Omar Khadr: what next?

This week Omar Khadr, the lone Canadian at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, pled guilty to a list of crimes he had previously denied. The reversal has drawn discussion on the question of when the defendant lied.

This week Omar Khadr, the lone Canadian at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, pled guilty to a list of crimes he had previously denied. The reversal has drawn discussion on the question of when the defendant lied. Did he falsely maintain his innocence for eight years, or is his confession “a fiction” as his lawyer has claimed?

What we do know is that Khadr made a plea bargain. The details of the deal are not yet public, but clearly he confessed because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in an American military detention centre. That’s not to say he didn’t belong to al Qaida or make explosives or even throw a grenade that killed a soldier, but the coerced confession proves nothing.

After an attack on an al Qaida compound in Afghanistan, US Special Forces picked up Khadr, a 15-year-old who was at death’s door, shattered by American bullets. The compound had been bombarded from the air for hours before the commandos moved in. Khadr, the sole survivor, was taken to Bagram US Air Force base, where he was tortured.

He was first interrogated while lying on a gurney awaiting treatment for his wounds. Later he was confined in “stress positions” of torture, threatened with gang rape, with transportation to worse torture centres, and with dogs. Then they sent him to Guantanamo for more torture, including more stress positions. When he urinated on the floor during one of these tortures, he was used to mop up the mess.

For two years he was denied a lawyer. His rights as a child soldier were ignored. His case has been tried in a military tribunal with no legal validity. All of this has taken place with Canada’s complicity. As other nations requested and received the repatriation of their nationals from Guantanamo, we stood by and watched.

According to the UN protocol on child soldiers, to which the US and Canada are signatories, a nation that captures persons under 18 in a war zone is obliged to provide “all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration,” and in such cases imprisonment, “shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Speaking as a witness for the military prosecution, forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner told Khadr’s sentencing hearing that the defendant has been “marinated in the radical jihadism” of Guantanamo. He went on to paint Khadr as a “rock star” terrorist “full of rage … he’s bitter more than just angry … and he thinks it is everyone’s else’s fault that he is here.”

Welner’s testimony cast doubt on the idea of repatriating Khadr to Canada, because we have no “deradicalization” programs here. Under defence cross-examination, Welner turned out to be a disciple of Nicolai Sennels, a Danish psychologist, and the creator of a failed deradicalization program, whose views on Muslims are no less vile than Hitler’s rantings about Jews.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, Welner’s utter unsuitability to be a witness in any case involving Muslims. What of the issue he raises, that having spent eight years marinating Khadr’s radicalism, the US might be in the process of unloading that time bomb on Canada? It seems not unlikely, despite Welner’s clear bias, that a man who has experienced all that Omar Khadr has lived through might, as a result, be a dangerous enemy of the US, or even of Canada.

How would we go about deradicalizing someone whose radicalism has been fired in such fearsome crucibles as Bagram and Guantanamo, who has lived with the personal experience of torture, illegal detention, and the total abnegation of his human rights for eight years while the country of his birth refused to intervene?

One course we might pursue is to follow the law, to offer Khadr, instead of more prison time, the assistance for psychological recovery and social reintegration to which he was entitled eight years ago.

Let’s go on from there, and stop radicalizing young Muslims all over the world. Let’s respect the human rights of prisoners. Let’s withdraw our support for brutal dictatorships in Muslim countries. Let’s take a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and use our influence to end the siege of Gaza. Let’s insist that President Obama live up to his promise to close Guantanamo. Let’s demand, for all our sacrifice in Afghanistan, something more than the corrupt, violent, misogynist mafia we now support there.

A radical is someone who wants to shake up society all the way to its roots. The best defence against radical extremism is to build a society whose roots are sound, and based on justice. When we stray from those principles, as we do far too often, we invite resistance. Resistance, seen from the other end of the telescope, is called terrorism. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end. Then again, nobody ever asked to be a terrorist.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.