A return from Guantanamo

Omar Khadr’s transfer paints neither himself nor the government faultless

Kevin Wiener JD ’15

On New Year’s Day 2008, Stefanie Rengel was brutally murdered outside her home. While the stabbing was carried out by David Bagshaw, the murder was masterminded by his girlfriend Melissa Todorovic, who used sexual blackmail to orchestrate Rengel’s death.

Todorovic was tried, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for seven years.

So what does this have to do with Omar Khadr?

Very little, except for one important number. At the time Todorovic plotted the murder of an innocent, she was 15. That’s the same age that Omar Khadr was when he tossed a grenade at US forces, fatally wounding army medic Christopher Speer.

Of course Khadr also spent time manufacturing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to use against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops and scouting out coalition forces to provide intelligence to terrorist groups.

Where Todorovic was motivated by hatred for a perceived rival, Khadr’s hatred extended to the countries (including his ‘home’ of Canada) that were fighting in Afghanistan, to all things not accepted by the radical ideology in which he was raised.

Now Khadr is back in Canada, less than a thirty minute drive from this very university at Millhaven Institution. And in less than a year he’ll be eligible for release back into Canadian society.

While Todorovic is rightly vilified for her crime, Khadr has been whitewashed. “Omar’s only real crime is that his last name is Khadr,” said one of his defence attorneys.

So what is Khadr — terrorist or victim?

Yes, he was a victim of his father and of his jihadist family. After capture by US forces he was potentially subject to torture and definitely subject to conduct out of line for how we expect Western democracies to treat juvenile offenders. But that’s not to say he shouldn’t have faced justice.

While many point to Canada and America’s obligations regarding child soldiers, there’s nothing in international law that prevents them from being tried when they have committed national or international crimes. The law’s only obligation is to treat them in accordance with the principles of juvenile justice and to attempt to reintegrate them into society.

But while Khadr was a perpetrator in addition to a victim of war crimes, he should never have been kept in Guantanamo Bay. A decade in that base is hardly going to reintegrate anyone, and he should have been handled better by American and Canadian authorities.

It’s certainly easy to imagine an alternate timeline, where Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government requested his repatriation while he was still a minor, and charged him with terrorism offences or at least high treason.

This could have given the government the leverage to force Khadr into rehabilitation in Canada and to subject him to parole requirements for life.

Instead the government sat on their hands for four years, allowing a potentially salvageable teenager to become a hardened twenty-year-old who grew to adulthood among some of the world’s most hardened jihadists. And if that wasn’t enough, they sent Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to conduct interviews of Khadr after he had been subject to intense sleep deprivation.

This violation of his Charter rights under Section 7 virtually ensured that any attempt to bring him to justice in Canada would be tainted.

By the time Chrétien’s successors were elected, the government was left with a no-win situation: ask for a hardened terrorist to be immediately released onto the streets of Canada with no mandatory rehabilitation or parole conditions, or allow Khadr to continue to be subject to American military justice.

Given the mess Chrétien made, Khadr’s plea bargain and prison transfer is probably the best outcome that could have been hoped for.

As a Canadian citizen, his return to Canada was always a matter of when, not if. At least we have between now and the end of his sentence in 2018 for Canada’s correctional system to try to rehabilitate him into a productive member of society; we can only hope that he is as eager to do so as his defence counsel says.

But as Omar Khadr returns to his homeland alive we should remember that Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer never got that chance.

Omar Khadr is a victim but we must not forget that he is also a murderer. His crime was in Afghanistan instead of Toronto, and he was a member of Al Qaeda rather than a mere street gang, but his victim is still just as dead.

I can only hope that like the other murderers locked up in Canada’s prisons, his incarceration brings some measure of closure to the family of his victim.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.