Omar Khadr, perhaps the most polarizing figure in the country, was released on bail from an Edmonton prison on Thursday. The man who admittedly took up arms with al-Qaida and murdered American medic, Sgt. Christopher Speer, is most famous for his time spent at Guantanamo Bay. He is considered by some to be a child soldier.
Given the unusual circumstances surrounding Khadr’s case – he was the youngest detainee at Guantanamo and he and his brother were the only Canadian citizens – there are diverging views on how we should treat this convicted war criminal.
Omar Khadr’s advocates call him a child soldier; they remind us he was only 15 when he killed an army medic. They repeat his age with such frequency that Canadians could be forgiven for believing this was the first time a 15-year-old had ever been accused of murder.
Of course, on the contrary, courts deal with 15-year-olds all the time.
On New Year’s Day 2008, 15-year-old Melissa Todorovic urged her boyfriend to murder Stefanie Rengel, a crime he dutifully carried out. When Todorovic was brought in for questioning following the murder, she shocked police by admitting she had masterminded the plot and coerced her boyfriend to commit the odious crime.
Todorovic, though tried as a young offender, was given the maximum adult sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for seven years.
On Feb. 3, 2007, a Sweet 16 birthday party ended with a double shooting and the tragic death of Kemar Long-Thompson. Jason Beharry, 14, along with two accomplices, stormed the party with semi-automatic weapons and gunned down Brian Simser, who survived his injuries, and Long-Thompson, who did not.
Beharry was convicted of manslaughter and given an adult sentence.
Under our laws, these two teenagers were viewed as adults. They were aware of their actions and possessed the requisite knowledge to carry out their crimes.
Similar to the cases of Todorovic and Beharry, Omar Khadr was tried and convicted as an adult. A judge ruled that Khadr had the mental capacity to be aware of his actions when he convinced his father to let him fight in Afghanistan, when he built and laid bombs to kill Americans, and when he threw the grenade that ended the life of Sgt. Speer.
Khadr was not considered a child when he killed Speer; he also wasn’t a soldier, as defined by the Geneva Convention. He was not a member of the armed forces or an organized militia. He was not part of a chain of command, he did not carry arms openly, and he did not conduct operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Instead, Omar Khadr was a plain-clothed unlawful combatant, also known as a terrorist.
That was almost 13 years ago. Since then, legal and academic circles have canonized the lore of the Canadian child soldier left to rot in Gitmo. Meanwhile, Khadr himself has been hardened and perhaps radicalized from his time in prison.
But on Thursday, Khadr stood in front of cameras, smiled, and asked Canadians to give him a second chance. Khadr would like to be judged by his actions, not by what you’ve read about him.
Canadians are a forgiving people, and many may choose to forgive Khadr for what transpired during his teenage years. But if Canadians are to take him at his word – that he is in fact a good person – Khadr needs to come clean about both his past actions and who he is today.
He should not get off easily, as he did during his first press conference on Thursday. Instead, he should be treated like the 28-year-old man he is, not the child soldier many construct him to be. Before Canadians can forgive Khadr, he must answer these simple but important questions — questions that should have been put to him on Thursday:
Omar, you killed Sgt. Speer and maimed Sgt. Layne Morris. Are you remorseful?
Omar, you bragged about killing an American soldier. Are you still proud of this?
Omar, in Guantanamo you called your prison warden a “slave” and a “whore.” Do you believe women are whores and black people are slaves?
Omar, do you renounce all ties to al-Qaida and will you help Canada fight terrorists at home and abroad?
Omar Khadr is an adult now, and we should treat him as such. That includes taking off the kid gloves and asking him these tough and uncomfortable questions. Only then can Canadians consider forgiving Khadr for what he’s done.
This column first appeared in national Sun Media papers on Saturday, May 9, 2015