Khadr fails to evoke sympathy

Jan 14, 2009 04:30 AM


Rights are not subject to a popularity contest. We either have them or we do not. What is so unsettling about Canada's refusal to advocate for Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr is how easy it is to forget this basic principle.

I say Canada advisedly. Prime Minister Stephen Harper quite properly receives heat for his refusal to speak up in Washington on behalf of a Canadian citizen facing intolerable circumstances. But Harper's inaction is made possible by the large-scale indifference of the Canadian public.

Ottawa can get away with doing nothing because, in the end, not enough of us like Omar Khadr.

More to the point, not enough of us like Khadr's relatives.

The Conservative government maintains that Khadr's detention and trial at the U.S. prison camp in Cuba are perfectly legal. In fact, they are not. The Toronto-born Canadian citizen was captured in war but never treated according to the requirements of the Geneva Accords that govern warfare.

His so-called trial at Guantanamo is a travesty, part of George W. Bush's military commission farce that incoming U.S. president Barack Obama has promised to abolish.

That Khadr was only 15 at the time he allegedly killed a U.S. soldier during a 2002 Afghan firefight is icing on the cake. Testimony at his trial suggests he may not have thrown the grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer. Indeed, there is evidence that Speer may have been mistakenly killed by his own comrades.

Yet surely the important element of this battle was that it was a battle. Khadr may have been on the wrong side. Indeed, given that Canada was a part of this U.S.-led anti-Taliban coalition, there is a case to be made that he should be tried here for treason.

But at worst, Khadr was a soldier who made a bad choice. At best (as Star reporter Michelle Shephard details in her book, Guantanamo's Child), he was a kid put in an impossible position by a father who, for his own reasons, was drawn to radical Islam.

If Omar were white, he'd probably be home by now. In Australia, public opinion forced that country's staunch pro-Bush government to demand the repatriation of Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks after his father, also white, galvanized public opinion.

Similarly, if Omar's family were more like Monia Mazigh, he'd probably be home. Mazigh is the very articulate and (in mainstream Canadian terms) very presentable wife of Maher Arar. Moderate and modest, she was instrumental in mobilizing the public support that led to her husband's 2003 release from a Syrian jail. She now advocates on behalf of others improperly detained, including Khadr.

But Omar's own family is more complicated. One brother is a would-be celebrity who claims to have been a double agent for the CIA. Another faces extradition to the U.S. on charges of supplying weapons to terrorists. His mother and older sister, while not the monsters that much of the media portray them to be, remain unrepentantly sympathetic to jihadist politics. His late father is alleged to have been a bagman for Osama bin Laden.

None of this is relevant to the facts of the case. Who among us wants to bear responsibility for our families?

But all of it is relevant to the politics of the Khadr controversy. Ottawa is happy to support Canadian citizens imprisoned improperly abroad if they evoke sympathy at home. It is equally happy to ignore those who do not.

This is not right. It is also a dangerous precedent.


Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday and Saturday.