The Khadr case: Does Canada give a damn?

Last month the military tribunal trying Omar Khadr for the 2002 battlefield death of an American soldier in Afghanistan learned that one of the…

Last month the military tribunal trying Omar Khadr for the 2002 battlefield death of an American soldier in Afghanistan learned that one of the Canadian youth’s interrogators was Sergeant Joshua Claus.

In 2005, Claus pled guilty to charges of assault and maltreatment of prisoners at the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility.

The offences occurred just at the time Khadr was there, in 2002. The maltreatment in question included hanging prisoners up by the arms and beating them, sometimes for days at a stretch.

Among the many subjected to this torture were two men, Habibullah and Dilawar, who were hung and beaten till they died.

It was at the hands of Claus and others like him that Khadr confessed to the murder of Sergeant Christopher Speers. He has always maintained that this confession was obtained under torture, and that it is false. He denies throwing the grenade that killed Speers.

Khadr’s story of torture is inhuman, but it fits all too well with the pattern established in the trial of Claus and the other Bagram scapegoats.

Khadr, at the time a 15-year-old Canadian youth, was in an al-Qaeda compound that was attacked by US Special Forces in July of 2002.

Mortally wounded after he was shot twice in the back, he was carried to Bagram Theatre Internment Facility, where his interrogation began almost immediately.

While in treatment for his wounds, he was repeatedly wheeled into the interrogation room on his stretcher, still in great pain.

He was denied pain medication, hung up by the arms, had a bag put over his head, cold water thrown over him, was made to work hauling water and scrubbing floors while his wounds still bled, and left chained up till he soiled himself.

Khadr’s torture continued after he was taken to Guantanamo Bay. There he reports having his hair pulled out, being spat on, beaten, and shackled in “stress positions” for hours at a time.

He’s spent long stretches in solitary confinement and been prevented from saying his prayers.

Examined by a psychiatrist, he’s been diagnosed with the kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that’s common in victims of torture.

Documents brought forward by Khadr’s lawyers demonstrate that the military doctored a key report on the July 2002 firefight that ended in Speer’s death.

The original, written by the local commander, says that the fighter who threw the grenade died. It was later revised to say that US forces had “engaged” him.

The case against Khadr was always flimsy.

By international law he was a child soldier in 2002, and should never have been held even as a prisoner of war, let alone as a human-right-less “unlawful enemy combatant.”

Under the Geneva Conventions he had the right to as brief a detention as possible in a youth facility, followed by speedy rehabilitation to civilian life.

Canada’s part in Khadr’s story has been ignominious and craven from the start. We are now on our third prime minister since the Toronto-born teen was captured, and we’re still the only Western nation not to demand the release of its citizens from Guantanamo.

That the only Canadian there is also the only juvenile still in the prison compounds our shame.

Omar Khadr grew up in a fanatically, violently, anti-American family, and was indoctrinated at an early age into what we now call terrorism. To many Canadians he represents the enemy.

But the Geneva Conventions don’t call on us to respect only the rights of our friends. Whatever Khadr did, he has rights, and the US has been trampling on those rights for the past six years.

Khadr is on trial for what the US alleges are war crimes, but the evidence of its own soldiers seems to suggest that it was they who should be on trial.

One officer’s report describes his men summarily executing one fighter, and coming very close to doing the same for Khadr. Nothing in the reports describe Khadr committing any crime.

Even if there was evidence of Khadr’s guilt, there’s no excuse for the way he’s been treated.

The Law Society of England and Wales and four more top UK law societies have called on Canada to intercede on the youth’s behalf, as have Canadian law groups, human rights organizations, and all three opposition parties.

France has demanded his release.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists Khadr is being given “due process,” and refuses to get involved.

Only one thing can change Harper’s mind and that’s a significant public outcry. If ever there was a case that called for letters, e-mails and phone calls to the prime minister, this is it.

As Canadians we can demonstrate our respect for human rights by demanding Khadr’s release, or we can stay the course of the past six years, and prove we don’t give a damn.

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