I’ve Come To Know The Real Omar Khadr As A Brother

Several years ago Dennis Edney, Omar Khadr’s pro-bono lawyer, spoke to the student body at the Christian university where I teach and introduced us to Omar Khadr. Dennis spoke passionately about the injustices Omar was suffering at Guantanamo. The fact that Omar was of a similar age as our students, that he was Canadian, that he was being tortured at a discredited U.S. facility in Cuba — all these factors lent a sense of urgency to the cause.

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr, 30, is seen in Mississauga, Ont., on Thursday, July 6, 2017. The federal government has paid Khadr $10.5 million and apologized to him for violating his rights during his long ordeal after capture by American forces in Afghanistan in July 2002. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

Our students were highly motivated to respond, and Dennis urged them to tell Omar’s story to others, to support him in simple ways like sending him letters, and to ask for accountability from the Canadian government. They were encouraged to learn as much as they could about the case in order to respond knowledgeably and not only emotionally.

Over the years our journey with Omar has included many things: correspondence, advocacy, hosting of awareness-raising events. One of King’s faculty members, Arlette Zinck, began to tutor Omar and testified at his hearings in Guantanamo. Subsequent to his release she was instrumental in arranging prison visits by various faculty members — that’s when I met Omar. Upon his release Omar became a student at King’s and we were glad to welcome him personally. I consider Omar a friend to be treasured, a neighbour to be welcomed, and a brother to be respected.

To know about Omar’s plight and not act on that knowledge would be to fail in so many ways.

We have received criticism for our advocacy, but I believe Omar’s treatment in prison required intervention. His pro-bono lawyers needed support, the callous disregard for Omar expressed by many people (including some government officials) needed to be exposed, and there had to be some accountability. Omar was a child when he was taken to Afghanistan — he deserved protection.

I felt an obligation as a human being, as a Canadian citizen, as a teacher of students, and above all as a follower of Jesus. I’ve been teaching students at King’s for 20 years, urging them to embrace the biblical challenge “to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) — to know about Omar’s plight and not act on that knowledge would be to fail in so many ways. The core of the biblical story is forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation. I am thankful that God placed Omar in our path to help us learn more about what that all means.

The announcement of the government’s apology to Omar has set off a firestorm of protest, much of it ill-informed and mean-spirited. There is a persistent assumption that the ruling of the military commission at Guantanamo is to be believed and that on that basis Omar should be considered a convicted terrorist.

The military commission was a sham and has been repeatedly discredited. Yet the nay-sayers are willing to accept the military commission ruling but not the ruling of the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. Omar’s “confession” was an act of desperation to get out of Guantanamo. Readers may be interested to know that even if the military commission at Guantanamo had acquitted Omar, they were not going to set him free. He was facing 40 years in that discredited place.

There is a persistent assumption that the ruling of the military commission at Guantanamo is to be believed and that on that basis Omar should be considered a convicted terrorist.

Furthermore, I believe that Omar was not guilty of throwing the grenade that killed Sergeant Speer. When Omar was found he was terribly wounded, shot in the back, blind and concussed. He had a broken ankle and was buried under rubble. Yet, in that condition, he is accused of throwing a grenade 80 feet over an eight-foot wall.

Sam Morison, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Defense assigned to Omar’s case, spoke at King’s back in 2013. According to Morison, the U.S. military had no case that would stand up in any normal court of law. Morison’s bottom-line conclusion was: “Omar Khadr was neither charged with nor pled guilty to any conduct for which he could be tried in a military commission. To the contrary he was himself the victim of a war crime.” Those are the words of a U.S. government attorney. I tend to believe him.

(Readers can view the full presentation by Mr. Morison in this video or read this account of the inconsistencies between the various accounts offered by the U.S. military to learn more.)

Photo reviewed by US military officials

Recent polls continue to show a considerable amount of anger about the settlement. In one way I don’t blame people for being angry, but they should direct their anger where it belongs: at successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative, that failed to do the right thing.

The so-called “settlement” is not a payment to Omar for something he did or did not do. It is a penalty incurred by the Canadian government for repeatedly ignoring the rule of law. There is a price to be paid for the violation of the rights of a citizen, who was only a child at the time. Not only did the Canadian government not act on Omar’s behalf when it should have, it acted against his best interests.

In one way I don’t blame people for being angry, but they should direct their anger where it belongs.

The persistent naming of Omar as a “convicted terrorist” and worse reveals a dark heart among some quarters of Canadian citizenry. I lament that; it tells me that people are not availing themselves of the full story but are defaulting to stereotypes and caricatures. Some people want to believe the worst, and that is a sad reality. But I am also heartened by the wise and generous responses of others. They give me hope that, given time, Omar will accomplish his stated objective when he was released from prison, namely, “to prove to Mr. [Stephen] Harper that I am not the person he thinks I am.”

In the face of the firestorm that erupted upon news of the government’s apology and settlement, Omar has remained stoic, generous of spirit, thoughtful and kind. I interviewed Omar a while back for one of our conferences and asked him how he maintained hope. His answer has stayed with me: “A few years ago, I realized that if you want something so pure (as hope), you have to get it from its original source. And the most pure hope is from God. Once I realized that and embraced it… hope opened a lot of doors for me, to bypass the anger that might restrict me.”

Well said, Omar. I hope Canadians are listening.

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Author: Roy Berkenbosch