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What to Do With Khadr

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, April 19, 2012. Reprinted in full with permission.

The Conservative government has now run out of wiggle room in the case of Omar Khadr, the son of the notorious Canadian al-Qaeda loyalist, Ahmed Said Khadr. Omar was a child soldier, left behind in Afghanistan by his father after the 9/11 attacks. He was caught up in a firefight with American special forces in 2002, badly wounded and taken prisoner, held at Bagram and then Guantanamo, where he was the youngest of the inmates at the terrorist detention camp (he was age 15 when captured).

Omar Khadr was one of the first Guantanamo detainees to be tried under refurbished rules for U.S. military commissions and was convicted of five counts of war crimes by an American military tribunal. He has now served one year of his eight-year sentence and is eligible to be returned to Canada. The U.S. government is, apparently, pressing Canada to get on with it and accept Khadr back. Vic Toews’ Public Safety department is “considering” the request. Stalling might be the word.

The Khadr case presents the Conservative government with a host of dilemmas.

One is gut politics: this is a government that simply dislikes the idea of having to accept Khadr’s return, and has already engaged in pitched battles with the courts right up to the Supreme Court, to avoid any such obligation. The Conservative base probably doesn’t like it either, and will hold little sympathy for the notion that Khadr should come home at all or get any special treatment. But in this case, the instincts of the gut and of the base will have to give way to the higher necessities of relations with the United States, and will have to be in accord with legal precedents and norms for the return of prisoners. Like it or not, Omar Khadr will return to Canada.

The real issues, stalling aside, have to do with how Khadr is to be treated on his return. Essentially he will be out on parole, but he is, of course, a very unusual parolee and solutions to his case will have to be custom built. The first thing that needs to be said is that Khadr is unlikely to present any kind of national security threat to Canada. He may have been a member, willing or otherwise, of Canada’s premier al-Qaeda family, but he was a child and the father who ruled and inducted his children into the al-Qaeda cause, Ahmed Said Khadr, is dead, killed in a firefight in Pakistan in 2003. Al-Qaeda’s own lamp has been considerably dimmed, especially after the death of Osama bin Laden last year.

The challenge presented by Omar Khadr’s return requires us to acknowledge, without overstating, his past and his family’s noxious activity, and to recognize that the Americans will be watching with interest, while never losing sight of the fact that the objective is his successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

In Omar’s case that means two things will have to be kept in balance. One is the need to subject him to a court-approved control process that will spell out his conditions of life in Canada until such time as he is free from parole. The process may require some measures that will seem harsh and deprive him of a degree of liberty — including walling him off from some other members of his family in Toronto, circumscribing his freedom to communicate and associate with others, and providing for some measure of specified surveillance. These will be temporary measures and based on risk assessments compiled by correctional officers. But equally, steps will need to be taken to ensure Omar Khadr’s health and livelihood, including treatment for any physical or mental health problems that he might face after his long incarceration at Guantanamo. Omar Khadr will need opportunities to continue his education in a Canadian setting, and ultimately find a job for himself.

For a time, Omar Khadr will bear the burden of being a poster boy for a first-time Canadian experiment in the rehabilitation of a convicted terrorist. We should keep that burden as light as possible, for nothing better could happen to Omar than to be allowed to disappear into normalcy and anonymity. The Conservative government could take the first step by making no political fuss about his return and by quietly going about the business of establishing a suitable control regime and giving Omar Khadr access to the tools — education, work, new friendships — that will help him escape his past, and escape into life in Canada.

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