Omar Khadr was a Canadian kid caught in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. He was captured by the US and tortured at Bagram and Guantanamo for ten years. Eventually, he signed a plea deal admitting guilt in killing Special Forces Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer during the battle. He continues his legal saga in solitary confinement in Canada.
Omar was not supposed to be in the compound on the day he was injured. A family acquaintance had taken 15 year old Omar with him as a translator as he was fluent in four languages. According to multiple sources close to him, Omar says he was the first person wounded in the attack on the compound he was in. He says the others carried him to shelter throughout the hours of fighting until he was shot twice in the back. He survived so long because he was not in the active fighting.
His story, the only firsthand account possible, still has not been heard by the Canadian public or Canadian courts. It can’t be heard at this point because if he says he didn’t throw the grenade the parole board will say he is not taking responsibility for his actions. If he talks about his captivity, the US military will call it recidivism as they have in the past when Guantanamo victims were released and spoke about their experiences.
At Guantanamo, his conversations with other captives, guards and even his lawyers were strictly controlled. His defence counsel Dennis Edney says he was repeatedly dragged off to a cell by guards simply for asking his client “What’s wrong?” Edney was accompanied to the washroom by guards and if he had been discovered smuggling news to Omar (which he did) he would have faced thirty years in a US prison himself. Omar’s counsel were even prevented from playing dominos and chess during counsel visits. “There was no attorney – client privilege,” says Edney.
Omar refused for eight years to sign a plea deal confessing his guilt to a crime he says he did not commit as he told Edney repeatedly, “What would Canadians think of me?” Edney says he did everything he could to convince Omar to take the plea deal for eight additional years as he was never going to get a fair trial. Omar’s previous US military counsel Colby Vokey said in 2007 he would encourage Khadr to plead guilty to the “JFK assassination,” if it meant he could go home.
Omar told Edney during the August 2010 Guantanamo commission trial, “We’re embarrassing ourselves by being here.” He boycotted the proceedings in July, saying “How can I ask for justice from a process that does not have it or offer it?” Videos of Omar’s interrogation in a documentary by the same name show him telling his captors, “You don’t like the truth.”
“The whole trial system is a sham. There was a complete lack of due process. It is disturbing and embarrassing what is going on down there,” said Colby.
“But let’s face it, this is all about politics,” said Former Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis. By Davis’s account Jim Haynes, the man who oversaw the tribunal process, told him, “Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. We’ve been holding these guys for years. How are we going to explain that? We can’t have acquittals. We’ve got to have convictions.”
“The compound could not be secured as there were other Taliban around”
When Omar was captured, we were first told he had killed a US ‘medic’ and he was the only one still alive to do so. This would have been a real war crime under the Geneva Conventions, if it had been done knowingly, the medic was wearing clear insignia and the medic was not active in combat. We know Christopher Speer was an elite commando and a member of the 19th Special Forces Group. The Guantanamo Commission witness known only as OC-1, a member of Speer’s unit, testified that training as a medic was a standard part of the training of the elite Special Forces unit which all members went through. They did not act as medics.
Edney described the testimony of OC-1 to me. “He told the judge, the firefight is what he would refer to as a clusterfuck. He enters the compound, shoots one man in the head, sees Omar with his back to him and facing a wall – Omar is screaming from his injuries from the bombing – and OC-1 shoots him twice in the back. OC-1 then exits the alley. In doing so he hears a grenade being thrown. He does not see who threw it. What is also significant is that he orders everyone to leave the compound as it could not be secured as there were other Taliban around – meaning other individuals could have thrown the grenade.”
From OC-1’s verbal account of not being able to secure the area, it is apparent there were far more people than just Omar still alive and capable of throwing grenades at that point. In 2008 the US military accidentally gave a room full of reporters the original report filed from OC-1 which, while leaving out the testimony of a grenade being thrown after Omar was shot, showed that the US military had falsified the official report and the other man beside him was still alive. There was also forensic wound analysis on US Special Forces Sergeant Speer that indicated friendly fire from a US grenade and OC-1’s report and testimony confirm the US was throwing grenades at the time Speer was killed.
OC-1 also testified that his actions in the compound were completed in under a minute. Quite a feat if he had been a medic.
OC-1 testified that Sergeant Layne Morris was injured by pebbles spitting back from the rock wall they were stationed behind. Morris himself said “I thought, dang, my rifle just exploded on me.” Morris successfully sued Omar’s father for damages of $102.6 million in 2006, along with Speer’s widow. He claimed he was partially blinded in one eye by shrapnel from the grenade which killed Speer even though he was airlifted out with a bleeding nose hours before Speer was killed. Morris retired at 40 and has since been a media favourite for providing testimony against Omar, a child and man he never met.
Omar’s cellmate Omar Deghayes had his eye gouged out by a Guantanamo guard during an interrogation, but has never received compensation. Neither has Omar ever received compensation for his ongoing injuries.
“Our definition of sexy was something like Khadr.”
Information on Omar’s case has been kept under intense lockdown since he was captured. He was not allowed to speak to his family for five years. He did not have even a US military lawyer for over two years. When he did talk to his family, a Foreign Affairs official had to be present and ensure “Absolutely NO ATTORNEYS can be present or the call will be refused.” The calls had to be in English despite other detainees being allowed to speak in Arabic. He was forbidden a pen in his room when other detainees were allowed them.
The leaked Guantanamo files showed us in the first line of Omar’s file that the primary interest the US had in him was they didn’t like his dad’s friend. Osama bin Laden was an acquaintance of Omar’s dad from back in the days when the US considered bin Laden a ‘good guy’, when al Qaeda were backed by the US to fight the Russians. Omar’s continued detention was recommended as “Detainee continues to provide valuable information on his father’s associates.”
In 2003, the year after Omar’s capture, Canada suddenly acquired a Ministry of Public Safety which appears to trump both the Canadian courts and the Ministry of Justice in issuing decrees over Omar’s future. We probably should ask how we are ensuring public safety now if not through justice.
This Orwellian Ministry was not much help when a Canadian murdered and ate someone, posted a video of it to our heavily surveilled Internet and then passed through four heavily surveilled international airports before being caught by a German citizen. The Ministry is however, interrupting our prison systems with an unprecedented order stopping Omar from speaking to reporters, overriding our parole boards with statements on Omar’s ineligibility for parole and vowing to fight ‘vigorously’ any attempt to move Omar from solitary confinement in federal prison. The Ministry has also made a statement that sounds very much like it would not recognize a successful appeal by Omar in a US appeal court, despite the fact that they recognized his conviction by a Guantanamo commission. In case the message wasn’t clear, Prime Minister Harper echoed the Minister’s warnings on the day of Omar’s hearing to be transferred to a provincial prison in what can only be seen as attempted political interference in the judicial system.
The Canadian government has appealed Omar’s right to see the evidence against him all the way up to the Supreme Court. They refused to allow his interrogation videos to be released because Canadians might have “paroxysms of moral outrage, a Canadian specialty.” The Minister of Public Safety demanded Omar’s psychiatrist interviews from the US but refused to release them. Someone leaked them for us. After all the legal battles we still have seen only about fourteen pages of the thousands Canada has in his interrogation file. Considering what has already been revealed, Canadians really need to see what else is in there.
Canada, unlike every other western country, refused to request repatriation or humane treatment of their citizen. They were offered the opportunity to try Omar in a Canadian court and they refused because they said he would never be convicted in a Canadian court. This we learned from the US state cables (thank you, Chelsea Manning).
The US was left with the task of inventing a court and some crimes to apply retroactively. They destroyed evidence, disallowed defence witnesses, used evidence obtained under torture and hired the best discredited witness money could buy. All of this to get Omar labeled with a guilty verdict and out of Guantanamo as the only person charged with murder despite the 6,735 US military killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Five years after Omar’s capture, the first incarnation of the Guantanamo trials began. Omar was selected, out of all the possible contenders, to represent the so-called ‘worst of the worst’ at Guantanamo and stand trial. There was no question his case would have appeal, Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis said. “Our definition of sexy was something like Khadr. People understand murder.”
Most people didn’t understand it wasn’t a real murder charge, which would have been tried in a civilian court. Murder is unlawful killing; in war it is legal, protected as “combatant’s privilege.” Most people’s sex lives don’t involve trying a tortured child on a trumped up charge that carried the death penalty either.
Khadr’s case appeared personal for some members of the US military and not just from loyalty to their own. The persistent rumours (and evidence) of Speer’s death by friendly fire may have contributed to the need for deflection, but the highly sympathetic presence of his widow was another definite factor. She had spent the trial period in close social contact with all members of the jury, a fact mentioned by most in attendance but not reported in the news. She also gave lengthy testimony at his trial on the impact of Speer’s death on her family, referring to Omar as forever a murderer and “someone who is so unworthy”. Most observers described the testimony as “heart wrenching” or similar and it received extensive media coverage.
There was also lengthy victim impact testimony from members of the US military, referred to by Canada’s media as “warrior brothers of the U.S. soldier killed by Mr. Khadr.” In the end, the jury sentenced Omar to forty years on top of the eight he had already served without knowing he had signed a plea deal. For a sentence greater than ten years, six of the seven jurors must have agreed to it. Speer’s widow gave a fist pumping cheer when she heard the sentence, which was fifteen years more than the prosecution had asked for. The Speer family have been the beneficiaries of several fundraising campaigns since the trial.
“Serious legal consequences”
In 2011, Edney, Omar’s most outspoken advocate and legal counsel, was planning on bringing a challenge to Omar’s verdict. In April 2011 we had a taped conversation which we agreed to resume when he returned from seeing Omar at Guantanamo. Edney was concerned that if the full information in the interview was printed at that time, he would not be allowed on the plane to Guantanamo as had happened in the past. When he returned from Guantanamo he was fired by Omar, who told several sources he was given misinformation to encourage him to do so. Omar’s new counsel had a gag order on Edney.
Those new lawyers took five and a half months past the date Omar was eligible for transfer to file an application for Ottawa to transfer him and another three months to ask for a review of the delay in transferring. On July 3, 2012, two of my full taped conversations with Edney were leaked to the online website Cryptome. Within minutes of Cryptome posting the link on Twitter, I received an email asking me to phone Omar’s new counsel. This efficiency and speed from the firm that brought Omar home eleven months late was breathtaking.
When I spoke to counsel Brydie Bethell she demanded repeatedly to know who had authorized the leak, apparently not being familiar with the nature of leaks. She stated that both Edney and I could face “serious legal consequences”, presumably for having a conversation about Omar over a year earlier, long before Edney’s gag order. She said it would “hurt Omar’s cause” if I were to speak of his case, and that I “certainly wasn’t entitled” to know how it could.
This has been a typical reaction from many officially mandated to help Omar’s case. With a few notable exceptions, the advice is for all concerned to sit down, shut up, and let ‘justice’ run its tedious course. Most of our politicians, media and NGO’s have obediently complied for over eleven years.
Omar went on a hunger strike in Guantanamo to protest the lack of progress in his transfer, according to several sources close to him. If he hadn’t, and the US had not continued to pressure Canada, there is no reason to believe he would be in Canada today. He re-hired Edney when he was brought home.
“A right-wing terrorist group”
Most people consider Sun media and the Toronto Star to be the extreme ends of the spectrum of Canadian media coverage on Omar with everyone else falling between. If that were true (and it largely is) a decade long faux debate over Omar’s return is being used to drum the identical very narrow negative message about Omar from every outlet. Even the debate itself is interesting, with outlets from the Sun to state media CBC inferring that media polls are the method we use to decide citizenship rights in Canada.
The Free Omar Khadr campaign has started a spreadsheet charting coverage of Omar Khadr for the last eleven years. The spreadsheet so far includes all of the Star coverage since the trial week, beginning in October 25, 2010.
I wrote in July 2012: “The ‘trial’ was held with the most widely derided court and procedures since the Salem witch trials and a newly created ‘military commission’ instead of either of the two legitimate US courts (civilian or military), but the word ‘convicted’ occurs uncontested 34 times in 24 articles. The crimes Omar Khadr was charged with include ones which the US calls war crimes. None of the rest of the world, including Canada, recognize the impossible ‘murder in violation of the laws of war’ as a war crime in Khadr’s case or any of the others as war crimes, and they could not be legitimately applied to Khadr’s case anyway since they were invented in 2006 and he was captured in 2002. Nevertheless, the words ‘war crime(s)/criminal’ occur 40 times in 24 articles as factual detail of the case.“
“The highly suspect plea deal which Omar signed after eight years of torture as his only path out of a legal black hole has been rubbed in his face by the Star 40 times, in the words ‘pleaded guilty/admitted/confessed’, presented without qualifiers. Despite there being absolutely no evidence to point to Khadr killing anyone, and a great deal of evidence that shows it would have been impossible for him to throw the grenade, the words ‘murder/killer’ are used against him 50 times, more than two times per article. In 24 articles, the word ‘jihad’ was worked in eight times, ‘al Qaeda’ 25, and ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ (the word terror was not included in the count) 30 times.”
Most other outlets over the years have had a very similar message. While articles like this and reports on Speer’s widow and children are constant, there has not been one mainstream Canadian media article about Omar’s medical condition in over eleven years except a dry mention when it delayed a court hearing. While a random al Qaeda story was mined salaciously by the Star for a remote link with Khadrs, no article was written regarding the United Nations Committee Against Torture criticizing the Canadian government for delaying Omar’s return to Canada and recommending that Canada (presumably including the largest circulation newspaper) raise awareness of the Convention against Torture requirements amongst judges and members of the public.
Sun Media, established in 1996, takes the same message and drums for a variety of extreme and illegal remedies. The appeal it makes to mentally unstable elements of the population cannot be ignored, particularly when it posts the address of Omar’s grandparents and tells its viewers that they may soon be housing ‘the little terrorist Omar Khadr’ as he is constantly referred to by Sun commentators. To say their coverage of Omar over the years has been an attempt to instigate violence is a gross understatement but they continue unchallenged. As of last June, Canada no longer has a provision against hate speech in our Human Rights Act. The Star as well posted this article (since modified) originally with a picture of Omar’s sister’s door bell with name and apartment number.
Canadian media also makes a point of reporting, and in the case of Sun Media promoting, a group presented as average Canadian citizens against Omar Khadr’s return. Despite this opposition being openly created by the Jewish Defense League who have a “multi faith coalition” with the Hindu Advocacy Group, and the Christian Heritage Party, they are never mentioned by name except by Sun media. Tom Flanagan, former advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, traces the roots of the current Conservative Party in power in Canada to the Christian Heritage Party.
The JDL is the Canadian chapter of a US group which is on the FBI terrorist watch list. In 1994, a US member killed 29 Palestinians at prayer, and in 2011 the RCMP launched an investigation against at least nine members of the Canadian JDL with regard to an anonymous tip that they were plotting to bomb the Palestine House in Mississauga. They are supporters of the English Defence League and the wannabe Canadian Defence League, which appears to be made up of the same people. On September 11, 2012, community activists gathered at the home of Omar’s family after JDL bikers promised to assemble there and “send a message” to the Khadr family, instigated by Sun media who had earlier published the address. The bikers eventually rode away after they met the crowd at the door.
It is hard to imagine Golden Dawn or neo-Nazis in Europe lobbying against a Muslim man and harassing his family and the media not pointing out that the harassers are members of far right extremist groups, especially in the case of the JDL, classified “a right-wing terrorist group” by the FBI in 2001. The Toronto Star pointed out JDL’s terrorist designation recently, and JDL protested what they called the paper’s “anti-Israeli bias” in 2010, but the Toronto Star consistently reports anti-Khadr protesters without mentioning the affiliation.
Comments on any articles about Khadr in Canadian media are very quickly flooded with negative comments which are voted up. The Harper government is no stranger to astroturfing and manipulation of public perception of the Khadr case has preoccupied this government as shown in the US state cables. Media manipulation is also a primary goal of the JDL.
“You killed yours; we starved ours to death.”
There are real, internationally recognized war crimes in Omar Khadr’s case. Shooting a blinded child twice in the back is one. Torture of a prisoner of war is another, in which Canada was complicit. The investigations into Canada’s actions in this case have been blocked for more than eleven years.
Omar completely lost the sight in one eye in the firefight. He has since come close to losing the vision remaining in the second eye. Faced with his one remaining eye containing shrapnel, the US military chose to shine bright lights into it while interrogating him. Canada simply refused to give him sunglasses for eight years while he sat first in the Cuban sun then in 24 hours a day of fluorescent lighting. The US forced him through a corrupt show trial; Canada has locked him in solitary and refuses to allow him to be interviewed.
There is an apocryphal story in which a US diplomat said to Canada’s former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “You treated your Indians a lot better than we treated ours.”
Trudeau replied, “Yes, you killed yours; we starved ours to death.”
Apocryphal or not, it is hard not to remember in the case of Omar Khadr.
Thanking the Free Omar Khadr group for research assistance.