““Guantanamo should be closed … there is a taint about it.” That was U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to American lawmakers just a few days ago about the infamous military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 385 alleged terrorists are being held. He is right. The “military commission” trials being held at “Gitmo” are a travesty of justice that sully America’s image and discredit its war on terror.The American Civil Liberties Union calls the military trials “a mockery, no better than a kangaroo court.” And the Democrat-led Congress is considering a bill to reverse a law passed last year by Congress when it was led by the Republicans that stripped away the right that detainees had to contest their incarceration in regular U.S. courts.
Yet even as Americans themselves recoil at the abusive system Washington created to deal with “enemy combatants,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government remains publicly indifferent to the fate of the only Canadian detainee, Omar Khadr, at that very system’s hands.
Now 20 years old, Khadr has been held since he was 15. He may soon face a renewed murder charge before a military commission for killing Sgt. Christopher Speer during a firefight between Al Qaeda and U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002. Because the U.S. Supreme Court last year found the previous military process to be unlawful, the charges were quashed. Now, under a rejigged process, they may be reinstated. Khadr faces a maximum sentence of life in prison with no parole.
The trial this week of Australian David Hicks, another detainee held for five years, showed just how shabby the Guantanamo process is. Hicks pleaded guilty to supporting terror and drew nine months, to be served back home. In exchange, prosecutors extracted a statement from Hicks that he had not been subjected to “illegal” treatment, had him waive his right to sue for damages and imposed a one-year gag order not to talk about his detention. Why were military prosecutors so eager to restrain Hicks in so many ways? To insulate themselves from claims of abuse?
Khadr can expect nothing like a Canadian standard of justice if he is put before a military commission. True, he belongs to a notorious family that supported Al Qaeda. But, like every accused, he should have due process.
Khadr was a 15-year-old “child soldier” under his parents’ authority when he allegedly hurled the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer. He has now spent nearly five years in harsh conditions, locked up with adults. Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act sets a maximum six years in custody for first degree, planned and deliberate murder, and four years for second degree. By our standards, Khadr has done ample time even if he were found guilty. Releasing him into Canadian custody, with a bond to keep the peace, should not shock the American public conscience.
Ottawa’s failure to publicly press that case is hard to accept. While Sgt. Speer’s death should not to be lightly written off, without even being convicted Khadr has served what would be a heavy sentence here.
If the U.S. insists on a trial hoping to get a conviction, Ottawa should argue that it be conducted in a regular court, not a military commission. Sentencing, too, should take into account the chaotic firefight, Khadr’s upbringing and his detention. Also, he should serve any sentence here.
But Ottawa can and should make a strong case that Khadr be released. Given Canada’s military role in Afghanistan, we deserve a hearing.
Last June, Bush himself told reporters, “I’d like to close Guantanamo.” Ottawa should offer to help do just that, by taking Khadr off his hands.”