Tortured and forgotten: Omar Khadr’s plight for justice

Omar KhadrAfghanistan, 2001. President Bush declared “Operation Enduring Freedom”— also known as the “Global War on Terror”— to combat the perceived threat of terrorism and insurgency.

A different kind of war has since emerged, one that is instead being waged against those innocents wrongly convicted of war crimes. Throughout the war, the US paid their proxy army, the Northern Alliance, to fight for them and offered substantial $5000+ bounties for any terrorists they captured.

However, the Northern Alliance exploited this and instead ended up capturing a vast array of people who, for the most part, were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The US played their role too, fighting and capturing suspected terrorists.

Omar Khadr, now aged 28, was born in Scarborough, Toronto to Egyptian and Palestinian immigrants who later became Canadian citizens.

In 1996, Khadr’s father Ahmed moved his family to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In early 2002, Khadr was living with his mother and younger sister in Waziristan before accompanying the Abu Laith al-Libi group, associated with al Qaeda, aged only 15.

This was, however, shown to be a bad move, as on July 27 2002, the US received a tip-off about a group of terrorists in a compound near Ab Khail, located near the Pakistan border. What ensued was a fire-fight that is heavily disputed to this day.

The official story is that Khadr threw a grenade that eventually killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, who was evacuated. However, the US attacked the compound with such ferocity that much of the building and adjacent outhouses collapsed, and Khadr was found buried under rubble, heavily wounded.

Khadr was reluctantly saved by medics despite himself calling out to be killed, he was then initially transferred to Bagram Prison for treatment, where he endured psychological torture.

On October 29, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Omar had only turned 16 a few weeks prior. His treatment there was nothing short of torture, it was barbaric and a testament to a lack of recognition the US has for human rights.

Subject to forced nudity, extreme temperatures, sexual humiliation, isolation, and abuse, he told his lawyers he was shackled by his hands and feet to a bolt on the floor and left for five to six hours a day.

This is in addition to being used as a human mop – Khadr was forced to urinate on himself before being subject to US guards pouring cleaning fluid on him.

However this is unfortunately nothing new where Guantanamo Bay is concerned, as the US has a history of abusing prisoners at the facility and at many other locations across the globe.

Very little justice is ever served to those individuals, and indeed many are forgotten. The US, through the CIA, ran many blacksites, secret locations in which extraordinary rendition would occur before the detainee would be tortured.

There exists today many individuals who cannot be traced, whose names exist only on paper. Khadr was one of the lucky few to be repatriated, many cannot due to concerns of torture by their government who refuse to accept them as innocent, and instead brand them traitors of the nation.

Indeed Khadr is by no means the worst case of torture seen at Guantanamo Bay; many men are still held there for a multitude of reasons, and it is arguable Khadr had a relatively tame experience. Some individuals have died in US custody whilst others have been sexually assaulted and water-boarded, to name but a few methods.

Justice for these men and for many others requires pressure to be placed on the state, and for solutions to be found. Despite this, Guantanamo Bay cannot be closed overnight. President Obama stated it would close in 2009, but this did not happen and the abuse continued.

A solution requires finding suitable homes and dealing with the legal implications that arise, which will take many years.

Canada and its Terrorism Laws

On October 27, Canada introduced Bill C-44. The Bill, entitled the “Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act”, gives the state greater powers to protect the country, both domestically and abroad.

Furthermore, in July last year the government passed The Combating Terrorism Act that made it an offence to leave or attempt to leave the country after being engaged with terrorists.

This all seems fine and good policy making. However, Khadr’s case highlights a fundamental problem with the state’s terror laws. Khadr’s lawyers argue that the Canadian government acted illegally by sending interrogators to Omar in 2002 and 2004 whilst held in Guantanamo Bay, before then refusing to hand over documents that would prove his innocence.

In August 2009, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 vote that Canadian officials had violated his rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On October 25, 2010 Khadr pleaded guilty for a catalogue of crimes including, conspiracy, spying, providing material support for terrorism, and murder in violation of the laws of war. Under this plea deal, Khadr would be to serve one more year in Guantanamo Bay before being repatriated.

Finally on September 29, 2012, 9 years and 11 months after this ordeal began, Khadr was finally returned, and is now serving an eight year sentence in the maximum security prison Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ontario.

On February 11 of this year, he was transferred to a medium security facility of which the location cannot be confirmed. Khadr penned a letter to the Ottawa Citizen on October 28 from his cell in which he slams Canadian officials for both delaying his repatriation and for vehemently opposing his request to not be held in a maximum security facility upon his return.

Furthermore, he criticizes the government’s inability to prevent human rights violations occurring. Indeed this issue seems even more pertinent with the Country’s recent terror attacks.

There is a global inability to account for actions taken in the War on Terror and even more so when those actions are actions of torture. Terrorism laws need to be redefined and then upheld, and the rights of the individual need to be further enshrined.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Khadr’s case is the response to his repatriation. The government reluctantly accepted him back much in the same way the Australian government halted on repatriating David Hicks.

The Hicks case echoed Khadr’s fate, as in both cases, although more explicitly with Hicks, the only reason they accepted a plea deal was because otherwise they would still be in Guantanamo Bay, or equally, they would be dead. To be seen as doing your duty and upholding human rights is to be seen as deviating from your duty of prosecuting those in violation.

Neo-liberalism has therefore died; it died when US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld claimed in a February 12, 2002 news briefing that there exist “known unknowns”.

This speech put into the eyes of many the view that there exists a threat in the shadows, something as a nation we must fear without knowing what it truly is.

This proved to be a catastrophically stupid move that has resulted in decades of human rights abuses and suffering at the hands of not only the US and Canadian governments, but many governments across the globe.

Ethics and State Surveillance

Long gone are the times of living in a completely free society, of living in a world in which  neighbours can greet each other with a nod and morning remark on the weather.

Instead, the current situation is something much more bleak and worrying. We are told to fear everyone and everything to such an extent that even your neighbour is a potential enemy. I have some news, this is not only catastrophically wrong, it is the band-aid remedy of a paranoid government that fears that its citizens will gain too much power.

Echoing therefore Michel Foucault’s famous Panopticon prison, we live in an increasingly surveyed state. Every action we take, everything we say and write is recorded.

The obvious question to be posed is this: is it really necessary that society lives out George Orwell’s 1984 for the sake of protection? The simple answer is no. The paradox is bitter-sweet, we cannot now claim we live in the ‘land of the free’ when it is the very state that tells us we are free.

We are living in the gutter days of neo-liberalism, policies have failed, national security has been taken too far and the roots of the conflicts have been perpetuated. What therefore is to be said of a solution?

I am reminded by what post-modernist Philosopher Slavoj Zizek claimed would happen, that society would reach as he called it “a certain zero-end point”, in which everything would have to be restructured.

A radical claim and perhaps one that we should take seriously: When will the Harper government learn that capitalism can no longer function?

When this is realized (admittedly it will be when unicorns descend from Mars), only then can a new structure and subsequently a new form of state ethics arise.

The onus is not only on the individual, that much is clear, but also on the state— it has historically fallen to the individual to raise plights, to highlight the suffering and to demand that action be taken.

When will Khadr’s calls for human rights to be taken seriously be enacted by the government and by the people? It is a failure on our part and one that must be rectified immediately.

The assumption that human rights are something that only certain groups can have should be thrown into the cellar. Any individual in any society and country can experience human rights abuses.

However, it has become too idealist to suggest a government be completely accountable and transparent in their actions.

It is a dream that many hold but that unfortunately none will likely ever see. Accountability has increasingly become the plight of fringe groups such as internet group “Anonymous” in the wake of their recent global march.

Work will continue by social justice groups and campaigners across the globe to ensure human rights issues are pursued and are not forgotten, it is therefore up to us as members of society to demand our government recognize and take action on these issues, even more so now than before.