Omar Khadr deserves a chance, just as any other Canadian

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Omar Khadr – child soldier – has been dehumanized enough. Canada must bring him home and give him the "fair process" he and every Canadian citizen deserves.

Canada, a country historically known for upholding fairness at home and abroad, a country whose liberal Youth Criminal Justice act has become a model for reform in many jurisdictions, has been the only western nation to give the U.S. unconditional authority over one of its nationals held at Guantanamo Bay. Other countries — including Britain, Australia, Sweden and Germany — fought to bring home their citizens (all of whom are adults) from the infamous detention centre.

Yet, Canada let its one of its own, a young man whose childhood was stolen by circumstances he could not oppose, waste away in the darkness of unjust imprisonment and alleged torture. It seems strange that this lonely 21-year-old would not be brought home to face a fair judicial process that would acknowledge his age, background and the long ordeal of time already served.

It is impossible to square our federal government’s passive and acquiescent policy regarding Omar Khadr with the values of our cherished Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is supposed to embrace every one of our citizens. But these rights apparently do not extend to Khadr, persecuted for years by the United States for alleged "war crimes" dating back to age of 15, and supposedly committed under circumstances of chaos and conflict in Afghanistan.

It is impossible to square the concept of a civilized world that condemns the recruitment of child soldiers as immoral, but at the same time ignores the immorality of Khadr’s ongoing persecution by American authorities. What kind of absurdity allows a child soldier to be abused and demonized as an adult war criminal?

Pity a poor youth who, whatever his actual "crimes," has been punished far beyond the evidence presented! Omar Khadr has been branded "guilty until proven innocent." Other western countries did not fumble, dissemble or prevaricate in moving to repatriate their nationals from U.S. detention; Canada, however, has never initiated serious negotiations to bring Omar Khadr home. Instead, Canadians and the world are being told that he is to be held fully responsible for any criminal actions he committed, as if he were an adult when captured by American troops in Afghanistan.

It is now widely known that Omar Khadr is the only person in modern history to be charged with war crimes allegedly committed while a minor. Who is prepared to answer how he could have been responsible — then or now –” for someone else’s ideological and political agendas?

I am not arguing here whether any allegations against him are true or false; let those more qualified deal with the "facts," such as they are. I am writing as a Canadian citizen who has witnessed this kind of double standard before and it is not pretty.

Why must Canada intervene in this case without a moment’s further delay? The primary reason (among many) is that Khadr, now 21 years old, was only 15 at the time of his alleged crime. In terms of Canadian, American and International law, that makes him a child and a minor at the time of his capture.

This sad case of justice denied, even ignored, is a tremendous embarrassment for Canada, especially given that other western nations have successfully lobbied the U.S to bring their adult nationals home from Guantanamo. That makes Canada’s inaction as puzzling as it is troubling. Perhaps our Prime Minister and federal government are afraid of upsetting the U.S. and appearing "soft" on the war against terror. Perhaps this is why the question of repatriating Omar Khadr was left unasked during the October election campaign and leaders’ debates.

By caving in to such self-serving fears, Canada risks a much worse fate than "upsetting" a powerful and influential neighbour: it runs the very real risk of showing itself to the world as a nation willing to ignore the rule of law and the rights of its children.

It is high time that Prime Minister Harper made good on the "Canadian values" he promoted so zealously during the last two election campaigns, and step up to the plate to ensure that these same values of justice and fair play truly apply to all our citizens– including, most urgently, Omar Khadr.

Our government can no longer afford to hide behind such dangerously bland phrases as "let the process work." The status quo that Mr. Harper so dearly loves is most definitely not working for Omar Khadr. It is even more disturbing that the current government has refused to act while America’s version of "legal proceedings" is underway; our federal authorities instead stress a desire to see that "justice is done" in Khadr’s case. What justice? Even U.S. critics have voiced doubt that their own country’s military commissions do not meet international legal standards of justice and humanitarian consideration.

Canada, once upheld as a champion in advocating for human rights in situations of international conflict, officially upholds that no child combatant should ever face a military tribunal. It has played a key role in the rehabilitation of child soldiers, such as those abused and exploited in Sierra Leone, Colombia, Sri Lanka and many other countries. This kind of principle cannot waver now, when the life of a Canadian child is in question — especially after the welcome news that newly inaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

PM Harper is obliged, more than ever, to adhere to the contract he signed on being installed as our national leader, to do all possible "to protect the lives, rights, interests, and property of Canadian citizens … when these are endangered or ignored in the territory of a foreign state." Mr. Harper has a remarkable opportunity to take action to defend Omar Khadr’s rights and give him the opportunity of rehabilitation in Canada, especially in light of significant changes in U.S. policy with respect to Guantanamo Bay.

How many times — it must be hundreds by now — must our Prime Minister and federal government be reminded that Omar Khadr is a Canada’s citizen too?

As our head of government at home and worldwide, Mr. Harper is legally responsible for coming to Omar Khadr’s aid without further delays or excuses. All necessary steps should be taken with the U.S. government to ensure Khadr’s repatriation so that his case can be dealt with in Canada by competent, independent and impartial authorities.

If Mr. Harper does not follow through on the values he fought for during the last election, Canada risks further erosion of its good reputation as a nation that can still act with integrity. Ignoring this obligation would be a disastrous choice in these troubling times.

Mr. Harper: Being silent now is no longer a legitimate and rational option!

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