Outrage over Canada compensating former Guantanamo detainee is misguided

Outrage over Canada's compensation for former Guantanamo child soldier is misguided
5 min read
20 Jul, 2017
Comment: Omar Khadr was a child soldier at the time of capture, and as such as should be treated as a victim, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
Omar Khadr was fifteen when he was captured by US forces in Afghanistan [AFP]

In the recent past, few issues have divided Canadians more than Omar Khadr.

Earlier this month, it was announced the 30-year-old former Guantanamo child prisoner would receive a whopping 10.5 million Canadian dollars from the Canadian government, as part of a settlement for the government's role in his incarceration and treatment at the US Naval base in Cuba. 

Reaction to the deal was swift, with condemnations from across the media and political spectrum; especially on the Right. Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer said, "I believe that there is value in fighting for that principle that we don't pay convicted terrorists compensation", adding he would have never settled.

A poll conducted days after the liberal government's apology and decision to settle showed that 71 percent of Canadians objected to the decision, and that the majority believed Khadr remained a "threat" to society. While many contend that the amount Khadr received as compensation is too much, Canada's attitude towards Afghanistan is at the heart of many people's animosity towards the former Guantanamo detainee.

An enemy combatant

In spite of being only 15 when he was captured and sent to Guantanamo soon after that, for many, Khadr continues to be the kid in the infamous photo of him assembling IEDs allegedly meant for use against western allied forces, and not the child prisoner who resided for eight years in one of the world's most notorious penitentiaries.

While the Angus poll showed that most recognise he was a child soldier, Canada's participation in a NATO-led effort post 9/11 is the context through which many view Khadr's ordeal.

For many, Khadr continues to be the kid in the infamous photo of him assembling IEDs allegedly meant for use against western allied forces

For many, Khadr is seen as the man on the side that Canada and its NATO allies stood against. A small majority believed it was necessary for Canada to go to war in Afghanistan, while a small majority also contended the war was a failure.

Around the time Khadr was released on bail in 2015, a Nanos poll found 66 percent of Canadians agreed that the country was at war with terror groups and a majority was willing to give then Harper government extended powers to protect Canada against security threats. 

However, it is worth remembering that Khadr up until his release was never in a place to shape his own destiny. While most kids at 15 are pondering their next after school activity, Khadr was being taught to handle AK-47s and making IEDs.

From a very early age he was made to live in some of the most dangerous areas in the world, and fed with much extremist nonsense. As many teens would, he did exactly what he was told by his guardians. 

But what excuse do the grownups in the American and Canadian government have for their indiscretions?

Details of his torture by American military and civilian officials at both Bagram and Guantanamo paint a vivid and disturbing picture of what he was subjected to, as uncertainty hung over whether he had committed the crime at all.

Yet many of his detractors readily gloss over the details or simply label his ordeal a misstep.

Khadr was deprived of sleep for days on end, made to stand with his hands tied for hours, used as a human mop and threatened with rape; his treatment was nothing short of appalling and a grave violation of international treaties on which his own government failed to challenge their American counterparts.

What excuse do the grownups in the American and Canadian government have for their indiscretions?

In 2005, the Canadian Supreme Court condemned the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) for fundamentally colluding with his American captors, and knowingly interrogating Khadr while he had been subjected to oppressive conditions.

Another judgement from 2010 asserted the Canadian government's role in Khadr's incarceration, concluding that it "contributed to Mr Khadr's ongoing detention so as to deprive him of his right to liberty and security of the person" as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Freedoms.

Read more: US court blocks release of Guantanamo force-feeding video

Khadr remains to date the only child soldier who has been prosecuted for war crimes since World War II. At the time of his trial in front of a sham US military tribunal, Radhika Coomaraswamy, former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, asserted that "Child soldiers must be treated primarily as victims and alternative procedures should be in place aimed at rehabilitation or restorative justice".

In fact, Coomaraswamy added that the US and Canada were leading the way on the UN's work on protection of child soldiers around the world.

"Without their support, we would not have been able to persuade the Security Council to create a Working Group on children and armed conflict nor be able to release thousands of child soldiers around the world." 

No threat to public safety

More than two years after he was out on bail, Khadr is engaged to be married and attending a private Christian university. Like many juveniles (including child soldiers) who have transitioned successfully into mainstream society, Khadr has shown every sign that his past is behind him.

More than two years after he was out on bail, Khadr is engaged to be married and attending a private Christian university

A prison psychologist's report from 2015 published shortly before his release concluded that Khadr posed no threat to western societies, nor did he dislplay any inclination to commit violence or associate with groups such as al-Qaeda. Khadr has been openly apologetic of any harm his actions caused, and has unconditionally denounced all groups he was once associated with.

Moreover, none of those who mistreated Khadr during his 13 years of incarceration has ever faced a single charge or shown remorse for their role in his abhorrent treatment.

Surely then, we must ask how Khadr can be held to a moral standard, while the adult interrogators at Guantanamo, or the power brokers in Washington and Ottawa remain scot free.

In this context, Khadr's compensation sum arguably pales in comparison, given everything he endured; but a victory nonetheless, and one that was long overdue.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. 

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.