‘Dubbed’ – Canada’s problem child
It would be a mistake to think of Omar Khadr as the only figure on trial at Guantanamo Bay this week. His historic trial before a discredited American military tribunal promises to shame not only U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration but also Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s acquiescent Conservative government. And it may well bring the law into disrepute in both countries.
“Canada’s problem child,” as Khadr has been dubbed, is the first enemy combatant to be tried at Gitmo on Obama’s watch. That in itself is sadly ironic. Far from being a key player in the 9/11 attacks on America, he was a marginal child soldier.
Khadr pleaded not guilty Monday to the murder of U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Speer in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 15. At the same time, the judge ruled, to no one’s surprise, that his tainted confessions may be used against him. He faces life in prison.
While few sympathize with the Khadr clan (Omar’s father was an alleged financier for Al Qaeda), civil libertarians are appalled at the political and legal precedents the case sets.
Here in Canada, the Supreme Court has denounced federal officials for violating Khadr’s constitutional rights when they grilled him at Gitmo even though he had no legal counsel and had been deprived of sleep for weeks. Then our officials shared what they unlawfully learned with the Americans. That “offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects,” and continues to contribute to his detention, the court ruled unanimously. Yet Harper has rebuffed calls from opposition parties in Parliament, the Canadian Bar Association and others to ask Washington to ship him home.
Many Americans, meanwhile, regard the Gitmo tribunal itself as a legal travesty. The American Civil Liberties Union calls it “irretrievably defective” and has urged that detainees be tried in regular federal courts where their rights would be respected. Instead, Khadr faces a military judge and jury. Coerced and hearsay evidence is allowed. His defence counsel has no experience handling such cases. Washington wouldn’t dare put a U.S. citizen before such a tribunal.
Finally, the UN children’s agency regards Khadr as a “child soldier.” So do Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and others. Canada and the U.S. are bound under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to treat children who are forced into war as victims themselves. They should get “appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery.” Instead, Khadr has been in U.S. custody, far from family and home, for eight years. That’s longer than he would serve for murder here as a young offender.
In short, Khadr has been cut adrift by his own government, denied rightful status as a child soldier and will be judged by his enemies.
However this case plays out, powerful figures have shown cavalier disregard for a Canadian citizen’s rights, Parliament’s will, and international law. Khadr may be alone in the dock, but judgment will fall on others, too.