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Liberals, Conservatives both failed Omar Khadr

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One thing that is certain is that the Canadian al-Qaida terrorist Omar Khadr will never live a normal life. Khadr stands as the most complex symbol of the problems the United States has brought upon itself as a result of setting up its notorious detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Khadr, who is now 24, has been there since he was 15. The years he has spent in the detention centre are not alone responsible for who he now is, but they may well have added to his radical convictions.

His case is compounded by competing issues. There is no doubt he is a terrorist and was at least partially responsible for killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan with a grenade. This week he admitted to a military court that he is guilty of that crime and of conspiring with al-Qaida.

There are two problems with that: the first is that he was 15 at the time. The second is that, had he been a combatant with a country at war instead of being a warrior for al-Qaida, he would not have been guilty of any crime at all. Soldiers who kill in the name of their countries are doing their duty.

In other contexts, the use of 15-year-olds in combat is condemned by the United States and the Western world in general as the employment of child soldiers. Khadr is the first person since the Second World War to be prosecuted by a war crimes tribunal for acts he committed as a juvenile.

Canada has tried to distance itself as far from the Khadr affair as possible. The Harper government has consistently said that he was the United States' problem and should be tried by the U.S. system. It's a stance that is easy to criticize, but any course of action by the Canadian government has been fraught with difficulty.

How do you deal with a 15-year-old who is accused of killing a friendly country's soldier? There is no easy answer, and it is a question that our courts have had difficulty determining.

Khadr's Canadian lawyers demanded that the government fight for his repatriation to Canada. The argument was that he was a Canadian citizen apprehended and held without trial. But given the crimes he was accused of and the potential threat he posed, it was a difficult case to argue.

The Federal Court of Appeal decided one way -- that the government should seek to repatriate him. Then the Supreme Court reversed the ruling. To make matters more confusing, however, the Supreme Court also ruled that Khadr's human rights had been violated. How, exactly, do you rule that human rights have been violated but it's OK to do nothing about it?

Now it looks as though Khadr will serve some of his sentence in Canada under a quiet deal being worked out between U.S. and Canadian diplomats.

But really, what a mess this is.

My belief in civil liberties, human rights and the careful treatment of young offenders tells me that locking Khadr up in Guantanamo was simply wrong, whether or not he was abused while he was there.

Khadr is an intelligent man who speaks a number of languages and has deep knowledge of the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an. He has become a leader in Guantanamo and, according to his prosecutors, has shown no remorse for his actions.

That is hardly surprising. Khadr was brought up in al-Qaida camps. The man believes in what he was fighting for. So, no doubt, do others at Guantanamo. As members of a terrorist organization, believing in the right of their cause, they pose a unique problem to the normal process of the law. They may be combatants, but they are combatants who flout the conventions of war.

Normally, when prisoners of war are released at the end of hostilities, they return home to a peaceful life. There can be no guarantee that the prisoners at Guantanamo will do any such thing. For them, the struggle may well continue. Their theatre of war is anywhere they may decide to take terrorist action.

Closing Guantanamo raises the awkward question of what to do with the committed terrorists it houses. For Khadr, though, the question is why he was sent there in the first place.

Whatever he had done, placing a 15-year-old in a prison for terrorists without any due process is not defensible. He was indoctrinated, being brought up as a child in al-Qaida camps. Khadr should have had juvenile psychiatric help. He was a Canadian citizen who deserved the protection of the Canadian government. He didn't get it. Instead, he received Canadian collusion in his continuing detention. It is worth remembering, though, that when Khadr was first sent to Guantanamo and was interviewed by Canadian security forces, Jean Chrétien was prime minister. Stephen Harper doesn't wear this one alone. Khadr was a hard Canadian to protect, but both parties failed to do so.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2010 A15

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