Omar Khadr: Still no closure to dark chapter in Canadian history

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Recently, two major events received attention in the mainstream media. Both events left their marks on Canada's human rights reputation. Canada's actions (or inactions) and positions with respect to these two matters will undoubtedly be judged by the history books.

Return to Canada

The first event is the possible return of Omar Khadr to Canada. After spending more than eight years in Guantanamo, and after he has suffered torture and psychological harassment since he was 15, Omar Khadr entered a 'plea bargain' in return for an eight-year sentence. Part of the deal was an implicit diplomatic agreement that Canada would recommend his transfer after one year.

From the outside, it seems that the Canadian government has finally come to its senses and accepted to deal with this 'hot potato' issue. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have been throwing accusations at each other without attempting to bring closure to this dark chapter of Canadian history.

Denied and deprived of basic rights

After denying him the status of child soldier, depriving him of his basic constitutional rights, and instead of helping him as a teenaged boy to go back to the country of his birth to face justice, Canada sent him a CSIS agent to interrogate him under confinement conditions that would, at minimum, be qualified as cruel and degrading mistreatment (I am referring here, specifically, to the sleep deprivation program that was often called the "frequent flyer program" by the guards.)

Today, Omar Khadr is a 25-year-old man who has spent almost a decade of his early life in one of the most controversial and harsh prisons in the world. He remains the last westerner yet to be repatriated to his home country. France, Australia and England all agreed to accept back their nationals. Of course, public opinion played a tremendous role in changing these governments' positions, especially in the case of David Hicks, the Australian Guantanamo detainee who was repatriated to Australia in 2007.

Unfortunately for Omar Khadr, public opinion generally worked against him. Despite some genuine and powerful support from organisations such as Amnesty International, UNESCO, the Canadian Bar Association and many other groups, the Canadian public opinion chose to ignore the Omar Khadr issue.

Collateral damage in the 'war on terror'

The main reason is related to the reputation that the Khadr family acquired in the media. Thus, Omar Khadr was judged through the narrow glasses of guilt by association, and through the tremendous anti-Muslim bias that dominated the media sphere after the 9/11 attacks.

Omar Khadr became one of the many collateral damages of a never-ending 'war on terror.' Wedding ceremonies in Afghanistan where dozens of civilians were killed by drone attacks? Prisoners waterboarded in order to extract from them 'precious' information? There is no shortage of tragic examples of collateral damage and one has only to read the daily news in order to find out the extent to which the new Obama strategy has heavily relied on drone attacks, which not only kill militants as his administration has always insisted, but also kill civilians who happen to be in the neighbourhood.

For the US administration it is becoming more obvious that Khadr's (or people like him) innocence or guilt doesn't matter, as long as his story becomes the 'perfect example' to deter some prospective young Muslims from terrorism.

But are harsh treatment, torture and judicial harassment really efficient tools to turn youth from extremism? If anything, these tactics have backfired so far as for every Muslim detainee who is tortured or mistreated by the U.S. hundreds of youth are rallied to the cause of al-Qaida or like-minded groups (what is taking place in Yemen should serve as an example.)

For some media and politicians, Omar Khadr quickly became a "convicted war criminal," accepting the de facto legitimacy of the U.S. kangaroo military courts which by all objective accounts made a mockery of justice and basic principles of fairness. These courts left Omar Khadr no option but to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence term.

Guinea pig for a new kind of travesty of justice

Canada of course shares a big part of the blame; by not intervening Canada opened the door wide open for the U.S. government to put Khadr on a sham trial which made of him a "convicted war criminal," as the mainstream media would now prefer to describe him. By abandoning him, Canada made of a young vulnerable person a guinea pig tested for a new type of travesty of justice.

There is no more clear evidence of this than the words uttered by Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defence. Panetta acknowledged that moving Omar out would be "an important step...We've got others there, obviously, we would like to be able to move as well."

The truth is that Omar's likely return to Canada is not motivated by an urgent change of heart in the position of the Canadian government but rather it marks a shift in how the Obama administration now handles military cases. Joshua Dratel, a lawyer based in New York, recently told the Miami Herald that Gitmo's "deal bank" is open.

Guantanamo North

The other major event that made news two weeks ago is the closing of the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, also known as Guantanamo North among human rights activists. Despite the fact that this prison was so controversial, its closure went by quietly and slipped under the radar.

Guantanamo North is a six-cell $3.2-million high security complex that was built in 2006. Originally, it hosted only security certificates detainees, at that time four Muslim men. After some of them were released on bail, the facility remained empty.

Hassan Alamrei, who now lives in Toronto, spent three years of his life there in solitary confinement. He was released in 2009 after his certificate was quashed. Mohamed Harkat of Ottawa, who is still fighting deportation, was detained there as well.

The savings of $2.5 million per year in maintenance costs were the real reason behind the decision to close this shameful facility. The humiliation of daily strip searches, the ridiculous head counting (even if there were only four detainees), the cold temperature in the winter and hot temperature the summer, were not enough good reasons for the government to close this infamous detention center. It seems economics trumps human rights, at least according to the current government.

There were even reports circulating around that after his transfer from Guantanamo to Canada Omar Khadr might be kept in Guantanamo North. And some voices are even talking about Omar Khadr being charged with treason after his return to Canada.

What a tragic irony to talk of transferring him from one shameful place to another! What an awful thing as to keep Omar Khadr in a type of judiciary vengeance. How long do we have to wait to see a government making reasonable choices instead of perpetuating more injustices?

Today, I have only one wish: that both Omar's transfer to Canada and the closing of Guantanamo North will turn the page on this gloomy chapter of Canadian history.

But can we trust this government to listen to the voices of reason and compassion? I really doubt it.


Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release during that time and has written a book, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice.

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