These were no easy words to say to a man who had been held by the U.S. in Guantanamo and then in jail in Canada for 13 long years.
With 15, Omar Khadr, a Toronto born Canadian boy, whose militant father had taken him to Afghanistan, became the victim of the atrocities that began with the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and continued with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, where more than 50,000 Afghans were arrested and thrown in jail, many dragged under inhumane conditions to the notorious camp at Guantanamo Bay only to be tortured and robbed of all legal rights.
In Afghanistan the U.S. waged a fierce war against anyone they considered to be in bed with Al-Qaeda. A compound one day in July 2002 seemed suspicious and the U.S. forces attacked it with power. When the dust settled, two were left dead on the Afghani side and one U.S. soldier was seriously injured and would die a week later. In the rubble of the totally destroyed building the U.S. forces found a 15 year old boy that they shot in the back and wounded so horrifically that the soldier bending over the bloodied body suggested shooting him dead. At the last moment though an officer held him back, and Omar Khadr, with gaping wounds in his chest and an eye shattered by shrapnel, was carried off to Bagram Air Base.
What followed was little medical care but continuous interrogations, intimidations, torture and even threats of rape of the boy who was shackled for weeks to his hospital stretcher while his pleas and his tears were ignored. Three months later, though nothing of value had been extracted, the child, hooded and shackled and still in pain from his wounds, was flown to Guantanamo Bay to become the youngest inmate this notorious stain on humanity had ever seen. More torture followed, totally disregarding the fact, that Omar Khadr was a child and subjecting him to torture and solitary confinement for years was a violation of all international laws. But the U.S. under George W. Bush had no respect for international law and Omar Khadr suffered immensely. For two years the boy was not even allowed to see a lawyer.
Canada, though obliged to intervene on behalf of its child citizen, did not object. On the contrary. In 2003 and 2004 Canada sent Security Intelligence Officers (CSIS) to Guantanamo who – despite knowing the child had been deliberately sleep deprived for three weeks – interrogated him in the most vile manner for days, thus collaborating with the U.S. in the torture of the boy.
A harrowing video documentary of the Canadian officers cold-hearted 4 day long interrogation marathon of the dead tired boy later shocked the world and proved, what Canada's Supreme Court would officially confirm: the unlawfulness of the Canadian officers' treatment of the child.
Despite all this, Canada, especially since under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, refused to show any responsibility or empathy for the boy. Omar Khadr was left under harshest conditions to himself in Guantanamo Bay – but for two immensely dedicated lawyers named Dennis Edney and Nate Whitling from Edmonton. Edney had been called to help defend the Canadian boy in the U.S. military trial that was to be held in Guantanamo, accusing Khadr of killing the one U.S. soldier at the compound by throwing a hand grenade just before being struck down by U.S. fire. Proof for this allegation is lacking to this day as it was revealed in 2008 that no one had seen him throw the grenade while the U.S. forces threw grenades into the compound at the time the U.S. soldier was inside. But the narrative conveniently became the official tale told by both the U.S. and Canada to defend the gross human rights violations against this horrifically wounded child.
When Edney first flew into Guantanamo in 2007, he later said, he arrived as a naive, cocky lawyer exited to be one of few to be able to visit there. When, after having paid many visits to the boy – shackled to the floor, sitting handcuffed, shivering in a cold concrete cell, crying – he left the island, he admits, he was in shock. "Guantanamo changed me forever."
It was then that Edney made a promise not to desert the child that had been deserted by the adults of both the U.S. and Canada.
Blackmailed into confession
In 2010, after having spent eight gruesome years in the camp, subjected to incredibly inhumane treatment, the U.S. military made it clear to Khadr that the only way for him to ever leave Guantanamo Bay was by pleading guilty to the murder of the U.S. soldier. A deal would then be struck for Khadr to be deported to Canada, where he should spend another 8 years in jail. It was a hard decision to take but, as Khadr later acknowledged, the only way to ever leave the notorious torture camp. Khadr in the end accepted and pleaded guilty. The U.S. military triumphed. Without proving his guilt beyond reasonable doubt but through sheer blackmail, threatening him to rot forever in Guantanamo Bay, they had achieved their goal – a guilty verdict.
At least they kept their part of the deal and prepared for Khadr to be deported to Canada. But Canada's conservative Harper government showed no mercy and kept stalling the transfer of its own citizen to his home country despite the urgings of Amnesty International, UNICEF, the Canadian Bar Association and other prominent organisations, until finally, in 2012, even Harper could no longer refuse and Khadr was transported to Ontario, where he was held at a maximum-security prison. Later, because of his good conduct and the legal fight by his lawyers, he was transferred to the medium-security Bowden institution in Alberta, where he was held ever since.
With the Canadian government not shy in continuously slandering the former child as a 'jihadist terrorist' who had committed a 'heinous crime', the Canadian public in its majority was hostile towards Omar Khadr. And Harper made sure this was not going to change by Canadians getting to know any truth. A media gag was decided such that no journalist was allowed to interview the former Guantanamo inmate. Ridiculous reasons of security issues or fears of disruption of daily routine at the institution were cited year in and year out to keep the press at bay.
And while the Harper government kept painting Omar Khadr as a horribly vile, aggressive terrorist threatening Canada's security at any given opportunity, the man attacked was refused even the slightest chance to present himself or his side to the story to the Canadian public. To them Harper vowed that his government would ensure that Khadr would not leave prison one single day earlier than the sentence stipulated, for a terrorist had to be punished with full force of the law for his evil deeds.
That Omar Khadr was but a 15 year old boy at the time the U.S. attacked the compound and that compassion and empathy for this horrifically wounded child would have been obligatory, to Harper was irrelevant. No considerations of international laws how to treat minors involved in an armed conflict ever made it into the minds or hearts of the government officials in Ottawa. To Harper and his conservative colleagues Khadr was the ideal boogieman to present to the Canadian public – never in person but always in fear mongering narratives – as proof that only a hard hand against Muslim terrorists would ensure the safety of the country. And since no one ever got to see this young man in person, the public in large parts was willing to buy Harper's story. They developed a picture of Khadr in their heads bigger than life, of a ruthless terrorist who would kill every decent Canadian on sight the very minute anyone would let him out of the cage.
The fight for freedom and truth
But many of the press would not buy it. The fact that no journalist was allowed to ever speak to Khadr rightfully made the media suspicious. What exactly was Harper trying to hide from the public eye? Stories were increasingly coming out of Bowden institution by citizens who had met Omar Khadr on visits, and their tales sounded very different to the one the government kept telling. They spoke of a mild-mannered, friendly young man, keen on learning and listening and discussing all sorts of aspects of normal life. No aggression was ever witnessed, nor extreme ideas or political agitation. Those who met Omar Khadr at Bowden started to become immensely fond of him, started to help him with his urgent need to be educated and enjoyed the pleasure, as they could not tire to point out, of the company of a very friendly, kind-hearted young man. A web-site of support and a twitter account demanding his freedom sprung up and hundreds send him letters from Canada and even the rest of the world, urging him not to lose hope despite all he had to endure.
In November 2013 Edmonton lawyers Dennis Edney and Nate Whitling filed an appeal against the U.S. military verdict of guilt, stating that Omar Khadr had only agreed to the deal as it was his only way to escape the gruesome conditions of Guantanamo Bay, a detention centre, as everyone agreed, outside the realm of law. Such a deal was unlawful.
In the beginning of 2015 the lawyers filed an appeal to release Omar Khadr on bail, as it could be seen, that given the snail’s pace of the proceedings, his appeal, though with realistic hopes of success, would not be dealt with by the U.S. military court before his jail sentence would have ended. This would mean years still in prison that later – once his appeal would be successful – could not be undone.
On the basis of this argumentation, on March 24 and 25, a judge in Edmonton court heard the arguments of the lawyers and the counter-arguments of the Harper government regarding a release of Omar Khadr on bail.
On April 24, Justice June Ross released her carefully crafted ruling, noting that the former Guantanamo inmate had “12 1⁄2 year track record as a model prisoner", arguing that no indication existed that Omar Khadr posed a threat to the Canadian public – and that the Harper government had failed to even attempt to prove otherwise. – Khadr was to be freed on bail.
To no one's surprise the government filed an appeal against this ruling with Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney's spokesperson handing out the well known mantra, that Khadr had admitted to a 'heinous crime' and that the government would "vigorously defend against any attempt to lessen his punishment for these crimes.” Minister Steven Blaney added more ludicrous acid in a statement: “Our Government will continue to work to combat the international jihadi movement, which has declared war on Canada and her allies."
When and were exactly Omar Khadr had declared war on his home country Canada, he failed to explain.
Finally coming free
On May 7, the day everyone had waited for for so long had finally come. In the Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby came to a ruling on the appeal by the government of Canada in the matter of bail for Omar Khadr. Again the court pointed out that no danger could be seen coming from the defendant and that the government had totally failed on showing how his release could pose a threat to the Canadian public. Under the conditions laid out for a release on bail – wearing a tracking bracelet, living with lawyer Edney and his wife, respecting a curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 p.m., enjoying only a restricted access to the internet and conversing with his family only via telephone and under supervision – the judge saw no reason to accept the appeal. Pointing out that this case was undoubtedly unusual, she said the magic words everyone hoped to hear after 13 years of incarceration: "Mr. Khadr, you're free to go."
Lawyer Edney hugged his wife Patricia, who cried with joy, in the gallery people were clapping, laughing and crying – and when Edney walked over to Omar Khadr who sat almost motionless in the dock not able to grasp that it really had happened, his lawyer, after being undeterred and never willing to give up on hope for justice in eleven long years of battle, reached out his hand and said: "We've done it."
Hours later, in the early evening of the day when all the papers had been signed and the truth started to sink in, Omar Khadr gave a brief press conference on the lawn of lawyer Edney's home. Flanked by both Dennis and Patricia Edney, his invaluable guardians throughout this unbelievable ordeal, Khadr charmed the stunned public by being just the way his friends had described him: soft-spoken, friendly, well-mannered, considerate and kindhearted. The boogieman the Harper government had painted on the wall for so many years evaporated as a terrible lie into thin air within minutes of him speaking for the first time ever to journalists and in freedom. Canadians glued to their TV-screens rubbed their eyes in disbelief on seeing not a demon but a young man free of hate or bitterness or aggression and full of compassion and empathy and with a smile so sympathetic to win them over.
And instead of uttering accusations or bitter complaints, this young man actually thanked them for any kindness they had shown and asked them to give him a chance, assuring them that he would not fail them.
When asked if he had anything to say to Prime Minister Harper, the man who had hunted and haunted him for so long without any reasonable justification, Omar Khadr bore a shy smile, contemplated on this for a moment and then said humbly but with self-confidence: "Well, I'm going to have to disappoint him. I'm better than the person he thinks I am."
The next day, Prime Minister Harper at a press conference expressed just that – his disappointment – that Omar Khadr had come free.
Some things – and evilness – just never change.
The Battle is not over
Upcoming court challenges that must be fought:
May you win, Omar. May you win in every possible way.