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We need to talk about Omar

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Omar Khadr, who spent 10 years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured by US soldiers as a 15 year old, has been in the Canadian news this week because the federal government has apologized to him and agreed to a payout of $10.5 million for violating his human rights.

Many Canadians, including a number of prominent Conservative politicians, are upset about this. It’s fine to debate the amount, the timing of, the manner in which the settlement was announced. But so many of the arguments seem to be based on an an emotional response that ignores or denies a number of inconvenient facts. Which is what upsets me.

For instance:

1. He is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of throwing the grenade

See What if Omar Khadr isn’t guilty? in the National Observer for the full report (by a former prosecutor), but it points out a number of problems in the legal case, including:

  • Lack of any eye witness to the event
  • Inconsistent and inaccurate accounts by variou US military personnel about what happened immediately before and after the grenade was thrown
  • Photographic evidence that appears to exonerate Kadr

2. Whoever did throw that grenade wasn’t committing an act of terrorism

For details, see the “Is it a crime?” section of Unanswered questions in 8-year Omar Khadr saga, along with the Observer article previously referenced. But the point is, terrorism means attacking civilians going about their daily business. So, launching a grenade in a shopping mall or at a rock concert would most definitely be an act of terrorism.

But in this case, the grenade was thrown at an armed Special Forces soldier who was part of a team that had just spent four hours trying to kill everyone in the compound. (Note that I’m not accusing the US military of anything here, either: in attacking that compound, the US military was just doing their job, of rooting out al-Qaeda cells.)

But the response of survivors to that attack was just self-defense, wasn’t it? Or just… war? But, “murder in violation of the laws of war” is what Khadr was charged with. It is not part of the Geneva convention, but something that the George Bush administration brought in (and Obama upheld) after 9/11.

However, 1300 US service members have been killed in the war in Afghanistan. And Omar Khadr is the only person ever charged with “murder” for doing so. Suggesting considerable doubt, even by its drafters, about how valid a charge that is.

3. But killing a medic…

Could be a war crime, yes, but Speer wasn’t a medic. He was in training to become one. On that day, he was not acting as a medic, but as a combat soldier. (The media unfortunately often gets this one wrong, so no wonder many people think he was a medic.)

4. But Khadr confessed to the charge!

  1. Under torture, yes. Making the confession unreliable. We know that some of the other things Khadr told his interrogators, such as information about Maher Arar, were untrue. (Remember that the Central Park 5 also confessed, yet DNA evidence later proved that they were all innocent.)
  2. As part of a plea deal, fearing he’d face indefinite detention at Guantanamo otherwise. There was no trial. And Khadr is now appealing that conviction.

But at any rate… What Khadr did or didn’t do in Afghanistan is somewhat beside the point, because that’s not what the government compensated him for. It’s for what the Government of Canada did to him—or did not do for him—after he was captured.

Per Here’s what Canada is making amends for in the Omar Khadr case

Canada was complicit in the rights violations Omar Khadr experienced; most notoriously by allowing our intelligence officers to interview him knowing he had been softened up by his U.S. captors through their notorious “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program, a particularly cruel form of mental and physical torture.

That was under the Chrétien Liberal government.

That was then exacerbated by the subsequent Harper Conservative’s government’s refusal to extradite him from Guantanamo. Canada was the only Western country to leave its citizen in place there for years, and the Conservative government fought his release to the bitter end.

And all worsened by the fact that Khadr was 15 was he arrested, after his conscription into al-Qaeda group by his father at age 11. (11!) Canada didn’t consider him old enough to drive, buy cigarettes, vote, get married, or join the army, yet somehow he’s not considered (still today) to have been a child soldier

The Supreme Court of Canada has therefore ruled that his rights were violated.

So, why the persistence in insisting he’s definitely guilty of terrorism and denying that his age at the time should be taken into account? Well, as might surmise from that whole “made him join al-Qaeda at 11” thing), his family really is terrible, as noted in this  great Colby Cosh column:

The intractable problem with Omar Khadr is simply his existence. The politicians who seem to crave (more of) his blood are, in an understandable way, trying to punish the behaviour of his father, and to retroactively abnegate the slack application of dual-citizenship principles that allowed Khadr Sr. to become Canadian while leading a double life as an international terrorist.

But the son is not the father.

In the interviews and documentaries I’ve seen of him, he seems like a remarkably decent man. (If you’re Canadian, or versed with VPNs, you can watch one yourself: http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/omar-khadr-out-of-the-shadows). But that’s beside the point, too.

This is the point:

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