While the February 19 visit of US President Barack Obama to Ottawa led to official chest-thumping about the importance of Canada because it was the first country he graced with his presence since becoming president, it also mobilized various groups to press for Omar Khadr’s return from Guantanamo Bay. Never mind that Obama spent a grand total of six hours in Canada before flying home, for the small men and women that strut about the corridors of power in Canada suffering from delusions of grandeur and self-importance, Obama’s visit provided them 15 minutes of fame. Many US television stations did not even bother to report the visit; only Canadian officials attempted to spin the visit for political ends at home in the shadow of the new American president. The more important issue of his visit was the Khadr case but Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to bring it up.
One of his first acts as president was Obama’s was suspension of all military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the announcement that the notorious prison camp would be shut down within one year. He appointed a retired brigadier general to review all cases and report to him in six months. The Obama announcement has aroused hopes that the saga of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who was captured in Ayubkhel village in Afghanistan on July 27, 2002, would finally be brought to a close and he would be returned to Canada from Guantanamo where he has languished since October 2002. Omar was 15 at the time of his capture following a firefight in which he was badly wounded—shot twice in the back as he lay buried under a collapsed wall—but miraculously survived. Because of his age at the time (15), international law designates him as child soldier and therefore, entitled to assistance and help to reintegrate in society, not subjected to torture or put on trial as he has been since 2002.
His Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney announced at a crowded Toronto press conference on February 11 details of a rehabilitation plan for Omar that has the support of prominent Canadians representing a broad coalition of civil society players. These include not only a number of Muslim organizations but also church groups, lawyers, academics, educationists, psychiatrists and students. The rehabilitation plan calls for Omar’s repatriation to Canada. The three main opposition parties in parliament made a similar call addressed in a letter to Obama as well as to Harper a few hours before Edney’s press conference. Leaders of all three political parties signed the letter and stated that they constitute a clear majority in parliament (Canada currently has a minority government). The opposition parties’ letter and Edney’s press conference were timed to bring the issue to public attention on the eve of Obama’s brief visit to Ottawa. On February 12, prominent lawyers and head of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, held another press conference in Ottawa and made a similar plea.
Harper has refused to intervene on behalf of a Canadian citizen arguing that Omar faces serious charges—he has been accused, among other things, of murdering an American soldier during the July 2002 firefight—and that the American judicial process must take its course. Now that the US itself has abandoned the military tribunal system denounced by the US Supreme Court as unfair, Harper’s stand is no longer tenable but given his rightwing views, often referred to as a George Bush clone, he refuses to assume his moral responsibility. This explains why opposition parties have stepped forward as have civil society groups to press for Omar’s return.
What is likely to happen to Omar? There are three possible scenarios: first, the Americans would drop all charges and release him at the Canadian border; second, he could be transferred to a prison in the US prior to his trial in a US court; and third, he could be sent to Canada to stand trial. If he were released and just dropped at the border, this would be a huge embarrassment for the Canadian government. The chances of securing conviction in a US court are slim since the allegations against him are falling apart in view of clear evidence that Omar did not throw the grenade that killed an American soldier. Besides, many legal experts believe that Obama would not want to go down in history as the first American president to put a child soldier on trial (Omar is 22 now but was 15 at the time of his capture). Harper has refused Omar’s designation as a child soldier, a comment that evoked derision from legal experts saying he needed better legal advice. As for putting him on trial in Canada, Edney stated that there were no grounds for such a trial but if this were to happen, “we would put up a vigorous defense of Omar”, he told the February 11 press conference.
In an attempt to offer Harper a face-saving way out of the ideological corner into which he has painted himself, Edney sent him a letter outlining details of the rehabilitation plan before these were released to the media. Harper has remained unmoved. Edney sent his letter not as a lawyer but as a concerned citizen. The letter said in part: “We, concerned citizens, believe in human compassion and the principle that no child should be forgotten and abandoned. We have long advocated the return of Omar Khadr to Canada to be afforded the opportunity for a full and healthy reintegration within the Canadian society. The recent changes in US policy with respect to Guantá-namo Bay an-nounced by Presi-dent Obama offer the Canadian government a remarkable opportunity to take action to defend Omar Khadr’s rights. We urge you to act expeditiously and request the repatriation of Omar Khadr to Canada, without further delay.”
The reintegration strategy outlined by Edney says Omar would not live with his own family because of its tarnished reputation as an “al-Qaeda” family, but with another Muslim family. Omar’s family is in full agreement with this proposal saying they would support whatever plan is best for him. The plan is designed to allow eminent organizations, representing a broad cross-section of Canadian institutions and agencies, to take legal responsibility for designing, implementing, and supervising all aspects of his life in Canada, until such time as he is able to become a fully functioning member of society. An Oversight Committee comprising prominent individuals that would include psychiatrists, academics and spiritual counselors as well as institutions and organizations will be tasked with monitoring his progress and making recommendations.
Edney’s letter to Harper said: “This Oversight Committee will guide, direct and supervise the work of specialist professionals comprising the Khadr transition team. The transition team will bring together physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, temporal and spiritual counselors, specialists in rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers, professionals versed in treating post traumatic stress, teachers and educators, and other professionals as requested and required by the Oversight Committee.” He even invited Harper to appoint a representative on the Oversight Committee. Since Omar has had no schooling since at least 2002, a custom-designed schooling curriculum will be designed by King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta, at their expense, and delivered in a home schooling enviroment to bring him to the level of passing standard Canadian achievement tests. A spiritual team of leading imams of the Muslim faith would assist with his spiritual and religious needs and Muslim organizations would bear most of the costs.
Edney’s letter, cosigned by his law partner Nathan Whitling, concluded with the following: “We believe our reintegration and monitoring plan is comprehensive and addresses many of the concerns raised by the Canadian public should Omar return to Canada. A recent Harris/Decima poll suggests 54% of Canadians believe Omar Khadr be returned to Canada while 38% believe he should face the court system in Canada, if returned. We would welcome the opportunity for Omar to clear his name, face his abusers and put Guantanamo Bay on trial.”
Ironically, the Canadian government has no plan for Omar’s reintegration into society once he returns, as he eventually would, to Canada. Informed observers believe it is Harper’s own stubborn ideology that is preventing him from doing the right thing. Chances are that events will overtake him and he would be left with a lot of egg on his face but ideologues, especially of the rightwing type, are not constrained by such considerations. They stubbornly cling to their misguided notions even when mounting evidence suggests otherwise. They continue to believe that others are always wrong.