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Q&A: Omar Khadr and Canadian law

Omar Khadr presented a difficult situation to Canadian law and citizens of this country.

At the age of 15, Khadr was detained in Guantanamo Bay by the United States for ten years, where he faced several criminal charges for alleged actions in Afghanistan.

A ruling in March stated that Omar Khadr’s war crimes sentence has been completed. The Gateway spoke to Janice Williamson, an English professor at the University of Alberta — who was present in court during the ruling — about the decision and her book regarding Khadr’s case: Omar Khadr, Oh Canada.

The interview responses were edited for clarity and brevity.

The Gateway: You edited a book about Omar Khadr called Omar Khadr, Oh Canada. What were the main points in the book and how do you think it relates to this current ruling and the overall situation?

The book gave a history of the case, a timeline, which was helpful since it was a very complicated case. It was a space for legal scholars and experts to weigh in on some of the legal issues. It took up the fact that international law says child soldiers need to be treated differently, reintegrated in the community, and have treatment that will help them emerge from this experience.

The book also took up torture in a very direct way, and called into question Canada’s behaviour. We wanted to untangle the ideological apparatus that shaped the narrative of Khadr’s imprisonment as well. In Canadian newspapers, it was reported that Khadr was charged with killing with a medic. In the US, the military commission doesn’t call the person who died there a medic. He was trained as a medic, but he was acting as a Delta Force soldier in war. It was a combat death.

Many writers also addressed Islamophobia and how the construction of Muslim men as violent barbarians affects the case of Khadr. As we see, Islamophobia is still with us, but it seems to be intensifying. Attacks like the murders in New Zealand suggest how vile this is.

What was noteworthy from this ruling and why is it important in the bigger picture?

Chief Justice Moreau of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench was ruling on the issue of Omar Khadr’s bail. It’s a little complicated because Khadr’s sentence was set in Guantanamo by the military commission and part of that sentence was to return to Canada and to serve time in jail. He was granted bail at a certain point and the judge at that point said they didn’t want to rule on the end result of his sentence because it had been determined in another jurisdiction.

This time what happened, which I thought was really fascinating, was that the judge ruled that because Khadr was a youth when he was indicted, he should be treated with a youth sentence, and youth sentences could take up all kinds of aspects that adult sentences don’t take into account. As a result, it was determined that he had basically finished his sentence and there was no appeal against the ruling. That was it. He is now a man freed from those constraints.

How do you think this ruling will affect Khadr’s life?

I think that it will affect him powerfully in some ways, but in other ways it won’t. It frees him from being on bail; there were certain conditions that made it impossible for him to travel in certain ways or speak without people overhearing his conversations. Basically, he was being treated like a criminal. I think it’s clear from his behaviour, he’s a very fine young man who’s not a criminal, so the ruling is liberating in that way for sure.

I think he has been for a long time a lightning rod for Islamophobia. Recently he was targeted by some members of the right wing, who published his home address, which is very dangerous because there are people who may resort to violence as we have seen in the past. I think that this part of his life is probably ongoing unfortunately. But this ruling may decontaminate a part of him; he’s no longer on bail and we have faith in him as a society and his future life.

…this ruling may decontaminate a part of him; he’s no longer on bail and we have faith in him as a society and his future

Janice Williamson

What implications do you think this ruling has for Canada on a broader cultural level?

An important part of this is when Khadr was 15 and captured in Afghanistan, he’d been sent to be a translator to a suspected terrorist group and the Americans bombed this group. He survived and a few months later he was taken to Guantanamo. The first thing the Canadians did was send a note to the Americans saying Khadr needs to be treated in a special way because he’s a youth, due to there being international and domestic law saying youths have to be treated differently.

When a Canadian official went to interrogate Khadr, he’d been told that Khadr had first been sleep deprived. That is against the United Nations convention on torture. We should not have been participating in that. All of those early actions of the Canadian government are quite reprehensible. This ruling reminded us of that first moment that people don’t know about.

I think the justice that was served in this recent decision was returning us to that first moment when we knew that his imprisonment simply should not have proceeded the way it did.

What do you think are the appropriate next steps for the Canadian government to take in terms of policies that affect Khadr or Islamophobia as a whole?

I think that people are now saying that we should have a category of terrorists that takes into account white nationalism. In some ways, that would be useful, because it would allow for the public to understand the range of othering that occurs by objectifying and dehumanizing people. I also think that government leaders speaking out very actively in an engaged way about this issue is really important. Harper’s policies were clearly Islamophobic. He called Muslims “Islamists.” I think Andrew Scheer playing dog whistle with Islamophobes is very dangerous too, so leaders need to call this out. It takes a very active and engaged political leadership to speak out about these things.

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