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Guantanamo inmate stirs debate in Canada

Omar Khadr was 15 when detained by the U.S. in Afghanistan. Critics say Ottawa is failing to aid a citizen.

June 24, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — Omar Khadr, 20, is an unlikely poster boy for international justice.

When he was 15, the Canadian landed in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo after allegedly killing an Army medic during fighting in Afghanistan.

His family has been dubbed "the First Family of Terrorism" in Canada: They lived in Osama bin Laden's Afghan compound, and his father reportedly helped channel money to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. Almost every family member has either been killed, wounded, imprisoned or investigated because of suspected terrorist connections.

But for human rights groups, Khadr has become a symbol of what they call the flaws of the U.S. military justice system and Canada's conciliation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Guantanamo detainee: An article in Sunday's Section A about a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reported that the young man, Omar Khadr, is shackled to the floor of his cell in solitary confinement. He is shackled only during meetings in the interview room and during court appearances.

This month, U.S. military commission judges dropped all charges against Khadr, ruling that military tribunals were for "unlawful enemy combatants" and that he, like all other suspects in Guantanamo, was classified only as an "enemy combatant."

The Pentagon says it will appeal the decision, and State Department legal advisor John Bellinger said the U.S. believed international law allows it to hold suspects until the end of the conflict in question, even if they are acquitted.

"That means, innocent or not, he may never get out of there," said Khadr's lawyer, Dennis Edney. "If it were your child, your heart would break."

Critics say that the case's dismissal calls into question the whole legal basis of the tribunals and that Canada should bring Khadr home to be tried. But Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mackay said the government would wait until "the appeal process has been exhausted" before calling for Khadr's release.

Now the case of the boy who has come of age in legal limbo has fueled a debate in Canada about whether the government is putting relations with the United States over its willingness to protect its citizens' rights. The question has evolved from "Is Omar Khadr a terrorist?" to "Why are his rights not worth standing up for?"

"We have raised concerns about Khadr's case for four years, but this trial highlights how flawed, ad hoc and broken this whole process is," said Alex Neve, the secretary-general of Amnesty International in Canada. Neve recently released an open letter calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to intervene, as other countries have. Britain, France and Germany were successful with demands that their citizens and permanent residents be returned to stand trial, and an Australian detainee, David Hicks, was sent home to serve his sentence.

"Canada is generally reluctant to be too harsh or critical in cases like this because we don't want to disturb wider U.S.-Canada relations," Neve said. All Canadians expect their government to ensure their proper treatment if jailed elsewhere, he said, and that includes Khadr. "Canada must make it clear to the U.S. government Omar Khadr must be returned here, where his case will be dealt with fairly."

The letter's signers included two former foreign affairs ministers, 25 current and former members of Parliament, and lawyers, academics and representatives of human rights groups.

"We are aware that, setting aside any of Khadr's own actions, the notoriety of his family makes him unsympathetic in the eyes of some," the letter said. "But it is plainly unjust to punish the son for the sins of the fathers, or to deny a citizen the protection of his government because of the words or deeds of family members."

In a militant compound

After four hours of U.S. bombing of an Al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan in July 2002, there was one person left alive in the rubble, the military says -- Khadr. The 15-year-old, fluent in English, Arabic and the local Pashtun dialect, had been sent by his father to interpret for a senior Al Qaeda official. His mother said he was sent without her knowledge and was with the militants against her wishes.

"He was not there to fight," she said.

But when U.S. troops approached the crumbling wall that shielded him, the military said, Khadr lobbed a grenade, killing Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher J. Speer and wounding Army Sgt. Layne Morris.

American soldiers found Khadr hemorrhaging from three gunshot wounds in the chest and blinded by shrapnel in one eye.

"Kill me," he begged in English, according to the soldiers' accounts. As one American medic lay mortally wounded, another medic saved Khadr's life. After Khadr recovered, he was shipped to Guantanamo to become the first child in modern history to be charged with war crimes.

At the military prison, he is kept in Camp 6, shackled to the floor in deep solitary confinement. His status as a minor did not bring him any special treatment, and though he joined a hunger strike twice to protest harsh treatment, Canada sent officials to check on his welfare only two or three times.

Khadr's lawyer, Edney, said he was shocked when he faced his client in person for the first time, a few weeks ago before the trial, after years of petitioning for a visit.

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