Omar Khadr, a Canadian, remains the last citizen of a Western nation imprisoned at the controversial Guantanamo detention centre, but it appears he will be back in Canada within the year to serve the remainder of an eight-year sentence for the crimes to which he has now admitted.
If there’s ever been a more vexing series of problems for concerned Canadians than Khadr’s case, I don’t know what it is.
Many Canadians will concur with Tabitha Speer, widow of the American Special Forces soldier Khadr has now admitted to killing with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002. For Speer, Khadr’s plea is an iron bound confession and his sentence means justice is now being done. Tabitha Speer’s affidavit is compelling reading; it is a self-portrait of a grieving person dealing with the agony of loss for herself and her family.
For others, Khadr’s guilty plea represents only his resignation to the fact that his road to freedom lies in accepting guilt. Some will argue he’s pleaded guilty to a crime he may not have committed, and that indeed may not be a crime. After all, Khadr was 15 at the time of the firefight in which Sgt First Class Christopher J. Speer, a medic, was mortally njured, and Khadr himself was severely wounded and captured. This makes him a child soldier in the eyes of many, not an “unlawful enemy combatant” as he’s been designated by the American military. Others wonder what justification exists for charging any combatant for taking a defensive role in a war of occupation on the other side of the world from the nation now administering justice.
Even conservative columnist Peter Worthington, who figured Khadr was doing fine at Guantanamo, notes that a charge of “murder” makes no sense in a war.
Khadr’s own affidavit contains distressing accounts of his treatment at the hands of his American captors, and a worrying number of blacked-out passages that suggest even more compelling descriptions. Many argue Khadr’s treatment in Guantanamo amounts to torture.
Then there’s the question of Guantanamo itself: outside American legal jurisdiction, a holding tank for prisoners of the “War on Terror” famously declared by George Bush to be beyond the reach of the Geneva Convention. Hundreds of detainees have passed through the site; most have either been released without charges or transferred to detention facilities in their home jurisdictions.
Prior to Khadr, just three Guantanamo of detainees had been convicted of terror-related offenses. President Barrack Obama famously promised to close Guantanamo, keenly aware that in the eyes of much of the world, “Gitmo” represented a stain on the reputation of the U.S. Notably, Canada is now the only Western nation in support of the Guantanamo facility at this point.
Many Canadians have been desperately appealing for Khadr’s return to Canada, arguing that as a whole his youth, the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the dubious legal framework around Guantanamo detentions together amount to a miscarriage of justice against a Canadian citizen.
Others insist that involvement in deadly actions against our American allies in Afghanistan is a crime deserving of the most severe punishment; the fact that the Khadr family is widely suspected of support for terrorism has hasn’t helped Omar Khadr gain support. According to U.S. government sources, his father, Ahmed Said Khadr was a senior al-Qaeda operative who helped fund terrorist training camps. If Khadr took part, as claimed, in operations at his father’s side, he’s far from being a clear-cut sympathetic figure.
Still, I’d like to make a principled stand. I can’t understand how a child soldier isn’t a child soldier, period. I can’t stomach the Geneva Convention being contravened. I’m concerned about allegations that Khadr was mistreated in Guantanamo and that genuine justice has been unavailable to him. I don’t see how Guantanamo has advanced America’s interests, let alone its standing in the world. And I don’t want Canadians held under whatever pretense without our government supporting the rights that go with citizenship. Plus, Khadr’s already been held for a terribly long time under awful conditions.
Yet I feel this case lies outside my ability to state a clear moral opinion with conviction.
Canadian principles include support for our allies, and the U.S. despite its many issues remains foremost among them. I believe America was attacked on 9/11 and that a vigorous defense against the forces that perpetrated the attack was necessary. It’s true that attempts to defeat “terror” at home and abroad have been bumbling. It’s clear that national interests around oil and influence abroad have influenced the effort. Nevertheless, rooting out terror cells like al-Qaeda is in our interest too. Canada is not neutral. In this imperfect world we must still stand with our allies despite their flaws.
Does that mean it was right to leave Khadr – one among many “unlawful combatants” as determined by the U.S. – to twist in the winds of injustice? Is his Canadian citizenship worth less than that of any other Canadian? I don’t know. It doesn’t sound right. But Khadr isn’t just any other Canadian, and never will be. Especially now that he’s admitted guilt to a horrifying list of offenses, however that admission may have come about.
Omar Khadr will likely be “home” in Canada in a year or so. At that point, whatever the issues are become fully our own.
Maybe at that point, we’ll get some collective clarity on this unique challenge to our policies and principles.
The Khadr case is still a conundrum to me.