Welcome Back, Omar Khadr: Demonized No More

Photo by Khadr family

When torture survivor Omar Khadr was granted bail last week, the Harper government actually did something logical: it argued in an emergency hearing that releasing someone who, since the age of 15, has never known life outside of the world’s worst detention facilities, would cause irreparable harm.

Indeed, it already has, but not in the way the government had argued. For Canada’s state security agencies and public safety ministers, the days of easy, unanswered attacks on Khadr’s reputation, along with accusations of the alleged threat he poses to Canadians, are over. Why? Because, for the very first time, the young man who represented for CSIS, the RCMP, and other war-on-terror enthusiasts the “worst of the worst” from Canada’s “first family of terror” was finally free to respond in a quiet, dignified manner.

Remarkably, a kid who at 15 was essentially orphaned, grievously wounded, traumatized by years of gang rape threats, used as a human mop to wipe up his own urine, and subjected to over a decade of indefinite detention and torture with little to no support system, emerged in front of the media at his Edmonton lawyer’s home as a thoughtful, shy young man who simply wants to start life anew.

Since his 2002 incarceration and torture at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base – where he was interrogated by a team later implicated in the murder of fellow detainees – and his subsequent transfer as the youngest inmate to Guantanamo Bay, Khadr has borne the weight of the most serious accusations that can beleveled. Even the CBC last week repeated the inaccurate label of “convicted war criminal,” though Khadr admits he signed a statement prepared by his captors to get away from the abuse he endured at Gitmo, where military commissions are regarded by most legal experts as kangaroo courts out of a Kafka novel.

Harper’s Narrative Called into Question

Khadr’s ability to come across in a manner that contradicts the Harper government’s narrative poses a problem for Conservatives who, the day before Omar walked free had, with Liberal support, passed the repressive Bill C-51, a massive piece of legislation based on overheated fears of terrorist threats. Perhaps Canadians grounded in over a decade’s worth of Khadr-as-Dangerous-Super-Muslim will rethink not only his case, but also those of other young people who are now the focus of a related moral panic: teenagers who have gone or tried to travel overseas to support the fight in Syria and Iraq, along with a half dozen others held on “terrorist peace bonds”, details of which have yet to be publicly revealed.

The naysayers will claim the sympathetic image of Omar is scheming, staged terrorist propaganda, in much the same sickening way CSIS agents, knowing that Omar had been “softened up” by weeks of “frequent flyer program” torture (sleep deprivation, moved to a new cell every three hours over a lengthy period of time), mocked his tears and moans during their recorded interrogations. At one point in the infamous interrogation video made public by order of the Supreme Court, a CSIS agent tells a weeping, teenaged Khadr who cries, “No one cares about me,” that his injuries are not that bad, and that he’s using his emotions as a devious “strategy.”

Meanwhile, Dennis Edney, Khadr’s lawyer, and the man in whose family home Omar now lives, may be accused by some of over-the-top rhetoric in calling Harper a “bigot” who “doesn’t like Muslims.” But he does have a point. Imagine if Omar had been born Igor, the son of a right-wing Hungarian nationalist who went to Ukraine to fight the Russians alongside Neo-Nazis. Suppose, like Omar, the teenaged Igor happened to be in a primitive hut, obliterated when Russian fighter jets dropped a series of 500-lb bombs on it, and the youngster lay in the rubble, gaping bullet wounds in his chest and his left eye blinded. A Russian soldier is unfortunately killed when someone – it is still not clear, whether from inside or outside the compound – throws a grenade, as will happen in wartime. The Russians take Igor to a Siberian torture camp, the likes of which were memorialized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and use his torture-induced statements to label him a heinous criminal. Igor would likely become a symbol of the eternal fight for freedom, a youthful hero whose picture sits on Harper’s desk.

But Omar, by dint of birth, did not share such fortune. His lifeline has been dictated by a complex series of geopolitical currents with Cold War roots, in which the people of Afghanistan became the weary, long-suffering victims ofsuperpower proxy wars. They featured U.S.-funding of Osama bin Laden, constantly shifting alliances, and a 2001 invasion that saw thousands killed by U.S. aerial bombardment, terrifying night raids on village huts, transfers to torture, and other horrors that hardly made U.S. and Canadian forces the friendly liberators they pictured themselves to be. Meanwhile, the thousands who went to resist the post-1979 Soviet occupation or to provide humanitarian assistance, once hailed as heroes and freedom fighters, often became demonized when they came home, thrown into Egyptian or Pakistani prisons or, in some Canadian cases, held under secret trial security certificates.

Demonization of a Family

The demonization of Omar Khadr and his family has always been based on a tenuous foundation at best. That some family members have made distasteful comments or unwise political choices (including the father’s association with former U.S. ally bin Laden) did not justify the torture of three of their sons or the paralysis of another brother at age 14. Likewise, it hardly placed them in the same category as individuals for whom the term war criminal makes far more sense, such as George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, all of whom are proud of creating a false pretext to invade and occupy Iraq, unrepentant about their complicity in torture, and welcome to come to Canada whenever they please.

But the demonization has been useful. In most of the secret trial security certificate cases, for example, a merepassing association with Omar’s father, Ahmed Said, who in the 1990s was a well-known, omnipresent community fundraiser for charitable causes, has been enough to condemn someone as a security threat. Indeed, individuals who met the Khadr patriarch in situations as innocuous as being in a carpool on a trip to Toronto, by attending the same mosque, or having one-time, culturally obligatory post-prayer tea, have all had such associations used as proof ofterrorist intent.

The campaign to end those security certificates was largely successful because it presented the human face of the detainees and their families, who were no longer voiceless, eerily faded passport pictures, but flesh and blood individuals suffering years in solitary confinement without any due process. Perhaps applying lessons learned, the Canadian government refused Omar Khadr access to the media once he returned to Canada and, apart from the small, dedicated group who provided the detainee with educational and other support opportunities, no one had ever heard the voice of the “convicted war criminal” whose silent teenage eyes peered out from book covers and media reports.

Until last week. A Harper cabinet already in a morgue-like mood from the NDP victory in Alberta was now facing another blow to its house of cards. Seeing Omar on his lawyer’s driveway was like witnessing the beginning of the end of a wrongful conviction case.

When asked what he would like Canadians to know about him, he replied, “Give me a chance to see who I am as a person, not as a name, and then they can make their own judgment after that.”

In an age of the easy security smear, it’s the least we can do.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. national security profiling for many years.

This article originally appeared on NowToronto.com.