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A 10-year human rights travesty: Omar Khadr’s release from Guantanamo is the least that can be done

By in Opinions

Canadian citizen Omar Khadr has been in jail since he was 15. He is now 25.

But Khadr is not in a typical jail, and he is not a typical criminal — if such a thing exists. Khadr is in the controversial American Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. He has been there since 2002, when he was accused of throwing a grenade at an American soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan, though evidence discovered since his capture suggests that he may not have been the one to throw it.

Khadr’s name is once again in the news, this time because he is potentially about to be released into Canadian custody to serve the remainder of his sentence. As in any case that goes on as long as his has, the more complicated and damning aspects have largely been forgotten.

As much as possible, we must not forget what has happened. We must bring Omar Khadr back to Canada.

The grounds on which Khadr was imprisoned are dubious at best. Just 15 at the time of the battle that led to his apprehension, Khadr qualified as a child soldier. Both international law and decades of precedent make it clear that child soldiers should not be prosecuted.

In 2010, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy said this about Khadr’s case: “Child soldiers must be treated primarily as victims and alternative procedures should be in place aimed at rehabilitation or restorative justice.”

Khadr, who has been incarcerated in Guantanamo for the last 10 years, has not been afforded the relative luxury of rehabilitative justice. He has instead, according to his lawyers, been subject to torture and coercion during his imprisonment, and this torture led to confessions American officials used in extracting a plea agreement from him. Neither has he been exempted from war crimes proceedings. This makes Khadr the first child soldier prosecuted since World War II.

There have been so many abuses of human rights and justice in Khadr’s case that any judge hearing this as a normal criminal proceeding would have no choice but to throw it out. Many national security proponents, however, argue that this is not a normal case, that it involves a terrorist and that Khadr should be tried regardless of his age.

This is obviously what the Bush and Obama administrations felt, since they pursued charges and proceedings against Khadr. Little is known about what took place during the military commission that heard Khadr’s case and sentenced him. Aside from an edited transcript of Khadr’s courtroom statements that was published by the Toronto Star in 2010, most of the case happened outside the public eye. What is known is that Khadr pled guilty to five war crimes in exchange for an eight-year sentence.

Now that those proceedings have come to a close, the absolute least that could be accorded Khadr would be to respect the terms of his plea agreement.

The plea agreement, signed last year, called for Khadr to be returned to Canada for the last seven of his eight-year sentence.

Now even U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is ready to release him. The last remaining obstacle between Khadr and some semblance of justice is the Canadian government, which a recent Canadian Press article alleges is in no rush to treat him any better than the American government has.

“Ottawa has been scrutinizing the application far more closely than required, looking at issues such as his parole eligibility, which would essentially be almost immediate,” the article says.

For someone as young as he is, Khadr has endured a lifetime of abuse already. It is time to do the bare minimum to ease his suffering: allow him to see his family, to serve out his sentence in Canada in a jail subject to oversight and regulation.

Graphic: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf

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