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Derrick O'Keefe's blog

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former rabble.ca Editor Derrick O'Keefe is a writer and social justice activist in Vancouver, BC. He is the author of the new Verso book, Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? and the co-writer of Afghan MP Malalai Joya's political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. Derrick also served as rabble.ca's editor from 2007 to 2009. Topics covered on this blog will include the war in Afghanistan and foreign policy, Canadian politics, media analysis, climate justice and ecology. You can follow him at http://twitter.com/derrickokeefe

Omar Khadr's plight part of Canada's scandal of war and torture

| January 11, 2010
Omar Khadr's plight part of Canada's scandal of war and torture

Amnesty International is holding an important event in Vancouver today on the case of Omar Khadr. It starts at 5:45 p.m. with a vigil in Victory Square (West Pender at Hamilton), followed by a forum at 6:30 p.m. at SFU Harbour Centre, 515 West Pender Street (Segal Room). I will be one of the speakers at the forum, and so I thought I would share here a few thoughts on Khadr's plight.

Even some right-wing pundits concede Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament was done in part to avoid more scrutiny of the Afghan detainee scandal. In his interview last week on CBC’s The National, the Prime Minister shrugged off the whole thing, “I think polls have been pretty clear that that's not on the top of the radar of most Canadians.”

With the House of Commons in Ottawa shuttered until March, we will need to use other means to continue a vigorous public discussion of torture in Afghanistan. As I've argued before, to my mind the most remarkable thing about the whole detainee scandal is that the debate around it has remained almost entirely de-linked from the larger issue of Canada’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan. So, the real story is much bigger than just the abused detainees and the government evasions and cover-ups: the war itself is a scandal.

Torture is not a blemish on an otherwise humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan. Rather, it has been -- along with indefinite detention and sundry other violations of international law -- part and parcel of the war from the beginning. This is not primarily the result of mistakes, or of bad apples among the occupying forces or their Afghan relays. Torture and other violations of civil liberties are, in fact, the age-old tools of imperial domination. Contrary to what Michael Ignatieff tried to make the world believe back when he was a warmongering intellectual at Harvard, there is no such thing as “Empire Lite.”

The case of Canadian child soldier Omar Khadr illustrates some of the interconnections of war, torture and empire. 

Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was 15 years old when he was critically wounded in a U.S. Special Forces raid on the home in Afghanistan where he had been staying with his father, allegedly a member or sympathizer of Al-Qaeda. The young Khadr was charged with war crimes and murder for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Delta Force commando. He was then declared an “enemy combatant” and subjected to military tribunal proceedings in which he has been denied the standard rights of a defendant. In a pretrial hearing, Khadr’s lawyer alleged that U.S. military officials had altered reports on the firefight in order to frame Khadr. 

Eventually it came out that Khadr may also have narrowly escaped summary execution on the day he was captured, after being critically injured from being shot twice in the back. Special Forces in particular have been accused of such extra-legal killings. Just last week, news broke that Afghans had accused U.S.-led forces of summarily executing a number of people in Kunar Province, including at least eight schoolchildren.

For the past seven and a half years, Khadr has been held in a legal black hole, mostly at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. President Obama’s promised timeline for closing the notorious centre has not been followed (it was supposed to be closed this month), and Khadr appears no closer to freedom today than when Bush was in office. He will eventually be moved from Guantanamo, but his likely destination will be to a special prison in Illinois ("Gitmo North"), where his military tribunal is expected to go ahead.  Should this trial proceed, it will be the first time in history that a child has been tried for war crimes.

Khadr is but one of countless victims of what is, as described by Irene Khan of Amnesty International, a modern day “gulag.” Although Khan was comparing only the Guantanamo detention centre to the old prison camps of the Soviet Union, the analogy can be taken further. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous novel was, after all, Gulag Archipelago, describing a vast system of detention centres like a chain of islands. The U.S. archipelago of torture and extra-legal detention stretches much farther than the long ago Russian one, because today’s empire extends its reach around the world. This archipelago is a long one indeed, with military bases in dozens of countries, “black sites” in Eastern Europe and beyond, paramilitary and mercenary operatives, as well as many foreign subsidiaries and proxies.

Khadr began his ordeal at Bagram airbase, just north of Kabul, Afghanistan.  He was held there for three months, and subjected to countless indignities. It was here where, after untold abuse, he allegedly identified a photo of Maher Arar as someone he recognized from years before in a Kabul safe house (after first telling his interrogator he didn’t recognize the man in the picture). Arar, an innocent man, was later kidnapped by U.S. authorities and shipped to Syria where he was tortured. In other words, “information” obtained through the illegal detention and torture of one Canadian citizen seems to have led to the illegal rendition and torture of another Canadian citizen.

From Bagram, Khadr was transported to “Gitmo.” Successive Canadian governments left Khadr to rot; the sting of torture and abuse was magnified by the pain of abandonment by his own country’s government. And now he may be moved along to another island in the archipelago.

The Liberals, whose current leader was writing odes to the U.S. Empire in the early years of Khadr’s ordeal, have belatedly joined the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in calling for his return. Former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham has said that he regrets his government’s inaction.

The Conservatives would seem to have no regrets, having ignored repeated Canadian Court orders to ask for the repatriation of their citizen. Maybe, like with the detainee scandal, Stephen Harper just thinks Canadians don’t care about what has happened to Omar Khadr.

It’s up to us to prove him wrong.



Why is a child on trial as a war criminal? It matters not a hoot what he has done; he was used as a child soldier and that is child abuse on the part of those who put him in that position. The actions of the US government in detaining him as a war criminal is also child abuse. Canada's refusal, under the Liberals and the Conservatives, to demand his repatriation is child abuse.

What, I have to wonder, is the use of living in a democratic country if your government is allowed to get away with child abuse. This case makes a complete mockery of "Canadian values" and leaves me convinced that there aren't any.

The Supreme Court decision will be released on Friday, January 29.

Very thoughtful post, Derrick.


I've been trying to sort out my thoughts about our use of the c-word (complicity) in the prisoner-transfer scandal by contrast with all those other cases that seem to me much clearer cases of complicity -- the active, intentional co-operation of CSIS and DFAIT with U.S. and other entities in a number of rendition or torture cases, or CSIS's use of tainted evidence in secret trials, etc. -- and, of course, whatever awareness and direction there was from their political masters. At first I thought that the prisoner-transfer scandal wasn't exactly like those, and could have been handled at worst as a case of incompetence, confusion, whatever. But then Harper handled it so appallingly badly and continues to do so -- I'm left suspecting that things are even worse than we thought, that there really are some criminal directives to be uncovered -- at least that.


The other thing I wonder about is public reaction. We haven't been able to raise much of a response at all to so many clearly disturbing cases involving CSIS and DFAIT, and yet the prisoner-transfer scandal took off very quickly. Why? Why the difference? CSIS have actually been forced to admit to a judge that they've been using tainted evidence in the security-certificate cases, and ... nothing happens? I do not understand this.

It is now almost certain that the Supreme Court of Canada will rule in Harper's favour on the Khadr case, and Harper will not be obliged to ask the US to repatriate Khadr to Canada.

The members of the Court now know what the decision will be. If it were favourable to Khadr they would not waste any more time in preparing the text of their decision while Khadr languishes in prison; they would issue the order to Harper immediately and promise to release the reasons for judgment later. That they have not done so is bad news for Khadr and opponents of the government's war and torture agenda.

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