Two weeks ago, I wrote about how, for the first time since his return to Canada from Guantánamo in September 2012, Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen and former child prisoner of the US, has been downgraded from a high-security risk to a medium-security risk, and moved for the maximum-security prison in which he had been held, in Edmonton, to the Bowden Institution in Alberta province, a medium-security facility with a minimum-security annex.
I also noted how this move “punctures the prevailing rhetoric — from the government, and in the right-wing press — that Khadr is a dangerous individual,” and, it should be noted, it also enables him to be able to apply for parole.
Neverthless, Ivan Zinger, the executive director of the independent Office of the Correctional Investigator (Canada’s prison ombudsman), is still critical of the position taken by the prison authorities. Last week, Colin Perkel of The Canadian Press reported that, in a letter to the Correctional Service of Canada’s senior deputy commissioner, Zinger wrote that the correctional authorities had “unfairly classified” Khadr, “even though they lowered his risk rating from maximum to medium security.”
In his letter, which was obtained by The Canadian Press, Ivan Zinger urged the prison authorities “to take into account evidence that Khadr poses [a] minimal threat and should be classified as such,” as Colin Perkel put it.
Zinger wrote that Correctional Service of Canada officials “also note that there is no evidence Mr. Khadr has maintained an association with any terrorist organization,” adding, “It is well documented by CSC officials that Mr. Khadr is fully engaged in his correctional plan and he has actively developed a strong, pro-social network of support since his incarceration.”
This is the ombudsman’s third complaint since Khadr returned to Canada from Guantánamo as part of the plea deal he negotiated in his trial by military commission in October 2010. In exchange for admitting that, in the firelight in a compound in Afghanistan that led to his capture as a 15-year old in July 2002, he threw a grenade that killed a US soldier, Khadr was given an eight-year sentence, with one more year to be served in Guantánamo, and seven in Canada.
However, the Canadian government dragged its heels, and Khadr was not released from Guantánamo until September 2010, when he was promptly imprisoned in maximum-security prison, while the government portrayed him as a dangerous convicted criminal, ignoring the fact that both Canada and the US had sidestepped their obligations, under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to rehabilitate rather than punish juvenile prisoners (those under 18 when their alleged crimes take place), and also ignoring the fact that the Canadian Supreme Court ruled, before Khadr’s release, that the Canadian government had violated his rights by sending agents to interrogate him at Guantánamo.
The Canadian government and the prison authorities also ignored the fact that the “war crimes” to which Khadr pleased guilty are not internationally recognized (and were, in fact, invented by the US Congress), and also ignored the fact that, in an affidavit in December, Khadr stated that he only pleaded guilty in order to be released from Guantánamo, and, as Colin Perkel put it, “said he had no memories of the firefight in Afghanistan or of the grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, and insisted he did not attack any US forces who entered the compound after the battle was over.”
In spite of Khadr’s recent reclassification as a medium-security prisoner, Ivan Zinger argued in his letter that “the change doesn’t go far enough,” as Colin Perkel described it, given Khadr’s guilty plea in his military commission.
Zinger noted, moreover, that the Canadian prison authorities have described Khadr as being “polite, quiet and rule-abiding,” and as someone who “does not espouse the criminal attitudes or code of conduct held by most typical federal offenders,” and, crucially, have also noted that they do not possess any information to suggest that he “espouses attitudes that support terrorist activities or any type of radicalized behaviour.”
This has long been known to Khadr’s supporters, as can be seen from this revealing analysis of Khadr in November 2010 by Arlette Zinck, a Canadian professor of English who corresponded with him at Guantánamo, visited him there before his release, and continues to work with him now he is incarcerated in Canada.
The prison authorities, however, refuse to discuss Khadr’s case publicly, “citing privacy concerns,” while a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney repeated the same inflammatory lies to Colin Perkel that the Public Safety Minister’s Department always uses, noting that Khadr had pleaded guilty to what are described as “heinous” crimes and stating, as Colin Perkel put it, that the government “would fight any attempt to lessen his punishment.”
Dennis Edney, one of Khadr’s lawyers in Canada, described the government’s repeated refusals to pay attention to the the ombudsman’s criticisms as “disgraceful,” and stated, “This independent body has on several occasions pointed out that a plethora of evidence testifying to the fact that Omar Khadr has no ideological leanings or poses a security threat has been ignored.”
He added, “This is a government that has no compassion even for the most vulnerable in our society. It is spiteful and wishes to run out the clock on Omar by keeping him in prison for as long as they can.”
An open letter from Amnesty International
Ivan Zinger and Dennis Edney are not the only ones complaining. In an open letter to Steven Blaney — and also to Justice Minister Peter MacKay — Amnesty International recently stated that “serious human rights matters remain unresolved in Omar Khadr’s case, in both Canada and the United States,” including the fact that “there has not been any remedy for the violation of Omar Khadr’s rights under section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, violations for which the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the Canadian government was responsible.”
Amnesty urged the government to “appoint a sitting or retired judge and provide him or her with a mandate to examine the range of outstanding human rights and other legal concerns in Omar Khadr’s case and make recommendations to the government as to how those concerns should be resolved.”
“The issues are complex,” the letter stated, adding, “The human rights consequences are grave. Requiring Omar Khadr to seek resolution through various and disconnected legal avenues in Canada and the United States is lengthy and cumbersome. The Canadian government has a responsibility to ensure that there is an effective remedy for any human rights violations that Omar Khadr may have experienced and may still be experiencing. That obligation is enshrined in international human rights treaties, binding on Canada, including article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” which states:
Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes:
(a) To ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity;
(b) To ensure that any person claiming such a remedy shall have his right thereto determined by competent judicial, administrative or legislative authorities, or by any other competent authority provided for by the legal system of the State, and to develop the possibilities of judicial remedy;
(c) To ensure that the competent authorities shall enforce such remedies when granted.
In conclusion, I’d like to thank Ivan Zinger and Amnesty International for their contributions, and to offer a suggestion of my own to the Canadian government and the prison authorities: downgrade Omar to a minimum-security prisoner, and give him parole as soon as possible, so that he can begin to rebuild his life.
Note: Dennis Edney will be in the UK from March 12-18 for a speaking tour organized by the London Guantánamo Campaign. See here for details.