Everyone has heard of Omar Khadr. Perhaps you saw him live on television last May when he was released from jail in Edmonton to live with his defence counsel and his wife. Or maybe you saw the CBC Firsthand video “Omar Khadr: Out of the Shadows” aired on television on December 3rd, 2015. If you didn’t, it is available on the internet.
This video is a shortened version of the White Pine Pictures movie entitled “Guantanamo’s Child,” based on the book of the same name by writer Michelle Shephard. The original movie is playing this Sunday, March 13th at 8:45 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with Ms. Shephard available for a Q & A, afterwards. I commend the full-length movie to you. If you don’t see the movie now or at some later date, at least look up the video.
Undoubtedly, you know the outlines of his story. Like me, you probably know that he was only 15 when he was alleged to have killed an American medic in a firefight in Afghanistan. I knew that he had spent a decade at Guantanamo Bay, that he ultimately pleaded guilty to war crimes before an American military tribunal, and was sentenced to eight years prison. I knew that his efforts to return to Canada were opposed by the Canadian government (both Liberal and Conservative), and his lawyers had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to get him returned. I knew that Canadian corrections housed him in an adult maximum security federal penitentiary and his lawyers had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada again to secure his transfer to a more humane facility. Released on bail in May 2015, pending his appeal of his US conviction, the Harper government appealed his bail. The new Liberal government last month dropped that appeal.
If you are anything like me, you know the outlines but don’t know the details. I certainly didn’t when I saw “Guantanamo’s Child” at TIFF in September. The movie was an eye-opener. The movie picks up on the interview outside his lawyer’s home last May, and fills in the context.
It’s the context that counts and which we all need to see and hear. Omar Khadr with his family in Afghanistan before and after 911. Actual pictures of the firefight and the compound where he was found. The evolution of the American soldier assigned to interrogate him for three months at the Bagram military prison outside Kabul. The transfer of the detainees to Guantanamo Bay, and the conditions which prevailed there. The fact that the Canadian government was the only western democracy which declined to repatriate its nationals from Guantanamo. The impressions Khadr made on his fellow detainees, and on the military physicians and senior officers who interacted with him. The difficulties his lawyer had in getting access to him. The nature of the military tribunal and the reasons for his guilty plea. The litany of details goes on. Most chilling is the video of the interview CSIS agents conducted over four days to garner what intelligence they could from him in our name. Never have I been more ashamed of our country.
The context raises all sorts of questions. Khadr was 15 when he was found. At the lowest, he was a found-in, under the influence of his father. At the highest, he was a child soldier. He was so badly injured, yet tortured for what information he could provide, shipped off to Guantanamo, and, apart from an interrogation, abandoned by his country. I left the theatre shaken. How is it that Canada could have been so complicit? And how is it that I, a supposedly well-informed and committed Canadian, had allowed myself to be so complacent about his fate? After all, he was a Canadian citizen, born in Toronto, obviously an extremely intelligent and active adolescent.
Like everyone else, I saw Linden MacIntyre’s CBC interview of Khadr’s mother and sister on television and was appalled by their ideological fervour. Khadr says that “his family has strong feelings” and are not “always intelligent about how they express them.” Did I fall into the fallacy of projecting the sins of the family onto the son? How is it that we could treat a “young person” in a manner so contrary to our values? Hard questions we all need to consider.
Khadr’s story is also the story of genuine legal heroes: defence counsel Dennis Edney, his wife Patricia Edney, and co-counsel Nate Whitling. But for their dedication, diligence and persistence, Omar Khadr would likely still be in Guantanamo today.