Why is Omar Khadr still in jail?

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Photo: flickr/4WardEver UK

Do tortured child soldiers belong in Canadian prisons? The fact that Omar Khadr has spent 4254 days in prison, 537 of those days in Canadian detention, should make every Canadian question the essence of our humanity and respect for the rule of law.

Omar's recent transfer from a maximum to a medium-security prison is a hopeful indication that Correctional Service Canada (C.S.C.) is making decisions independent of prejudicial government pressure, but we have to ask ourselves why Omar is still in jail? Unfortunately for Omar, political interference in the judicial process has a disturbing history, and since his repatriation the intervention of right-wing, Islamophobic government officials, foreshadowed an unjust delay or even a complete denial of his freedom.

The Canadian Supreme Court (2008, 2009), the Federal Court (2009) and the Federal Court of Appeal (2009) all ruled the treatment of Omar Khadr in Guantanamo was a violation of Canadian and international law, but Harper chose to ignore those crucial decisions. Rather than comply with the 2012 recommendation from the UN Committee Against Torture, that Canada ensure redress for the denial of Omar's fundamental human rights and the complicity of Canadian officials in the violation of those rights, our government has maintained his unlawful detention.

Omar, as a child was abandoned by his government to a corrupt U.S. military commission, denied access to a properly constituted court and tortured for over a decade; yet in their frequent inflammatory and prejudicial statements, Prime Minister Harper and the Minister of Public Safety loudly proclaim their enthusiasm for continuing to subject him to the harshest punishment.

In September 2012, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews held a press conference to announce Omar's repatriation and stated, "Any decisions related to his future will be determined by the independent Parole Board of Canada in accordance with Canadian law." While Mr. Toews' remarks about an independent process for determining Omar's future were reassuring, he had included highly prejudicial rhetoric: "Early this morning, convicted terrorist Omar Khadr was transferred to Canadian authorities…Omar Khadr is a known supporter of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and a convicted terrorist…" 

Since C.S.C. is under his ministry, those statements were particularly disturbing. It was Minister Toews who would be responsible for appointing and renewing National Parole Board adjudicators -- the very officials who would determine Omar's opportunities for parole or continuing detention.

Following the Minister's statement, Norm Boxall, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association expressed concern that Toews' depiction of Omar as an al-Qaeda terrorist, threatened the Canadian parole system's integrity and independence. Boxall stated: "When I read the quote I was immediately concerned…when the matter is going before a specialized tribunal, public officials should not comment on the outcome, because it can taint the process."

Not limited to prejudicial comments, last April, in a highly-irregular case of overt political interference, Toews overruled a Canadian Press prison interview with Omar. According to the Globe and Mail, the request was "…subjected to significant and extraordinary scrutiny from Correctional Services and overt political interference…with direct pressure from the minister's office."

When Canada's prison ombudsman wrote last August to criticize Correctional Services for unfairly categorizing Omar as a maximum-security inmate and urged for a re-classification based on pertinent information, it prompted an immediate response from the new Minister of Public Safety. Stephen Blaney, voicing his predecessor, responded: "Omar Khadr pleaded guilty to heinous crimes, including murder… the government of Canada will vigorously defend against any attempted court action to lessen his punishment."

Last September, Dennis Edney Q.C., Omar's pro-bono lawyer for over a decade, applied for a transfer to a provincial facility where Omar would be eligible for educational and parole opportunities. That morning, Harper, who has his own rich history of vilifying Omar, offered: "This [Omar Khadr]…pled guilty to very serious crimes…it is very important that we continue to vigorously defend against any attempts, in court, to lessen his punishment for these heinous acts."

The tragedy of Omar's years of abuse, torture and continued incarceration, is a dreadful reminder what is at risk when government interferes with impunity in the legal process. When fundamental rights are applied, arbitrarily available to some, denied to others-citizens must remain vigilant, and outspoken. There has been an appalling silence from members of parliament regarding Omar's continued imprisonment-a deliberate miscarriage of justice. All Canadians, especially our members of parliament, must demand an end to this travesty and demand Omar's immediate release.

The words of Constance Backhouse, Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Ottawa, reveal the significance of our neglect and inability to uphold values we supposedly cherish: "Some cases enshrine the defining moments of their time. Omar Khadr's is one. Future generations will rightly judge our shocking derelictions of responsibility in this matter [and] our collective Canadian failure to extend justice and humanity."


Kathy Copps is a retired B.C. teacher and member of the Vancouver Free Omar Khadr Now Committee.

Check out the Free Omar Khadr Now Campaign website and facebook page.

Photo: flickr/4WardEver UK

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