The last westerner in Guantanamo

TORONTO — On the morning of July 27, 2002, American Special Forces soldiers were pinned down by an outnumbered handful of suspected Al Qaeda fighters in a compound south of Kabul. Two F-18 warplanes proceeded to drop 500-pound bombs.

When the smoke cleared, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer went to survey the rubble. The Denver, Colo. native never saw the grenade that landed at his feet, killing him. A U.S. soldier says he then saw an injured fighter lying in the debris and shot him dead. He saw another — later identified as Omar Khadr — sitting on the ground, and pumped two bullets into his back.

Khadr survived. As an army medic treated the gaping exit wounds on his chest, Khadr whispered, in English, "Shoot me.”

He was 15 years old. He was also a Toronto-born Canadian citizen.

Today, Khadr is the last westerner languishing in America’s notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Other western countries have demanded and secured the release of their citizens. But successive Canadian governments have steadfastly refused to even ask for Khadr’s return. That fact alone challenges Canada’s self-image as a standard-bearer for human rights and international law.

Khadr was a child soldier. International conventions signed by Canada consider child soldiers victims who should be rehabilitated, rather than prosecuted — in Khadr’s case, if he ever gets a trial, for Speer’s murder. Yet the Canadian government continues to wash its hands of him, even after U.S. President Barack Obama announced the closing of “Gitmo” within a year.

Canada's current conservative government stands virtually alone among western countries in supporting the Guantanamo prison, despite the discredited legal contortions used by the previous U.S. administration to justify its existence and the “enhanced” interrogation techniques its inmates have suffered.

One example used on Khadr is described in “Guantanamo’s Child,” a well-documented book by the Toronto Star’s national security reporter, Michelle Shephard: “The guards left him in the interrogation booth for hours, short-shackled with his ankles and wrists bound together and secured to a bolt on the floor. Unable to move, he eventually urinated and was left in a pool of urine on the floor.

“When the MPs returned and found the soiled teenager, they poured pine oil cleaner on Omar’s chest and the floor. Keeping him short-shackled, the guards used Omar as a human mop to clean up the mess. Omar was returned to his cell and for two days the guards refused to give him fresh clothes.”

Canadians have largely let the government get away with its inaction. The latest public opinion poll indicates a slight majority believes Khadr should be returned to Canada, but few raise their voices to demand it be done. The Khadr family is, in a word, hated. Labeled “Canada’s first family of terrorism” by the media, its members are portrayed as backing the destruction of western society while sponging off Canada’s social services.

At the head of the family was Ahmed Said Khadr, an Egyptian who became a Canadian citizen and an engineer. He worked for a Canadian charity, partly funded by the Canadian government, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. For years his family moved between homes in Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Ahmed Said is alleged to have been a bagman for Al Qaeda. Shephard notes that Al Qaeda’s top leaders — Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri — attended Said's daughter’s wedding.

When the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Khadr family fled Kabul with Zawahiri’s wife and children. Ahmed Said was killed in October 2003 in an aerial bombing of the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

Two of Omar Khadr’s older brothers trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. One is in Toronto facing extradition to the U.S. on charges of supplying weapons to Al Qaeda; the other, also in Toronto, claims to have worked undercover for the CIA as a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay.

Younger Omar was “brought up memorizing the Quran and Green Eggs and Ham,” Shephard writes. The Pentagon alleges that in June 2002, at the age of 15, he received weapons training at an Al Qaeda camp and learned to make improvised explosive devices. But the murder case against him seems sketchy.

The Pentagon admits no one saw him throw the grenade that killed Speer. Khadr wasn’t the only fighter left alive after the compound was bombed, raising doubts as to who might have thrown it.

Further doubt was cast last December in a report submitted by Khadr’s lawyer to a military tribunal’s pre-trial hearing. It says a U.S. soldier, identified only as “Soldier No. 2,” contradicts Pentagon evidence that Khadr was found sitting on the ground in the bombed-out compound. Instead, the soldier says he was buried under the rubble of a collapsed roof, suggesting he could not have thrown the grenade.

Khadr is now in legal limbo, awaiting the outcome of Obama’s review of the controversial military tribunals set up to try Guantanamo prisoners. His defense lawyers have said he’s willing to face prosecution in Canada and undergo rehabilitation away from his family.

But the Canadian government plays deaf and dumb. Some detect racism, convinced that Khadr would long ago have been repatriated if he were white. Whatever the case, Omar Khadr, prisoner No. 766, remains in Guantanamo for alleged acts committed as a child soldier in times of war.

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