Free Omar Khadr

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.

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.