Sunday, July 27, 2008

Canada’s child soldier

I have long meant to write about the Omar Khadr case, but somehow never got around to doing it, perhaps because I didn’t know which angle to approach the subject from. With demonstrations in major Canadian cities planned for this week and after calls by some readers that I tackle the subject, it is perhaps time that I make a few comments. What also prompted me to write about this was the revelation, a few weeks ago, that a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) official had interrogated Khadr at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003. It wasn’t the visit itself that grabbed me, but rather the callousness allegedly displayed by the official as the young Khadr displayed wounds, mental and physical, that bore all the hallmarks of torture. As a former intelligence officer at CSIS, I could not remain indifferent.

First, a bit of history. The Toronto-born son of Ahmed Said Khadr, an alleged al-Qaeda financier, Omar was raised in Afghanistan and in 2002 — then aged 15 — was captured by US forces following a firefight in Ayub Kheyl. Omar has been accused of lobbing a grenade that killed a US soldier, though information subsequently released puts that into doubt and fails to provide any evidence of his involvement. Still, Omar his since been held at Guantanamo Bay — the only Western citizen left at the base and the youngest detainee — on accusations of war crimes and supporting terrorism. Despite the lack of evidence and the uniqueness of the case, the Canadian government has refused to seek his extradition, a decision that has earned Ottawa widespread condemnation from rights activists and many Canadians. (For a full account of the case, readers are encouraged to turn to Michelle Shephard’s Guantanamo’s Child: The untold story of Omar Khadr.)

Three things stand out in the case against Khadr, and all three support the claim that he should, at minimum, be repatriated to Canada.

First, by their nature, military trials are stacked against the defendants and make it nigh impossible for them to challenge the accusations against them. As we have seen, the evidence against Khadr is less than airtight, but absent the means to mount an appropriate defense (to which we can add his young age), Khadr has been unable to make his case — a phenomenon that has become all too frequent in the “war on terrorism,” not only in the US but elsewhere, including Canada (e.g., Security Certificates, or the seventeen individuals arrested in Toronto in 2006).

Second, Khadr was a minor when he was captured and should therefore have been treated as such. By failing to treat him — at the very least — as a child soldier, the US, and by rebound the Canadian government, is violating UN conventions, but has relied on the exceptional clause of “terrorism” — which has no legal basis — to defy international law and the Geneva Convention. A case could also be made that as a result of his upbringing in Afghanistan among sympathizers of al-Qaeda, the young Khadr was not acting of his own free will, or that he had been “brainwashed,” two elements that argue in favor of his being treated as a child soldier rather than a soldier, a militant, a “terrorist,” or a war criminal.

Third is the nature of the accusations against him. Regardless of whether Khadr threw the grenade or not, or participated in battle or not, by international law attacking invading or occupying military forces does not constitute a war crime, nor does it imply supporting terrorism. While countries such as Israel and the US (among others) often refer to attacks against their military as “terrorism” (e.g., Palestinians resisting occupying forces, Hezbollah defending Lebanese territory or Iraqi insurgents targeting US forces), by definition terrorism only applies to indiscriminate use of massive violence against undefended civilian targets to bring about political change. Lobbing a grenade at US special forces obviously does not meet those criterion.

Another element that mitigates against the case is evidence that Khadr has been subjected to torture, which, if true, would break other conventions. Khadr’s best chance in that regard would have been for visiting Canadian officials to raise the matter with their masters in Ottawa. However, based on my previous experience at CSIS, there is little doubt that the officer who interrogated him in 2003 had been desensitized enough by his professional environment (a subject of Smokescreen, my book on CSIS published earlier this year) as to have prevented the empathy needed to raise the matter with CSIS headquarters, Foreign Affairs or the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, a combination of hatred, racism, emotional isolationism and ideological brainwashing likely made it impossible for the agent to care. Cry as he might and profound though his wounds may have been, Khadr was facing an individual who was unable to make the necessary emotional connection. Khadr was the enemy, a case number, a dehumanized being, or “scum,” as I often heard targets referred to.

Sadly, in spite of all these factors, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintains that Ottawa will not request that Khadr be sent back to Canada, where he would have a better chance of getting a fair (or fairer) trial. By failing to do so, the Canadian government is complicit in a series of crimes committed by the US government and gives ammunition to those who argue that Canada should be a target of terrorism. Not only are Canadian troops in Afghanistan becoming increasingly active militarily and therefore seen as occupying forces, or agents of US imperialism, but Ottawa cannot even be bothered to care for its own — especially when the latter are Muslim.

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