Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Free Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr in early 2002.

The Khadr family is notorious in Canada.  They lived here on  and off through the 1980's and 1990's.  Several of the children, including Omar, were born here.  Though Arabs, the family moved to Afghanistan permanently in 1999.  Ahmed Said Khadr, the father, was a key offshore fund raiser for Osama bin Laden.  Bin Laden even attended the wedding of one of the Khadr daughters in Kabul.  To the extent that al Quaida actually existed, the Khadrs were core members.

Things fell apart after the US invasion.  Ahmed went on the run and was killed in a shootout with Pakistani soldiers in 2003.  His son Abdulkareem, 14 at the time, was paralyzed in the firefight.  He, his mother and two sisters came back to Canada in 2004.  There was a lot of opposition to their return, but fortunately both the Federal and Provincial governments refused to bow to pressure and the Khadrs were dealt with by the same rules as everyone else.  Abdulkareem, now 19 will be wheelchair bound for life.

Another son, Abdurahman (now 26) was the only one not interested in the family business.  He was a teenager when they moved to Afghanistan and found life in Kabul stunningly primitive after growing up in Toronto.  Nevertheless, Abdurahman got swept up in the net after the invasion.  It took the Americans quite a while to figure out he was unimportant, if not innocent.  Abdurahman was hauled through several facilities, including Guantanamo, between his arrest in 2001 and his release in 2003.  He is currently in Canada, estranged from his family and twice denied a passport for fuzzy reasons.  The obvious guess is that keeping him in Canada and probably under surveillance was the price demanded by the Americans for his release.

Another son, Abdullah (now 27), escaped the dragnet and moved around the Pashtun tribal areas on the Afghan border until his arrest in Pakistan in 2004.  This came after an American "intelligence agency" offered a bounty of $500,000 for his capture.  He was accused of illegal weapons trading in the border areas and specifically purchasing Soviet Stinger missiles for the Taliban.  After a great deal of squabbling, he was transferred by the Pakistanis to Canada in 2005.  For political reasons, the Pakistanis refused to hand him over to the Americans, although they were given full access for questioning.  Anticipating his transfer to Canada, the US started extradition proceedings.  He was re-arrested on the extradition warrant in early 2006 and remains in custody in Toronto.

I have no doubt the allegations of arms dealings are true.  Unless you are a farmer or a doctor or a schoolteacher, there aren't a lot of legal ways to make a living in Wasiristan.  But most of the arms he his alleged to have handled went to his father and were captured by the Pakistanis in 2003.  If neither Pakistan nor Canada wants to try him, its unclear to me how the Americans have jurisdiction.

The last son was Omar.  He was 14 when the US invaded Afghanistan and took to the hills.  He was captured after being seriously wounded in a firefight in July 2002 at the age of 15.  After being held some months at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, he was transferred to Guantanamo where he remains.  He is accused of, among other crimes, throwing a grenade that killed a US medic.  The trial has stuttered for some months, but not actually started.  Last week, it was postponed until January 27, 2009.  The judge may be hoping Obama solves the Omar Khadr problem without a trial.  So far, the only heroes of Guantanamo have been the conscientious military lawyers and judges who have fought enormous efforts to turn the proceedings into show trials.

Despite the general unpopularity of the Khadr family in Canada, there is strong support for bringing Omar home.  This rests on four points.  First, he was the legal resident of a country that was invaded.  He resisted.  That's not by definition criminal and he should not be considered an illegal combatant.  Second, he was 15 at the time.  A UN treaty that the US signed designates child soldiers as ineligible for punishment, viewing them as victims of war rather than perpetrators.  Third, taking a 15 year old seriously wounded boy, torturing him for years and failing to provide an opportunity for him to challenge his confinement is outrageous.  It shouldn't be able to happen to a Canadian citizen, especially at the hands of our closest ally.  Fourth, now that the trial has started to move forward, it turns out the evidence Khadr killed the medic is not exactly watertight.  It may have been friendly fire.  However, the Guantanamo trial process is so wrecked that at this point no objective observer believes he can get a fair trial.

In any case, Khadr has been locked up for six years.  Heroic labors by his military and civilian lawyers have kept the case bubbling and on the public radar.  Now that his trial has been delayed again, due to procedural malfeasance by the prosecution, the time has come to end this farce.  Canada should demand Omar Khadr be freed and sent home.  As long as he obeys the laws of this country, he should remain a free man.