How Will We Ever Know if Omar Khadr is Truly Guilty?

Omar Khadr plead guilty.

But is he guilty?

We don’t really know because pleading guilty was his best, most pragmatic response to the injustices surrounding him: the injustice of his family, particularly his father, dragging him into a war zone; the injustice of his country of birth Canada abandoning him, in direct contrast to all other Western countries who defended their citizens; the injustice of being treated like an adult when it was clear he was a child soldier; the injustice of being deemed a voluntary soldier at an age children in the US and Canada are prohibited from fighting; the injustice of being charged with a war crime, a moniker usually reserved for real war criminals like, oh I don’t know, Hitler, Milosevic of Yugoslavia, al-Bashir of Sudan; the injustice of being charged with a crime that the world is divided over whether children should be charged with or not; the injustice of being at the mercy of the Guantanamo courts which operate outside the US justice system; the injustice of a country holding a war crimes trial when it, itself, refuses to ratify its participation in the International Criminal Court, the proper locale for war crimes trials; the injustice of being charged with one murder in a war zone – um, isn’t war all about murdering multiple people on the other side?

"Over 1,200 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and they picked on a 15-year-old," [Dennis Edney, Khadr’s Canadian lawyer] said. (Paul Koring, The Globe and Mail, 31 October 2010)

In its self-righteousness, the US and Canada have opened up their citizens to abuse by other countries. Given how the US has defined  a war crime – we caught you while fighting us – then that also applies to US soldiers or even citizens who’ve invaded a foreign country and murdered their warriors, no matter how justified. We’ve also made it harder to defend our children caught up in foreign, unjust criminal systems. It’s called quid pro quo.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper steadfastly said this was a US matter as if Khadr was not a Canadian citizen and entitled to a vigorous defence by his country. Two Canadian federal courts said that what Harper was doing, or rather not doing, was unconstitutional. Yet that did not faze him. As long as the Supreme Court of Canada didn’t make him follow Canadian law, he didn’t care. One wonders where our country is headed when the top guy thinks he doesn’t need to obey our Constitution or the fundamental Rule of Law. But that’s not all. Harper is a steadfast Christian. Although he doesn’t flaunt it, it’s clear he attends church and religion is a big part of who he is. In his treatment of Khadr, he has directly flouted the teachings of Jesus, which have strong words about justice and about every person being (Harper’s) brother and sister, the neighbour.

If Khadr is innocent, it’s a real indictment of both the US and Canada that a young adolescent -- one normally covered in Canada by the Youth Criminal Justice Act -- felt he had no choice but to plead guilty to get out of Guantanamo Bay and into a program of restoration, which is the only hope we – he and us – have of having him reintegrate into society safely and productively.

If he’s guilty, then as a child in a situation not of his choosing, he certainly doesn’t deserve 16 years. However, if he’s one of those rare 15-year-olds who can think like an adult, has a prefrontal cortex fully developed freakishly early, can be in a foreign country and resist his father’s influence and come to an independent decision, then did he receive an appropriate sentence?

In the end, only people who think in terms of us and them, in black and white, will swallow the lie of Khadr’s guilty plea. The rest of us will continue to wonder what really happened that day. Of the two who know, one is dead and the other has made a deal with the devil to get out of hell.