It was a sad day for the rule of law in the United States. Sunday, Omar Khadr became the first child to be prosecuted by a Western nation for war crimes since the Second World War. After an intense week, a U. S. military panel returned its verdict, condemning Khadr to a 40-year prison sentence.
But that sentence was largely symbolic. As part of a pre-hearing plea deal, unbeknownst to the panel of jurors, Khadr had already agreed to an extra eight years in jail. He has already served eight at the U.S. Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. The jury went even farther than the 25-year sentence recommended by the prosecution.
Now 24, Khadr pleaded guilty last week to five war crimes charges including killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002 during a war fight. He was 15 years old at the time. Badly wounded, he was sent to an U.S. army hospital then incarcerated at the Gitmo prison.
Before his sentencing, he told the widow of the soldier he killed that he was “really, really sorry.”
“I wish I could do something that would take this pain away from you”, he said, facing the widow of U.S. Delta Force Sgt. Christopher Speer.
As part of the plea agreement, Khadr is to serve one year in U.S. custody, and the remaining sentence in Canada under a prisoner exchange treaty, the Treaty between Canada and the United States of America on the Execution of Penal Sentences. He would only be brought back to Canada, conveniently, after a likely 2011 spring election. He would then be subject to Canadian law and be eligible for parole after completing one-third of his sentence.
The Toronto-born Khadr is a Canadian citizen. The Supreme Court of Canada, Canada’s highest court, agreed with lower courts, that his constitutional rights had been violated and that his treatment in jail and during interrogations amounted to torture.
According to New Democratic MP (Member of Parliament) Paul Dewar, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has preferred to look the other way, saying all along that the process would follow its course in the United States. Omar Khadr comes from a militant family with close ties to Osama Bin Laden.
Under pressure, Canada has had a change of heart. It is now saying it will look “favorably” on Khadr᾽s application for a transfer, according to an exchange of diplomatic notes between Ottawa and Washington dated October 23 that has become public.
After denying there was a deal to bring back Khadr to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon admitted on November 1 in the House of Commons that the deal “would be implemented.”
“They cornered themselves in their own talking points,” Dewar told reporters. “When every other country had repatriated their nationals from Guantánamo, this government kept on saying `It is not our responsibility. It is not our role.᾽ Well, if it not your role to involve yourself with a Canadian citizen…then what the heck is our responsibility?”
The face-saving move to bring back Khadr to Canada serves two purposes. The Administration of President Barak Obama, which has had to backtrack from its promise to shut down Gitmo, was caught off guard by Khadr᾽s much-publicized fate. It will now be able to say that Khadr, who some observers clearly see as a child soldier, never had his case go to trial. As for Harper, he will be able to tell voters he never waivered from his tough-on-crime agenda, a theme that plays well with his domestic audience, mostly in his Western Canada electoral base. Both countries were strong supporters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.
Needless to say, Ottawa᾽s handling of the case over eight long years wasn’t Canada’s finest hour.
*Huguette Young is an AmericasQuarterly.org contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.