What a despairing week at Guantánamo Bay, watching Omar Khadr journey through the last layers of military injustice he has been trapped within for many years.
In a stunningly punitive final gesture, a military jury recommended he receive a staggering 40 year prison sentence. Their conclusion ended up little more than symbolic legal fiction, however. In the end he will serve an 8-year term agreed to earlier in a plea deal, on top of the eight years he has already spent locked up, awaiting trial. The first year must be served at Guantánamo; after which the Canadian government has promised the US government they would be “inclined” to favourably consider an application from him for transfer back to Canada for the balance of the sentence. Not the firmest of promises; but all they were prepared to offer.
Walking away from this sorry spectacle all I keep thinking is that at the end of the day, nobody has won.
Certainly Omar Khadr has not won. He has been dragged through a blatantly unfair trial process, during the final days of which he agreed to plead guilty. It is a process that refused at every turn to give serious attention to various pressing human rights concerns. The fact that when he was arrested he was a 15-year old child, pushed into a world of extremism and violence by his fanatical father, has been ignored. Both the US and Canadian governments have gone out of their way to pretend that binding international human rights standards dealing with the protection and rehabilitation of child soldiers are not relevant at all.
Equally, grave concerns about how Omar Khadr was treated by US officials, particularly in the early days of his imprisonment, have been consistently swept under the carpet. Call it what you may – torture, ill-treatment, threats, duress – Omar Khadr’s case powerfully demonstrates that the military commission process is not prepared to ensure that such criminal acts are firmly rejected during trials and vigorously investigated and prosecuted outside the courtroom.
Those individuals who suffered personal loss or injury as a result of the July 27th 2002 firefight at the heart of his case have also not won. Fair trials matter for many reasons. An accused’s rights must be protected, to avoid miscarriages of justice. Fair trials also allow anyone with a direct interest to have confidence that the outcome reflects the truth and is appropriate. Given everything stacked against Omar Khadr it was perhaps ultimately not surprising that he chose to plead guilty to find his way out of Guantánamo. Sadly, it leaves little confidence that the guilty plea represents anything more than an escape from injustice.
Security has certainly been no big winner. Is the world a safer place because we have locked up a young man whose domineering father propelled him into a world of extremism when he was nine years of age? Who ultimately found himself in the middle of a war, as a 15-year old, during which he says he threw a grenade that killed a US soldier? A young man in whom many see real potential for rehabilitation?
Seems a stretch.
Which suggests that the US taxpayer has been no winner either. It would be hard to affix a price tag to eight years of detention and prosecution of Omar Khadr, but it would certainly run to many millions of dollars. Even a very small fraction of that would have gone far in providing the treatment and reintegration he deserved as a child soldier.
The rule of law is a clear loser. Omar Khadr has been convicted of war crimes, on the basis of legal definitions hastily rewritten by the US government following September 11th. Numerous legal scholars insist there is no legal basis for characterizing what Omar Khadr has been convicted of to be war crimes. But that important legal question remains unaddressed, given the guilty plea.
Finally, Canada’s reputation as a global human rights leader has taken a big hit. Right up to the very end the determination of the Canadian government to appear unconcerned was stunning. Last minute interventions from two UN human rights experts, including the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, calling for Canada to intervene on Omar Khadr’s behalf, went unheeded.
In the aftermath of our bruising loss in UN Security Council elections last month, and the many questions since about Canada’s deteriorating global reputation as a human rights champion, the time was ripe for a principled Canadian stand in Omar Khadr’s case. But the government remained defiantly unwilling to go there.
What now? Omar Khadr has another year to spend in GuantánamoBay. Then, almost certainly, he will seek return to Canada. Prime Minister Harper should instruct his officials to start working with Omar Khadr’s lawyers – now – to ensure that will go ahead in a manner that, finally, gives full regard to his rights.
Alex Neve is the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. He was at Guantánamo Bay to observe Omar Khadr’s sentencing hearing last week.