by Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada
From Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay and now the outskirts of Edmonton. Who would have thought that human rights campaigning that began with a short news report that a 15 year old Canadian had been arrested by US forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 and continued through a decade of activism, media interviews and legal work while that same young Canadian endured the lawlessness and injustices of Guantánamo Bay; would now bring me to a maximum security prison outside Edmonton. But that is where, after eleven years of working on his case, I recently travelled to meet and spend some time with Omar Khadr.
Just over a year ago Amnesty International enthusiastically welcomed the news that Omar Khadr, who had been sentenced to an eight year prison term under an October 2010 Guantánamo Bay plea deal, was at long last being transferred back to a Canadian prison. It seemed peculiar to characterize a transfer from one prison to another prison as a human rights victory. But that it was. For leaving Guantánamo behind was one step closer to leaving more than a decade of human rights violations behind as well. And thus we noted that return to Canada was not the end but, more aptly, a first significant step toward justice.
For much injustice remains. As he returned he still faced six years (now five) of a prison term that had utterly refused to take account of his status as a child soldier when he was captured in 2002 and all of the important international human rights provisions providing protection to children propelled, coerced and misled out onto the battlefield. As he returned the Canadian government had still done nothing (and still has done nothing) to respond to the January 2010 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that found government officials had been complicit in human rights violations Omar had endured at Guantánamo; for which there must be a remedy. And as he returned there had been no independent investigation into the detailed and credible allegations he has made about torture and ill-treatment at the hands of US officials in both Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.
I travelled to Guantánamo Bay three times in 2010 to observe the military commission trial against Omar Khadr. Under the strict rules governing NGO’s allowed on the base I was not allowed to speak with him, or any of the prisoners. I would have likely been sent packing on the next flight out if I had so much as said ‘good morning’ while he sat no more than 10 metres from me in the courtroom.
So this was my first opportunity to have a long overdue conversation. I obviously wanted to hear much from him; and I did. I also wanted to share with him the extent of Amnesty International’s campaigning on his behalf; which I was also able to do.
Omar was certainly aware that Amnesty had taken up his case. He has heard that from his lawyers and supporters. But it was clearly moving for him to hear and understand the extent of all that activity. And in particular for me to describe to him that the support had come from Amnesty members from all possible walks of life, including student activists and retirees, corporate lawyers, nuns, teachers and academics, and bureaucrats.
We spoke a great deal about his current situation. I had already heard from others that Omar has become a student with an insatiable appetite for learning and is rapidly making up for the many years of education that were stolen away from him. A remarkable group of volunteer teachers keeps up with his relentless progress through high school subjects and marvels in his obvious yearning to learn. As we spoke it was so very clear that those “classes”, reading and assignments are the highlight of his days.
It was, however, sadly evident that even after more than a year of being back in Canada, programming has not been put in place that recognizes his right to treatment and support for all he suffered as a child soldier. We wrote to government and corrections officials months ago, highlighting Canada’s obligation to do just that; an obligation that is, in fact, enshrined in international legal texts that Canada championed when they were agreed back in 2000. Clearly we need to reiterate and intensify that message.
The Canadian courts have, over the years, been fiercely reliable in ruling in Omar’s favour in various challenges highlighting human rights concerns in his case. That includes two Supreme Court judgements that sided with him. Not surprisingly, therefore, his indefatigable legal team has turned to the courts once again, seeking an order that would at long last require the justice and corrections systems to treat him as the juvenile he was back in the summer of 2002. If successful, that would go far in starting to lay the ground for some of the continuing human rights concerns in his case finally to be rectified.
As our allotted time drew to a close, Omar shared with me a message of thanks to share with Amnesty members who have taken up his case over the years:
“To members of Amnesty International in Canada and everywhere I want to say thank you for the support and all the work that you have done for me. It has been incredible to come to the realization that there are all these wonderful people out there helping me with my ordeal. Knowing that makes it a bit easier. I am so grateful. Perhaps the one positive thing coming out of all I have been through is to know that there are so many good people in the world, like the members of Amnesty International, willing to stand up for other people. That means so much to me.”
With that message he so perfectly sums up the essence of Amnesty: willing to stand up for other people. And I was able to assure him that we will most certainly continue to stand up for him.