April 16: I’m thinking I should keep it as a holy day in my personal calendar.
Some of you will have read Philip Hallie’s magnificent book Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and how Goodness Happened There. It’s the story of how a French Protestant village of some 5000 souls saved the lives of 5000 Jews during WWII.
I thought of this book on April 16, at the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University, when I saw goodness happening before my eyes. I saw and heard Dennis Edney, the defence lawyer for Omar Khadr. At the end of the evening I went up to him simply so that I could shake his hand. I wanted to touch him, the man who enfleshed the goodness I am talking about. Heroes are few among us in these days, but Dennis Edney is a hero.
Dennis Edney has represented Omar since 2003, pro bono—i.e., at no charge, for free. And I will call Omar by his first name: everyone at the lecture did, including Dennis Edney—remember that Omar was only 15 when he was captured by US forces in Afghanistan in 2002, meaning that he is now 26.
I won’t retell the whole story here, because I hope you will read it for yourself on the website freeomarakhadrnow.com (and note the “a” between omar and khadr: that stands for “Ahmed,” Omar’s middle name). And here let me salute the Free Omar Khadr Now Committee in Vancouver, and its prime movers, Gail Davidson and Kathy Copps, for holding before us this case of rank injustice.
What I will do is focus on Canada’s complicity, yours and mine, in the abuse Omar has suffered in the 11 years he has been incarcerated for crimes which (a) it is clear he did not commit, and (b) which did not even exist as crimes at the time he is alleged to have committed them, and (c) for which he was “convicted” by an a-legal commission—“a-legal” meaning outside any legitimate legal framework, including that of the US. The army personnel and the prison guards are the “law” at Guantanamo: they are not subject to US law, they can do what they like, and there is no escape from any brutality they decide to commit.
Here then are Canada’s crimes—and when I say “Canada’s,” I mean crimes committed by the government which represents us, our government: in other words, crimes for which we all bear partial responsibility as citizens for any acts of our government against which we do not protest.
(1) Canada was the only western nation which did not demand the return of its nationals from Guantanamo. The UK did, Australia did—and so their nationals were returned to them, and are now free.
(2) Canada did not protest when the Guantanamo authorities refused Canadian consular access to Omar. According to the Consular Relations Act, the US can require a report to the closest US consular facility on any American arrested in Canada within 72 hours. Later he did have some consular visits, but they were more in the nature of interrogation on behalf of Guantanamo than support for a Canadian in difficult (to say the least) circumstances.
(3) In 2008, the Federal Court of Canada revealed that the US had asked Canada to accept Omar back on the understanding that he would be tried in Canada. The Conservative government refused because they believed that it was unlikely that he would ever be convicted in Canada. In other words, our government preferred to have him rot in Guantanamo for the rest of his life rather than take responsibility for their own citizen. Doubtless there was also in this decision a desire to avoid offending the US. (Was it not the blessed Margaret Atwood who told us that our totem animal, the beaver, when faced with an opponent of superior strength, lies on his back and bites off his own testicles?!)
(4) The current government continues to vilify Omar in the press. That paragon of justice and mercy Vic (“if you aren’t with us, you are with the child pornographers”) Toews, minister of public safety, describes him as “a known supporter of al-Qaeda and a convicted terrorist.” Yes, his father, who was a supporter of al-Qaeda, dragged him and his brother to Afghanistan, but as a child at the time, Omar bears no responsibility for this. As for the charge of terrorism, again I refer you to the website, which makes it clear that he was physically incapable of the crimes for which he was “convicted.”
(5) The Correctional Service of Canada, on the grounds that he was a “convicted” murderer and a terrorist, automatically classified him, on his return to Canada, as requiring maximum security, without taking into consideration the uniqueness of his situation, and the entirely positive reports on his character and disposition by the psychiatrist and psychologist who examined him over the years at Guantanamo. This means that he will receive no educational or rehabilitational services from Millhaven.
Ah yes, you say, but didn’t he plead guilty at Guantanamo? Yes, he did, and so would have I, and so would have you. He pleaded guilty when to have pleaded not guilty would have resulted in a life sentence in Guantanamo by the self-constituted and revenge-oriented “court” before which he was compelled to plead. By pleading guilty, the way opened for him to be returned to Canada, a process on which—another Canadian crime—the Canadian government dragged its feet.
So what happens now? How can we help our fellow-citizen, Omar Khadr, to regain his freedom? Here is a link to the last few minutes of Dennis Edney’s talk on April 16: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XYUjTT0i6U&feature=youtu.be – and the voice you hear asking the first question is mine: what can we do to help?
Dennis Edney’s response took me to one of Jesus’ lesser-known parables, the parable of the importunate (i.e., pesky) widow. Here’s the story.
[Jesus] spoke to them in a parable to show that they should keep on praying and never lose heart: ‘There was once a judge who cared nothing for God or man [sic], and in the same town … a widow who constantly came before him demanding justice against her opponent. For a long time he refused; but in the end he said to himself, “True, I care nothing for God or man; but this widow is so great a nuisance that I will see her righted before she wears me out with her persistence.”’ Luke 18:1-5
Essentially that is what Dennis Edney said: never lose heart, even when dealing with those who appear to care nothing for God or man [ sic]. He wants us to barrage any member of the government to whom we have access or connection until the government will grant justice to Omar just to get us off their backs. Our task is to wear them out with our persistence. Dennis Edney particularly recommends the use of social media. The website also contains many other suggestions about ways in which we can move forward the day of Omar’s freedom, including an address at which we can write to him.
But I have saved to the last the best part of the story of the holy evening of April 16. A woman asked Dennis Edney what would happen to Omar when he was released. His response was stunning: “He will come to Edmonton and live with me and my wife and our kids.” Again my mind turned to scripture, and to Jesus’ parable of final accountability in Matthew 25:31-46: “… when I was a stranger you took me into your home, … when in prison you visited me.”
Evil happens, yes—and goodness also happens. I was privileged on April 16 to see goodness happening for myself.
I wrote the part above on April 20. On April 27, an article by Paul Koring in The Globe and Mail told us that on Omar’s authorization, an appeal will be presented to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—an actual, legally-constituted court–that has recently overturned similar convictions for two defendants who actually were connected to al-Qaeda.
There are complications. Unlike the other two, Omar pleaded guilty, and he also waived his right to appeal. But the defence will argue that since the “crimes” for which he was “convicted” were not at the time of their enactment designated crimes, to say nothing of the fact that he had been tortured, both the conviction and the waiver have no validity in law.