Monday night’s WSIC crowd was smaller than normal, but it was a vocal one. That’s to be expected when your subject is Omar Khadr.
WSIC doesn’t take sides, but our speakers always do. They argue their cases based on experience and expertise. But in doing so, they also present facts and clear up misconceptions: helping you to make your own decision, even if you disagree.
Our first speaker, Dr. Barbara Falk, used most of her opening remarks to restate the details of the case itself—so lost have they become in politics and fabrication, rumour and rhetoric. Dr. Falk knows the case well. A political scientist and instructor at Canadian Forces College, she has lectured and written on it for years. And in the end, she said, the facts aren’t all that complex.
Omar Khadr was born in Toronto and moved with his family to Afghanistan when he was 10-years old, prior to the war there. His father had links to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. At 15, while visiting neighbours with his father, the 15-year-old Omar was badly wounded by a U.S. and Afghan attack on the family’s compound. After an airstrike, the ground forces moved in and recovered four bodies, along with Omar. The boy spent about a year in Afghanistan after that, then nearly nine years in Guantanamo Bay, prior to pleading guilty to a range of offences that included the killing of a U.S. serviceman during the attack in which he was captured.
Beyond these facts, we know very little about Omar Khadr himself, Dr. Falk explained. When it comes to the circumstances of his alleged crime, we have little hard evidence. Psychologists disagree about his mental state and capacity to inflict harm. Many of those convinced of his guilt (or his innocence) lack a basic understanding of how the case unfolded.
In Dr. Falk’s opinion, those incensed at Omar Khadr are really incensed at his family. They, more than Omar, have been controversial figures in the media, and it is Omar’s father that had contacts with Al-Qaeda, not the young Khadr. But regardless of what Khadr or may not have done, Dr. Falk stressed that most of the evidence against him would not stand up to a Charter challenge in a Canadian court—having been extracted under duress and, frequently, torture.
Our second speaker was WSIC board member, Gavin Magrath. Magrath practices private international law in Toronto with Magrath O’Connor, and co-authored the Lawyers’ Right’s Watch Canada shadow report on Canada to the Committee Against Torture, established under the Torture Convention.
Magrath spoke passionately about what he sees as serious breaches by the Canadian Government of both the Charter and Criminal Code in this case, as well our international human rights obligations. He pointed out that those calling Khadr a convicted war criminal are ignoring the illegality of the tribunal that convicted him.
In fact, he went on, there were three illegalities for which the Canadian Government had direct responsibility: Obtaining evidence by torture; then turning it over to United States government; then concealing it from Khadr—the very man it was being used to convict. No matter the crime, Magrath said, everyone has the right to a fair trial and to know the evidence against them. Khadr was denied the fundamental benefits of the rule of law.
The audience had many follow-up questions—so many that WSIC founder, Terri Chu, extended the evening by 30 minutes.
While the room was predominantly pro-Khadr, there were also vocal dissenters. To them, Magrath restated his point about due process: he believes the convicted man, in this case, has not received his due. Dr. Falk answered many questions about the details of the trial itself, and why, in her opinion, the political situation surrounding it evolved as it did.
She also urged a balanced view. Those who in engage in military exercises overseas do so according to a strict set of rules, she said—rules by which their enemies do not abide. It is difficult work, with few clear-cut answers. She also warned against viewing America as a monolith: reminding us that many Americans worked hard on Khadr’s behalf. They failed, but their efforts should not be ignored.
The only question our speakers couldn’t answer was the last one: “How will the Omar Khadr case impact the Charter rights of all Canadians?” Khadr is, after all, a Canadian citizen. “It isn’t clear yet,” Magrath noted, although both speakers described a slow chipping away of respect for citizenship and the rule of law. Indeed, we shall see.