by Nooria Alam
“I saw Omar on a screen, stretched out and tied to this wire mesh, crying, screaming in pain; his body had suffered such terrible wounds, and the torturers, these evil men, when Omar had to pee, they would take him down and they would use his head as a mop to pick up the urine.”
These were the words used by defense lawyer Dennis Edney on June 6th at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto in describing the horrific experiences of Omar Khadr during his decade-long stay in Guantánamo Bay.
Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was just fifteen years old when he was captured by US forces in eastern Afghanistan, and has since spent over a decade in American military prisons. Accused of (and tried twice for) killing an American soldier, the evidence against him was so inadequate—based mostly on his own confessions coerced through routine torture—that even openly-biased American military courts couldn’t successfully convict him. Edney has been Khadr’s legal counsel since 2004.
Edney spoke passionately to an audience of hundreds, including members of the Khadr family, about the inhumane treatment that Khadr experienced, first at the military “hospital” at Bagram Airfield—an American military base north of Kabul, Afghanistan—and later at Guantánamo Bay, a maximum-security detention facility located in Cuba.
He described the method by which the Americans convinced Khadr that he had killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, saying, “when Omar woke up [at Bagram] he had been unconscious for a whole week, and from that moment he was put into stress positions—painful positions—and told that he had thrown a hand grenade that killed an American soldier. When they ask Omar [in interrogation videos], he says, ‘I don’t know if I did or not!’ Because from the moment he woke and throughout his many years at Guantánamo, when tortured, he was told that he had done that.”
“When your torturer asks you questions, after a while you’ll give them any answer that you think will make it go away,” he added.
All this, he emphasised over and over again, was a result of the American government’s refusal to act according to the ‘rule of law.’ “One has to look no further than the story of Guantánamo Bay to understand how easy it is for a nation to fall into lawlessness,” he explained, referring to the prison as a “hell-hole…outside the reach of the law. A place shut off from the rest of the world [and] forgotten by all of us.”
He pointed fingers at the Canadian government as well, accusing both the Liberal government of Paul Martin as well as the current Harper Conservatives of abandoning Omar. “When every Western government requested, and was granted, the return of their citizens—all of whom were adults—we left a child. The message that was given to the Americans was ‘we don’t care, do what you want with him.’ While the only message [the Canadian public] got to hear was ‘this young man committed a heinous crime; he’s a terrorist.’”
He attributed Khadr’s abandonment in Guantánamo to the Canadian government’s disregard for its legal obligations to protect its citizens: “Governments such as Germany, Britain, and France demanded that their citizens get out of that hell-hole because [they knew] it was beyond the rule of law… civil liberty was just a fiction there. Meanwhile, I remember [then-Public Safety Minister] Peter MacKay saying to the media, ‘we have been assured by the Americans that he’s being treated well.’ We still don’t talk about the fact that our government allowed one of our own children to be tortured and abused.”
Edney concluded his speech by linking the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to Canadians’ legal rights, stating: “In my view, defeating terrorism means convincing the world of the importance of following the rule of law….we must be alert to the extent to which governments, including our own government, continue to exploit us, by playing the fear card [and] trumping our civil liberties.”
But he also criticised Canadians for “failing” to defend Khadr and themselves from illegal government activity. “As we have failed Omar, we’ve also failed our children through bequeathing to them an uncertain future as the result of this systemic apathy shown by Canadian citizens and our civil institutions. We have all participated in abandoning him. As long as we allow a place like Guantánamo Bay to exist, we cannot call ourselves a civil society.”
Currently released on bail, Khadr now lives with Edney’s family in Edmonton, Alberta. Although his bail has many conditions, including a curfew and an ankle-monitor, Edney told the audience that Khadr studies a lot and is doing well with readjusting to society. “I recall a few years ago, saying to Omar, ‘What do you want to do when we get you out of Guantánamo?’ He said, ‘I wish to be a doctor, to make sure that no one is ever treated like I was.’”