Shortly after he became President in 2009, Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay within a year.

“The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order,” said Obama’s executive order. 

“If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantanamo at the time of the closure of those detention facilities, they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility.”

Five years later, Guantanamo Bay remains open.

On Friday in more than 30 cities around the world including Toronto, a global day of action was held calling for the end of indefinite detentions and the closure of Guantanamo. 

Witness Against Torture and the Centre for Constitutional Rights led the global initiative.

Click here to see more photos from Friday’s action.

“We’re here a year after Obama’s failed promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay,” said Michael Van Arragon, activist and member with the Free Omar Khadr NOW Campaign that planned Toronto’s event.

“Omar Khadr still lives out the legacy of his 10-year detention at that illegal black site facility. We oppose the unilateral detention of our Muslim friends, neighbours, brothers and sisters across the entire world.”

Clutching a megaphone and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, Van Arragon paced back and forth along the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto next to Dundas Square.

He was joined during Friday’s lunch hour by four of his colleagues from the Free Omar Khadr NOW Campaign who were wearing similar attire.

They said their Campaign is run by a diverse community of concerned citizens who are committed to seeking justice for the Canadian citizen.

“We ask that not another year goes by where Obama’s empty rhetoric keeps that facility open,” said Van Arragon.

“We’re here to support Omar Khadr as well.”

In 2002 at the age of 15, Khadr was living with his family in Afghanistan where he was seriously wounded by U.S. forces, captured and detained at Bagram and Guantanamo prisons for a decade.

“The Toronto-born Khadr, now 27, pleaded guilty in 2010 to five war crimes, including murder, for killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan,” said the Canadian Press in their story published in the Toronto Star.

“He was accused of throwing a grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, during a firrefight at an Afghan compound in July 2002.

“A U.S. military commission sentenced Khadr to eight years beyond the dozen he’d already spent in Guantanamo Bay. It made no distinction between youth and adult punishment or between consecutive and concurrent sentences.

“In 2012, he was transferred to Canada and corrections authorities took him into adult custody.

“He was initially kept at a maximum security prison in eastern Ontario. He was moved to Edmonton’s maximum security prison and, a few months ago, was reclassified as medium security and transferred to Bowden Institution in central Alberta.

“Last fall, he lost his bid for a transfer to a provincial jail for less violent offenders.”

Human rights activists in Toronto and the rest of the country are disappointed that the Canadian government has failed to negotiate a successful agreement to shut down Guantanamo Bay as well as the release of Omar Khadr who is now incarcerated in a Canadian maximum security prison.

“He did not kill anyone,” said the Free Omar Khadr NOW Campaign on its website. “Evidence obtained by torture. Shameful Canadian Government is playing politics with his life.”

Fifteen minutes later, the group shifted to the southwest corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets outside the Eaton Centre to leaflet passersby.

“They have not been charged with anything yet they’ve been held for 12 years,” said Afroze Ali, an organizer with the Free Omar Khadr NOW campaign. 

“And that’s the reason they’re on an island off of Cuba rather than on the mainland where their civil rights have to be respected.”

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, also referred to as Guantánamo or Gitmo, is a United States military prison located within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, which fronts on Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, established in January 2002.

“Instead of considering him (Omar Khadr) as a child caught up in an adult war needing rehabilitation, he was allowed to stay there by this government,” said Ali.

“He was tortured and abused for 11 long years.”

In a story published on May 13 2010 in CommonDreams.org, author Andy Worthington confirmed Khadr’s ill-treatment.

“Khadr stated that he was short-shackled in painful positions and left for up to ten hours in a freezing cold cell, threatened with rape and with being transferred to another country where he could be raped, and, on one particular occasion, when he had been left short-shackled in a painful position until he urinated on himself,” said Worthington.

But why was Khadr charged in the first place?

“He’s been made into a scapegoat,” said Ali. “He is a Muslim. In wars and battles people die. People are injured on both sides.”

On February 16 2010, Worthington reposted an article at CommonDreams.org written by American Civil Liberties Union rendition client Binyam Mohamed where he referred to Khadr as a Scapegoat for a Failed “War on Terror.”

In another story, Worthington wrote a piece entitled “Canada’s Shameful Scapegoating of Omar Khadr”  that was published at CommonDreams.org on April 28 2012.

“The whole system is so corrupted that you can’t necessarily keep someone in jail being charged under such a corrupted system,” said MKira who is also with the Free Omar Khadr NOW campaign.

“And if we allow that as civilians then how do we know that won’t happen to us. Because they’ve put a group of individuals into a black hole.”

According to a Canadian Press story published in the Toronto Star, a lawsuit was filed on Thursday against Omar Khadr for almost $45 million by the widow of a U.S. special forces soldier killed in Afghanistan and an American soldier blinded by a grenade.

“The motive is to pretty much criminalize him,” said Mkira. 

“It certainly plays into the whole demonize Omar and play up Islamaphobia,” added Van Arragon. “And that seems to be the majority of the focus.”

Passersby at Friday’s action in Toronto who took the time to have a word with activists were either in full support of or completely opposed to the release of the detainees (including Khadr) and the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

“We have this polarized debate because we have a lot of misinformation,” said Valentina Capurri, activist and professor at Ryerson University. 

“People read the headlines of mainstream newspapers that are propaganda and they believe what they read. They don’t take the time to do their own research.”

Some passersby weren’t even aware of Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr or the other detainees.

“And our job is to just inform and hopefully they’ll go home and learn about what’s going on,” said Ali.

The group hopes to hold more vigils at busy downtown intersections in Toronto during lunch hour for Omar Khadr and the others who are still detained in Guantanamo Bay.

“So that different pockets of the population of Toronto will get exposed to the messages that we have.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.