umm Abdillah | Radio Islam Programming | 2015.05.16 | 26 Rajab 1436 AH
While attending a conference in northern Alberta, Canada last year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu took time out to telephone Omar Khadr. At the time he was being held in Bowden prison after spending 10 years in Guantanamo Bay. It seems Archbishop Tutu’s stance regarding Guantanamo’s youngest detainee and his further incarceration resonated with Canadian courts. Umm Abdillah looks into his horrific journey.
This month, Omar Khadr made news headlines twice – on Thursday, as Canada's top court swiftly dismissed a government attempt to hold the young man as a hardened offender in an adult federal penitentiary - and the week before - when he was granted bail. It’s the third time that Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and his government have lost in matters involving Omar Khadr at the Supreme Court of Canada. Omar Khadr (b.1986) is a Canadian citizen who was convicted of war crimes by a United States military tribunal in Guantanamo, Cuba, following an illegal process. He was one of the youngest captives and the last Western citizen to be held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In their latest ruling, the high court said Ottawa made a grave mistake in how it interprets the International Transfer of Offenders Act in Khadr’s case, and he should never have been placed in the federal penitentiary system, given the American eight-year sentence he faced.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government continues to appeal the decision to grant him bail.
US Attack and war crimes
On July 27, 2002, Canadian-born Omar Khadr was rendered unconscious and blinded in one eye, when U.S. Army Special Forces carried out a four-hour bombardment on the compound where he was staying. The then fifteen-year-old was found in the rubble unarmed and severely wounded. Omar was shot in the back by a U.S. soldier, leaving huge exit wounds in his upper left chest. “He’s missing a piece of his chest and I can see his heart beating”, wrote a U.S. officer in a subsequent written account of the events.
A leaked Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Task Force report revealed that the U.S. military had doctored a field report to implicate Omar in the death of a U.S. Delta Force soldier (disguised in Afghan clothing) and erased evidence that a U.S. grenade had caused the soldier’s death. The military not only denied that the soldier had been killed by friendly fire, but also hid information that Omar had been shot in the back at close range and another survivor executed.
Illegal capture and imprisonment
After his capture by U.S. forces, Omar should have been identified as a child soldier – he was fifteen and involved in a battle in a war zone – and provided with immediate protection as guaranteed by the UN Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Instead, he was illegally captured, detained, and tortured in Bagram prison until October 2002. He was then transferred to Guantanamo and held there for more than a decade – often in solitary confinement. Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg wrote about him: “I first saw him in Bagram when he was terribly wounded. Very skinny, gaunt, pale, weak, quiet, shy. Soldiers would scream insults at him, with his hands tied and his legs tied and a hood over his head. What does he know? He’s in a child in a world of adult prisoners.”
Get-out-of-Guantanamo plea deal
In October 2010, Omar accepted a “get-out-of-Guantanamo plea deal” offered by his U.S. captors and pleaded guilty to the five ex post facto charges. After maintaining his innocence while enduring eight years of extreme torture, Omar understood that pleading guilty was his only way out of Guantanamo.
His torture included prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings, suspension from his wrists while his wounds were still fresh, threats of gang rape, hooding, intimidation by dogs, forced nakedness, body cavity searches, forced feeding, short-shackling in stress positions, prolonged solitary confinement, cell conditions of extreme cold and noise, constant light and withholding of medical treatment.
“Confessions” extracted through torture are not admissible in a legitimate court. Omar’s sentencing was itself a criminal offence under Canadian and International Law - hence the Guantanamo military tribunal proceedings cannot be considered a valid determinant of guilt.
What Archbishop Desmond Tutu said
At the time Tutu said it was “unconscionable” that Khadr, following a “travesty of a trial, where he was treated as an adult in a vicious kangaroo court”, should be languishing in jail and that his own country Canada should be an accomplice in holding him in prison.
“The point is that he was tried not in an open court, where he could been represented by a lawyer of his choice. This is apart from the fact that when he was arrested, he was only 15 years of age, a minor by every credible assessment and at the very least to have been charged as the minor that he was.”
“This is an example of a horrible miscarriage of justice and that in a modern democratic state.”
After speaking to Khadr on the telephone, Tutu said he was “pleasantly surprised at how calm and un-bitter” Khadr sounded.
“He later wrote a very nice note thanking me for taking the trouble to call him. He struck me as a very gentle and caring and courteous human being who does not belong where he is at present. The Canadian authorities would do their stature much good if they released him immediately.”
Omar Khadr, now 28, is suing Canada’s government for about $50m, alleging violation of fundamental rights, allowing torture by US forces and for treating him like an adult offender when he was arrested as a child.
His Alberta-based lawyers, Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney, will keep fighting as they have when they represented him in courts in Guantanamo Bay, the US and Canada. Almost every legal case they fought went in Khadr’s favour.
He has strict bail conditions. He has to wear an ankle monitor to keep track of his movement, and live with his with lawyer, Dennis Edney, with limited contact with his own family in Toronto. His internet access will be restricted and monitored. He’ll have to be back in court for yet another appeal by Harper’s government against bail in September. Christian charity groups are clamouring around him to give him an opportunity at a new life.
Shortly after Omar Khadr wrote his Grade 12 social studies exam in prison, his eyesight began to fail completely. He was blinded in one eye after his attack. Now he can barely see words out of his second eye so he stopped reading. Writing is very slow, difficult and tiring for him. This is due to injuries sustained in the US attack on him and further exacerbated by torture. By the end of August last year, being unable to read, Omar resorted to audiotapes of books while prison authorities looked for medical care. His studies have thus slowed dramatically according to longtime tutor Arlette Zinck. Omar has completed about half of his high-school degree via a Ms. Zinck, who met with him in Guantanamo and organised his studies for years.
This week a McMaster University professor, who wants to teach Omar Khadr wrote to the university's president, asking that he hold a spot for Khadr to demonstrate Canadian universities' role "in fostering justice and affirming peace."