Forty years in prison: this was the sentence that was pronounced by the jury panel for being a child soldier. While shocking, it was no surprise to those who closely followed the Omar Khadr saga at Guantanamo bay. How fair could this jury be given that it included a Navy captain, a Marine colonel who was wounded in a firefight in Iraq, an Army lieutenant-colonel who served more than a year at an unnamed detention center, a Navy commander, an Army lieutenant-colonel who once served as a military policeman, a Navy lieutenant-commander who is a submarine officer and an Army major in military intelligence.
This is how the American military commission at Guantanamo Bay decided to put an end to one of the most embarrassing human rights cases and all that goes along with it in terms of abuse, neglect and vendetta. The United States, with the tacit approval of Canada, supposedly two democratic countries and champions of human rights, not only decided to set up a military tribunal to judge a child soldier who was only 15 years old at the time of his capture, but they also kept him in a military camp for over eight years during which he was harshly interrogated and abused.
Last week, after claiming his innocence for the last eight years, Omar Khadr, seeing he had no hope of being cleared by this sham process, decided to plead guilty to the charges of murder, terrorism and spying in exchange for an additional eight-year prison term. He has to spend one of these years at a maximum-security facility at Guantanamo before he can seek repatriation to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence.
"Everything about Omar Khadr's ordeal at Guantanamo Bay over the past eight years has been a fiasco" said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty General Canada. How did all of this could have happened in the civilized Western world?
To start with, the creation of Guantanamo camp was wrong. The transfer of prisoners who were captured in Afghanistan shouldn't have taken place. Since its inception in 2002, 770 prisoners have been detained at this notorious camp. As of today 192 prisoners still remain locked up. Nearly 580 have been released over the past few years. More than 530 of those were released during the rule of the previous administration. In 2008, during his presidential campaign, President Obama described Guantanamo as a "sad chapter in American history". He promised that if he became the next president of the Unites States he would immediately close down this camp. Here we are, almost two years after he took office, the camp remains open and it is unclear whether it will ever close.
Recently, a high ranking US colonel stated in an affidavit that top US officials had known for long time that the majority of the detainees initially shipped off to Guantanamo were in fact innocent. In other words, the detainees had been kept there for reasons of political expedience.
David Hicks, who recently published his personal memoir entitled " Guantanamo: My Journey", is an Australian who spent over six years in Guantanamo before he decided to plead guilty. As a result, he was allowed to return home to serve the remainder of his sentence. Hicks's legal team attributed his acceptance of the plea bargain to his "desperation for release from Guantanamo". It looks like history is repeating itself with a twist: Mr. Hicks was an adult when he was captured while Khadr was only 15 years of age to whom international law governing child soldiers' treatment should have applied.
In Canada, the past and present governments refused to help repatriate Omar Khadr back to Canada. It seems that it was too dangerous, for electoral reasons, to show any interest in the case. Without his consent, Omar Khadr became a political game where political parties could score points.
But the ostrich policy that was so far adopted by successive Canadian governments is no longer feasible. This case is now coming to haunt the current government and to tarnish its legacy forever.
Navy Captain John Murphy, the military prosecutor presiding over Khadr's trial said immediately after sentencing "I hope it sends a message to terrorists". I am afraid this sham trial has already sent the wrong type of message, that of injustice, arrogance and double standards.