The Triple Victimization of Omar Khadr

First published at ColdType 98 (Mid-May 2015): 28-31, http//

Omar Khadr has been the victim of a triple suspension of what ought to have been his by right—as a child, a citizen, and a human being. His father’s political fanaticism led to a suspension of the parental protection that is the normal anchorage of a child’s world, exposing him at age fifteen to the military power of an imperial state that had cast off the constraints of those international laws which define the basic rights accruing to us as human beings—and exposing him, as well, to the betrayal of his rights as a citizen by a Canadian government that, first through cowardice and then through harsh conviction, shaped its own notions of legality to the prevailing wind.

International law recognizes child soldiers as victims, and their recruitment as a crime: but Ahmed Said Khadr was willing to see his own sons become child soldiers. In 1994 he sent Omar's two older brothers, then aged thirteen and twelve, to a guerilla training camp in Afghanistan, at that time still riven by civil war. In July 2002, after the fall of the Taliban regime, he allowed Omar, aged fifteen, to serve as Pashto translator for a group of guerillas moving from Pakistan into the Khost region of Afghanistan on a mission that ended on July 27th with their deaths and Omar’s near-death and capture.

But Omar Khadr’s public significance stems from other more far-reaching forms of victimization. In the Manichaean theatrics of its global war of good against evil, the American imperial state imprisoned, tortured and demonized him; and up until this week he has been victimized as well by Canadian political leaders who, at first cravenly and then in a deliberate scorn of legality, have violated his rights as a Canadian citizen and refused their responsibilities to him under Canadian and international law.

The grotesque injustice of Omar Khadr’s treatment by the United States is widely recognized. Even were it true that he killed an American soldier, his imprisonment and the pressing of charges against him remain a violation of Articles 37, 39, and 40 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,1 and the torture to which he was subjected at Bagram and at Guantánamo is a criminal matter for which the responsible US officials deserve indictment.

Let us remember some of the details of this treatment.

When the Afghan compound where the guerillas were staying was attacked on July 27, 2002 by US Apache helicopters and A10 ground-attack aircraft, all but two of the group, Khadr and one of the men, were killed. Khadr received multiple splinter wounds during the attack and was partially blinded. A document inadvertently given to reporters during his pre-trial hearing in February 2008 states that a US soldier who entered the shattered compound killed the other survivor with a head shot, and seeing Khadr “sitting up facing away from him leaning against [a pile of] brush,” shot him twice in the back.

Could Khadr have thrown the grenade that killed one of the US soldiers? In March 2008, Khadr's military lawyer learned that the commander of the American infantry unit wrote in his July 28, 2002 report that the survivor of the aerial bombardment who threw the grenade had then himself been killed—and learned as well that this report was revised months later (though falsely given the same date of July 28) to say that the grenade thrower was merely “engaged” by US troops—thus pointing the finger at Khadr.

A confession was extracted from Omar Khadr while he lay chained to his bed in the prison hospital at Bagram with two gaping exit wounds in his chest, and we know from the testimony of a prison guard and of another prisoner, British citizen Moazzam Begg, that Khadr was repeatedly and harshly tortured at Bagram, where the guards singled him out “for the worst treatment, payback for allegedly killing one of their own.” Khadr now claims to remember having tossed a grenade backward over his head. But remembering is not a matter of simply recovering something that in its wholeness is filed away somewhere in the mind; it is a process, rather, of reconstruction. That memory, reconstructed for a traumatized, badly wounded, and consequently suggestible adolescent in the course of many hours of unrelenting interrogation, may be no more reliable than Khadr's confession at Bagram that he had seen Maher Arar in the company of Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan (at a time when the wholly innocent Arar was under close RCMP surveillance in Canada).

At the Guantánamo Bay prison, to which he was transferred in October, 2002, Khadr was subjected to physical abuse, threats of rape, sleep-deprivation torture, very extended solitary confinement, and long periods of being “short-shackled” in stress positions to a concrete floor. When on one such occasion, after hours chained to the floor, he wet himself, the guards drenched him with floor cleanser, used him as a human mop to wipe up his own urine, and left him in his soiled and chemical-stained clothing for the next two days. Khadr was also denied medical treatment for shrapnel injuries to his eyes and his legs. In April 2008, his lawyer Dennis Edney declared that he had by that time been locked in solitary confinement for a total of “more than two years with no relief from the overhead fluorescent lights,” and during the years of his imprisonment had been given “no education, no psychological assessment and no Canadian consular representative.”

In his book A Question of Torture (2006), Alfred W. McCoy studied the torture methods developed by the CIA since the 1950s, which focus on sensory deprivation, on ‘self-inflicted’ pain caused by forcing prisoners into stress positions, and on techniques of disorientation involving isolation and sleep-deprivation. The aim is to induce psychological regression from a normal state, in which a prisoner may resist interrogation, into a condition of fear, dependency, and deep (even psychotic) confusion. In the torture manuals analyzed by McCoy, and in the tortures inflicted throughout the US gulag system, these techniques have been combined with older and more obviously brutal methods of inducing terror, mental breakdown, and despair.

Omar Khadr was subjected to all of these forms of torture during the years of his captivity and repeated interrogations at Bagram and Guantánamo—and there is no doubt about the effects of this treatment. The Pentagon refused repeated requests for an independent medical examination. However, when lawyers acting on Khadr’s behalf were at last allowed to meet with him—in November 2004 and the spring of 2005—they administered two standard psychological tests to him themselves. Experts who assessed the results concluded that Khadr’s symptoms were those of a torture victim, and that his answers met the “full criteria for a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The lawyers’ attempt to secure an injunction against further interrogations was denied.

No less dismaying, from a Canadian perspective, is Omar Khadr's victimization by our own government. On August 30, 2002, Canada requested consular access to Khadr at Bagram (in conformity with the Geneva Conventions and the Vienna Convention on Consular Access), and asked both that due consideration be given to his age (Canada had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2001), and that he not be transferred to Guantánamo. But when the US denied consular access and bundled Khadr off to Gitmo, Canadian officials followed the advice of Foreign Affairs legal advisor Colleen Swords to “claw back on the fact that [Omar] is a minor.” And when the US permitted access to him only by intelligence officers, on the understanding that they would seek out and share information that could be incriminating, our government acquiesced.

In February 2003, Khadr was interrogated on three successive days by two intelligence officers from CSIS and the Department of Foreign Affairs. They responded to his complaints that he had been tortured into making false statements and was not receiving adequate medical care with a callous contempt that is the more remarkable for the fact that his wounds, as he showed by raising his shirt, were (in the words of his US military lawyer) “infected, swollen, and still seeping blood.” There were further interrogations in the Fall of 2003 by two CSIS agents, and in March 2004 by a Foreign Affairs intelligence officer who was aware that Khadr had been subjected to three weeks of sleep-deprivation torture to make him “more amenable and willing to talk.”

Khadr’s lawyers brought these facts to the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal, which in 2007 ruled that our government had violated international law, and ordered the release of all documents relating to his imprisonment. The Harper government appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Khadr’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had likewise been violated. When in April 2009 the Federal Court ordered that a request be made for Khadr’s repatriation to Canada as soon as possible, the government again appealed to the Supreme Court, which issued its judgment in January 2010. While strongly critical of the deprivation of Khadr’s “right to liberty and security of the person,” and judging that Canada’s complicity in the American preparation of a prosecution case through the use of sleep deprivation “offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects,” the Supreme Court left it to the government to decide how best to uphold Omar Khadr’s violated rights. Given this latitude, the Harper government allowed the American Military Commission in Guantánamo to lurch unprotested toward its preordained guilty verdict.

On October 31, 2010—Halloween, that is—a military jury arrived at the ghoulish conclusion that Khadr deserved an additional forty years in prison for war crimes, fifteen years more than the prosecution had called for. But this sentence was pre-empted by a plea-bargain agreement, according to which, in return for a full acknowledgment of guilt, Khadr would receive an eight-year sentence, after a year of which the US government “would support his bid to apply to serve the rest of his sentence in a Canadian prison.”

At every subsequent stage, from Khadr's repatriation to the bail hearing that has just concluded, the Harper government has has taken every available opportunity to express its confidence in a kangaroo-court conviction resting on falsified evidence and on torture, and to resist justice for Omar Khadr by every means at its disposal.

Only following his release on bail have Canadians been able to see and hear Omar Khadr speak for himself. What we saw on May 8 was a smiling, soft-spoken young man who thanked Canadians and the court system for trusting him and giving him a chance, and calmly said, in response to Stephen Harper's impenitently punitive attitude: “I'm going to have to disappoint him. I'm better than the person he thinks I am.”

But we should give the last word to Dennis Edney, the lawyer who has worked tirelessly on Omar's behalf for the past eleven years, and whose affection and support have undoubtedly been a major factor in his rehabilitation:

I think he's worth every effort. I met him in a cold, empty cell. And I saw a broken bird, chained to the floor. So, we journeyed together. We have, in some ways, both grown up together. I'm proud of who he is. He's gone through hell.




1  Article 37 provides that “The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time. Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance….” Article 39, on Rehabilitative Care, provides that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.” Article 40 recognizes the right of a child accused of a crime “to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth,” and provides for “hav[ing] the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law.” For the full text, see CRIN: Child Rights Information Network, The US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but professes to respect it.