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, burying improvised explosive devices and that he hoped to kill “a lot of Americans” for a monetary reward. 

Fraught with controversy 

Omar Khadr is the first person falling under the definition of a child soldier to be charged by a Western country since World War II. This is also the first time anyone has ever been tried for killing a U.S. soldier in the field of combat. Khadr was charged under war crimes offences recognized in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which had not been in existence at the time of Khadr’s alleged offences. The offences he was charged with were also not recognized under international law.

 In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court chastised Bush’s military commissions - originally announced in 2001 to try “unlawful enemy combatants” - saying the commissions violated the U.S. Code of Military Justice and Geneva Conventions. They were ruled as illegal, but Washington responded by creating the Military Commissions Act the same year, circumventing the Supreme Court’s stance and taking the power away from federal courts to hear habeas corpus petitions. In 2008, the Supreme Court once again condemned the act as unconstitutional in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, ruling that detainees could have their wrongful detention petitions heard before federal courts. 

The civil lawsuit in Canada claims Khadr had never been advised of his basic rights to silence and legal representation before he was interrogated, and that his admissions were obtained under torturous conditions. Canadian officials interrogated Khadr despite knowing he had endured three weeks of sleep deprivation. 

The Supreme Court of Canada came to Khadr’s defence in 2008, ruling unanimously against the Canadian government’s efforts to keep concealed the records of Canadian interrogations performed at Guantanamo in 2003, which were then illegally shared with U.S. authorities. 

In 2010, the Supreme Court laid the hammer down yet again, unanimously concluding that Canada’s involvement in Khadr’s case “did not conform to the principles of fundamental justice,” violating his constitutional rights as a Canadian while he was interrogated under “oppressive circumstances.” The court also said Canada’s role in aiding the U.S. offended “the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.” 

It was a devastating condemnation of Canada’s handling of Khadr and the US treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, in addition to dealing a blow to the efforts of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, who had spent a good deal of cash vehemently fighting any chance Khadr had to walk Canada’s streets as a free man before his sentence was up. 

Khadr was granted bail by an Alberta court judge in April of 2015 as he waits to appeal his war-crimes conviction in the U.S.

One week after his release, the Supreme Court once again ruled in Khadr’s favour, interpreting his U.S. sentencing as a juvenile, as opposed to an adult. 

The fight wasn’t over though, and the Conservatives appealed the Alberta court’s decision to release Khadr on bail. It was rejected, and the appeal has since been dropped by Trudeau’s government. 

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said during the government’s apology to Khadr, that the federal government had “virtually no chance of success” when it came to fighting the civil suit. He noted $5-million had been spent fighting loosing battles against Khadr’s lawyers in court. 

Omar’s past 

Omar Khadr was born in Toronto in 1986. His father, Ahmed Khadr, moved Omar along with his mother and siblings to Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1996. During Khadr’s time in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence says the family - dubbed “Canada’s first family of terrorism” - had ongoing relations and interactions with al-Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden. 

On July 27, 2002, an operation to storm the compound where Khadr was staying with al-Qaeda operatives - lasting four hours, from air and ground - ended with multiple lives lost, including Sgt. Speer’s, who left behind a widow and two children. American Special Forces Sgt. 1st-class Layne Morris was also left blinded in one eye. According to testimony during the trial before the Guantanamo military commission, Khadr was found buried under rubble, where he was shot twice in the back at point-blank range before U.S. special forces realized he was alive, and was taken into U.S. custody. At 15 years-old, Khadr wound up in a U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan severely wounded and blinded in one eye. 

He remained in Bagram until later that same year when in October he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The Canadian Foreign affairs department politely requested in a letter to Washington that Khadr not be placed at Guantanamo due to his age, but the issue was dropped. 

Child soldier, or terrorist? 

The parade of support for Khadr has mainly focused on his definition as a child soldier, his treatment while in the hands of Americans, and the scant evidence to actually prove Khadr’s culpability in Speer’s death. The Toronto Star interviewed six U.S. Special Forces soldiers who were present at the firefight, and none could actually say who threw the grenade which killed Speer. The Star also reported U.S. forces didn’t even recognize Khadr was alive until a soldier stood on top of him, buried under debris (seen in photos acquired by the Star) from the bombardment by the U.S. military. The photos beg one to question how he could have thrown the grenade which killed Speer - who entered after the firefight, as part of the special forces team - and then buried himself under debris. Then there was inconsistent testimony during Khadr’s trial from the U.S. military which was rife with inaccuracies. 

Damien Corsetti, previously a military interrogator who became known as “The Monster,” spoke out about his experiences and the experiences of detainees at both Bagram and Guantanamo Bay to Star reporter Michelle Shepard, and in the documentary film You Don’t Like the Truth. Corsetti, while never directly involved with interrogating Khadr said “what was acceptable at Bagram at that time was an outrage on human dignity.” Corsetti is now a disabled veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. 

Retired United Nations Lt.-Gen Romeo Dallaire has referred to Khdar as a “victim” and a “child soldier.” Dallaire also criticized Canada’s lack of spine, and lack of support when Khadr asked for help from the Canadian government. 

Amnesty International has said no one under 18 years-old should ever have been transferred to Guantanamo, and no child soldier should be subject to a military commission trial. 

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative on children and armed conflict expressed concern about Khadr’s trial setting a precedent for child soldiers elsewhere. She also said child soldiers “are primarily victims of adult cunning and cruelty, and therefore should be rehabilitated and assisted to find a constructive role in society.” 

Human Rights Watch, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Juvenile Law Centre sent a letter in 2010 addressed to the Attorney General and Secretary of Defence requesting Khadr be repatriated to Canada, or to be transferred to a federal court and to “prosecute him in accordance with international juvenile justice and fair trial standards.” 

Omar Khadr falls under the definition of a child soldier under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of which Canada ratified in 1991. Canada and the U.S. have also ratified two U.N. international treaties which concern Khadr’s case; the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (“OPAC,” an extension of the CRC) and the Paris Principals of 2007. In both cases, the international treaties call for special considerations and treatments of a child involved in war.

While prosecution of children for war crimes is allowed, the focus is meant to placed on rehabilitation and ultimately reintegration into society, with attention paid to the vulnerability of outside influence. Detaining a child is only meant to be used as a last resort. 

In a Global News article, Samantha Nutt, the founder and executive director of War Child was quoted as saying, “I have interviewed thousands of young people in similar situations, who have done as much if not far worse criminal deeds than Omar Khadr has - young people who have raped, killed dozens and dozens of people, who have slaughtered villages and wiped out entire communities.” 

“Yet in those contexts we still put the emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration. We recognize that they weren’t at the age of consent, that there are all these other circumstances contributing to their radicalization [and] to their militarization,” Nutt said to Global News

Despite Khadr falling under the parameters for definition as a child soldier, his case has not been handled as such. He was placed into Guantanamo for two years before being able to speak to a lawyer, and five years before he was charged. The Liberal and Conservative governments over the years declined to intervene on his behalf. 

The settlement 

Paying out such a large sum of money to settle Khadr’s lawsuit sends out a strong message, especially when Khadr is still appealing his U.S. conviction. A court has yet to even decide if he will be acquitted of the war crimes he plead guilty to. This decision will likely take years to be made. 

The backroom style of this deal with taxpayer money between the Liberals and Khadr is also concerning. When reporters asked Trudeau about the payout after The Associated Press, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail were tipped off from an unnamed source about the looming deal, the PM only delivered a cryptic statement alluding to the nearing resolution of the case. He has since made a statement about the settlement. 

Perhaps Trudeau’s government got a little excited and hit the ‘send now’ button too early. But this isn’t about compensating a convicted killer, this is about the price paid for Canadian officials picking and choosing when the rules apply and when to simply glance past them as though they don’t exist. If those rules don’t apply evenly to everyone, then where lies their merit? 

As a country who actively endorses human rights standards, and condemns those who abuse them, we cannot simply pick and chose who, where and when they apply, to suit us. We must be held accountable to those standards we endorse as a society, and in that sense we all share the burden for the actions of our government. 

If you’re angry by the government’s decision to settle with Khadr and his lawyers, directing resentment towards Khadr is misplacing anger which should be directed at a justice system, and political leadership with which you don’t agree. Talk to your local member of parliament, write letters to your local newspaper’s editor - make your voice heard. But pointing the finger at Khadr doesn’t actually accomplish anything. 

There were many steps along Khadr’s journey which could have been altered to change the final outcome of this story. The upbringing he received from a family known for their hatred and anti-western beliefs, Khadr’s choice to engage with al-Qaeda and U.S. soldiers, his incarceration at Guantanamo and the interrogation by Canadian officials are some which come to mind. The visits by CSIS and Foreign Affairs sowed the seed those many years ago for this past week’s outcome, along with the Supreme Court’s continued rulings in favour of Khadr. 

By all indications from the Supreme Court, we have failed every step of the way in aiding the U.S. and failing to adhere to our own laws, yet alone those of international treaties. 

Moving forward 

It’s important to remember you’re reading this story from behind a computer screen, and most of us have never, and will never be in the position of Khadr or in the boots of the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. Nobody knows the absolute truth about what happened that day in July aside from Khadr. We have limited facts, and pieces of the puzzle of which are murky at best. We can do our best to put these pieces together, but that’s as much as we can do. At some point we have to move past it and deal with our humanity. 

Regardless of whether or not you believe the federal government is foolishly squandering taxpayer dollars, let us instead use this case as an opportunity to make a stand for the values of which we so often trumpet from the mountain tops to the rest of the world; rather than dividing and stooping to the lowest common denominator. 

We so rarely have the opportunity to witness the potential power rehabilitation can have on such a grand scale. What can be accomplished when people and communities come together to embrace an individual who was undoubtedly robbed of a stable, healthy childhood? Try and place yourself in Khadr’s shoes. Would you want a second chance? 

As a society who endorses second chances and the rehabilitation of those who offend the values we treasure, we have a role to play. If this role is taken on our part, then the ball is in Khadr’s court to prove he can reintegrate and become a responsible and contributing member of society. As a rich man on the taxpayer’s buck, he owes it to every Canadian to prove he can. 

Khadr says he plans to stay in touch with his family because, well they’re his family. Fair enough. He also told Star reporter Michelle Shephard that he disagrees with a lot of what his family has said and has influences other than his family, saying Canadians shouldn’t worry. 

Let’s hope so.

I think it will be a long time before the spotlight fades and Canadians accept Khadr as the average Canadian he wishes to be seen as. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. 

Khadr is now living in an apartment in Edmonton, Alberta while hoping to attend school this coming fall to become a nurse. He has been out on bail for two years while he waits to appeal his war crime conviction in at a Washington court in the U.S. 

With files from the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, CBC, Global News, the National Observer, the Guardian and the BBC. 

Jordan Snobelen is a Canadian freelance journalist residing in Cambridge, Ontario. His work is regularly seen in community newspapers across Ontario. 

Comments and discussion are always welcomed at or by using the contact form. 

This article was posted on July 17, 2017. Source footnotes to come. 

Protected under copyright 2017 Jordan Snobelen. 

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