Omar Khadr: a political inkblot test

The political positions on the Khadr payout reveal the difficulties of separating partisan loyalties from the principles of fairness

Omar Khadr walks to meet the press before a news conference after being released on bail in Edmonton, Alberta, May 7, 2015. Khadr, a Canadian, was once the youngest prisoner held on terror charges at Guantanamo Bay. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Omar Khadr walks to meet the press before a news conference after being released on bail in Edmonton, Alberta, May 7, 2015. Khadr, a Canadian, was once the youngest prisoner held on terror charges at Guantanamo Bay. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Omar Khadr has become a political inkblot, a Rorschach test for Canadian politicians onto which they project their own agendas. Revelations about the government’s apology and reported payment of $10.5 million to Khadr sparked furious reaction that breaks down along political lines. There are the “Never Pay” Conservatives, the “Had to Pay” Liberals and the “Must Pay” NDP. Each has a justification for their position and each has revealed how difficult it to separate partisan loyalties from the principles of fairness.

“Justin Trudeau should never have agreed to a secret deal that gave a convicted terrorist millions of dollars,” Conservative leader Andrew Scheer quickly declared. “As prime minister, I would have fought against this payout in court.” Fair enough. Unless the court actually ordered a payment, Conservatives would not give Khadr a dime. According to an Angus Reid poll, Scheer has the support of most Conservatives and 71 per cent of all Canadians. What is most galling to those opposed to the deal is the amount of money paid to someone who was once videotaped building IEDs and who allegedly threw a grenade that killed American special forces soldier Christopher Speer.

Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen have also been vocal adversaries of the payment, and are even raising money for Speer’s widow. Another former U.S. soldier, Layne Morris, who was blinded in one eye during the 2002 battle in Afghanistan, has worked with Speer’s widow Tabitha to freeze the money given to Khadr so they can proceed with their $134.1 million dollar claim against him. (A judge just turned down their request.) Still, the politics around Khadr are much more straightforward than his actual case—as the thinking goes, you’re either with the criminal or the victims.

The reduction of the case to this binary viewpoint may well be based on principle, but it also happens to be good politics. The Khadr payment helps Scheer unify and galvanize the Conservative base. This is a defining issue for his members and allows him to double down on the claim that Liberals are soft on crime and terror.

The problem with the Conservative position is not that it lacks a general principle, it’s that it has wilfully ignored the specific facts of the Khadr case. When Khadr allegedly threw the grenade—it’s all a very hazy account—he was 15 years old, the international definition of a child soldier. His subsequent confession to killing Speer at a military tribunal took place at Guantanamo Bay prison, where Khadr was, according to international standards, tortured.

READ MORE: Yes, sleep deprivation is torture

This is not a subjective view.  As early as 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that because Canadian officials knew about Khadr’s situation and what was happening to him, and they were aware that he was a minor, the “regime providing for the detention and trial of Mr. Khadr at the time of the CSIS interviews constituted a clear violation of fundamental human rights protected by international law.” In a later unanimous 2010 decision, that court went further, concluding that Khadr’s Charter rights were violated—the Charter does apply to citizens abroad if the government was involved in the actions that took place—and that the government would have to offer some form of compensation. In the wake of these decisions, Khadr recanted his confession.

Here are the inconvenient facts: starting with the Chrétien and Martin governments and continuing under the Harper government, Canadian officials were aware that Khadr’s rights were being violated at Gitmo and did nothing to stop it. As bad a guy as Khadr might be, rights are rights and must be protected. That’s not a line you hear much in the Conservative view because the politics has taken over the principle. But being tough on crime should not come at the expense of being easy on Charter violations.

The Liberals’ “Had to Pay” position is founded on this argument, but they have their own problems—the most obvious being that the majority of Canadians believe the government did the wrong thing. “The measure of a society, a just society, is not whether we stand up for people’s rights when it’s easy or popular to do so, it’s whether we recognize rights when it’s difficult, when it’s unpopular,” Trudeau said this week, trying to deal with the severe blowback his government is getting. It was interesting that he invoked his father’s old “just society” idea as a way of lending legitimacy to the Khadr deal. Later in the week, the Prime Minister reiterated that violations of the Charter are costly, and said he hopes future governments will learn a lesson from the payment.

RELATED: In the Khadr settlement, the Conservatives find their fight

Trudeau might be not wrong on principle, but his government has been sloppy and obstructive on the explanation. The story of the apology and payment emerged in the middle of the summer while the PM was away at the G-20 summit, just a day before the Fourth of July celebrations in the U.S. That’s a classic way for a government to bury an unpopular story and hope it goes away. It didn’t. Instead, Robert Fife of the Globe and Mail broke the story. There was no press conference where the Liberals proudly waved the “Just Society” banner until after the story was in the media. I had heard about the pending deal from a source, but not a single government official would confirm it. They clearly knew the public would be angry about this, and they didn’t really have good answers to some fundamental questions: why did they settle on $10.5 million? How much money goes to the Khadr lawyers? Why now? Why was it all done so secretly? There are many questions.

The government then tacked from principle to prudence. It was really about saving money. “If we had continued to fight this,” Trudeau said, “not only would we have inevitably lost, but estimates ranged from $30 to $40 million that it would have ended up costing the government. So this was the responsible path to take.” That’s a very different explanation of the deal, and it sounds like the Prime Minister is putting a price on principle. And how does Trudeau know the government would have lost in court? How does he know what the court would order the government to pay? If the idea is that in a Just Society, a government must compensate people for rights violations, then so be it. Stand for that. Set the benchmark, pay and defend it. There is case law to back that up. But don’t then claim it was all about saving money. It is hard to have it both ways.

The politics of this will stick to the Liberals for a long time. Even staunch members, people like Warren Kinsella, didn’t like how all this rolled out. He told me his old boss Jean Chrétien would never have proactively paid, but simply waited for the Supreme Court to order it so he wouldn’t have to wear it. It is a lose-lose scenario, but Chrétien at least would have signalled that sometimes in a Just Society, the courts ought to do the job of upholding justice. Interestingly, there are legal scholars I’ve spoken to who are relieved the government took the political heat on this decision rather than the courts. This decision costs anyone political capital.

OPINION: The shady business of paying Omar Khadr

The NDP’s position is righteous and had a legal justification—you must pay for the violations of the rights of citizens—but it can come off as tone deaf to the politics of the decision and sometimes insensitive to the losses suffered that day on the battlefield. Omar Khadr might be a victim, but lionizing him also distorts the picture. He was on the wrong side of the fight, and the fight, in this case, is for the right side of history. That should never be forgotten.

The casualty here is that in fighting to be on the right side of history, Canada abdicated the very principles our men and women in uniform were defending. That has proved morally and now financially costly. It is tempting to use the Khadr case to further the aims of a partisan agenda, but that makes it all worse. No one has won in this farrago—not those demonizing Khadr, not those paying him, and not those lionizing him. Project what you want onto this case, but what reflects back is a collective failure by all sides to live up to the basic values Western democracy represents. Taking back the money from Omar Khadr won’t fix that any more than paying him did.


Omar Khadr: a political inkblot test

  1. A good piece setting out all sides of the situation. The assessment that there is a ” failure by all sides to live up to the basic values Western democracy” is a pertinent one that may be lost in the politics of the situation. Surely, the safe solution is the one that guarantees the rights of one person, even at the expense of the sensibilities of some.

    • What really disappoints me about a lot of this non issue(only a con issue), is members of the military speaking out against this settlement, i always thought of the military personal were trained to identify child soldiers on the battle field, and were also trained to understand the circumstances of the child soldier and the reality of torture. It really surprises me that military personal who spent time on a battlefield, would be incensed by this. I am incensed that military personal, trained to understand circumstances on a battlefield and rules of engagement are incensed by this issue.

  2. Cons just like to complain. We should have gotten him out of Gitmo years ago.

    • Nobody is free of blame here. Chretien and Martin were content to leave Khadr in Gitmo on their respective watches; they didn’t lift a finger for him. Harper took it a step further and tried to prevent his transfer to Canada.

      • If i am not mistaken, i don’t remember Martin or Chretien exploiting Omar Khadr with fund raising messages of hate and bigotry in order to raise money for the liberals, Harper and his cronies used this guy as a money tree to make the conservative party flush in cash, i don’t recall the liberals making money on this guy. Harper and the conservatives should be tapped for this bill, and instead, the MSM has gone APO over this guy, and cons are racking it in again with fund raising. I don’t even want to commenting on this issue, its not an issue with me. I’m glad Trudeau has officially put to this to bed, if it is just to simply be able to eliminate this guy off the ’10 Most Wanted’ list of the conservative party.

        • None of which negates my point – nobody is free of blame here.

        • If one is going to argue that certain political parties treat Canadian prisoners better than others, shouldn’t we look beyond one prisoner’s experience with torture? What about Adam Capay and his 400 plus days in the hole in an Ontario prison during the past few years. What political party was in power for that atrocity? How much will Canadians be paying to make reparation for his experience of torture which occurred on Canadian soil? Also, why is this still occuring when we had an enquiry into Ashley Smith’s treatment and we all understand that such treatments definitely violate the charter rights of an incarcerated individual. What we need to know is why is this still happening and when will strict rules be enforced nationwide to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

        • it is not bigotry nor misplaced hatred to oppose an enemy combatant who builds ieds used to kill and maim our soldiers and our allies.
          throwing of the grenade is certainly open for debate, but the fact is he was there. The US army provided a 30 minute warning prior to the attack. The women and children left the compound. Omar didn’t hang around by mistake.

    • To bad the ‘Charter of Rights’ protects the Cons from trafficking in ‘Exploitation of Humans’.

      • I’ll bet even your underwear is pink Bomber.

  3. The Conservatives didn’t violate Khadr’s rights. Only the Liberal governments of Martin and Chretien did. By the time Harper game to power, the case was already in the courts. Litigating a case is not a violation of anyone’s rights.

    We may not know whether Khadr threw the grenade, but we unambiguously know he was a terrorist as there is video of him making IED’s. The means it is wrong to pay him a cent unless ordered to by a court.

  4. I’m not swayed by partisan politics at all on this matter. There are three parties involved here: the evil, terrorist parents who taught him to be a terrorist; the U.S, which confined and likely tortured him; and Canada which is where he had citizenship. Allowing him to repatriate to Canada, restore his citizenship and receive an apology was more than sufficient for Canada, the least involved, to do.
    Since 71% of Canadians believe settling out of court was the wrong thing to do, how can this be a partisan opinion. Trudeau tried to take the high ground to start with the “just society” speech and when that didn’t cut it he moved on to the tale of trying to save the tax payers money. If that’s truly the case, it’s the first time he’s tried to save a dime. Possibly it’s Trudeau’s lack of credibility on this matter that has moved a bunch of his previous supporters to be against him on this.

  5. I’m not convinced that Trudeau migrated his position from one of justifying the principle involved to one of saving money by settling.
    Trudeau was under fire for both of these issues: settling (and apologizing) as well as for the dollar amount of the settlement.
    As I understood he addressed each of these issues at two different times.

    Simple logic in this case dictates that the Trudeau government had nothing to gain in settling except for the notion of trying to do the right thing under the charter.
    That he is being vilified is contrary to the actions of the previous three PMs in this matter.
    Fact is, Trudeau is the only one of the four that did not cause this issue.
    And yet, here we are.

    • 71% of Canadians have a different view!!

      • These columnists tend to make things up. It gives a nice flow to the narrative but I don’t think Evan was in the room while the lawyers and political types were figuring out what to say and how to play this. I wish he wouldn’t make stuff about how how the story changed and all that. I read a good analysis of the situation in the Ottawa Citizen penned by someone from Amnesty International that argued – very well, I thought – on why this payment was the right thing to do. I can’t understand the amounts involved, however.

      • Att: Please check back a couple of months from now. When you drive fear, in the air, the result will be fear, in the polls, and unfair in the result..

        • One would have to be a moron to believe that in our vast galaxy there weren’t other forms of life. Looks like most Canadians are smart enough to get this. You, I’m not so sure about.

  6. This is a false equivalency This government is taking the heat for this but it is the only government that has done the right thing. Because Kahdr’s rights were violated and he was kept in the torture dungeon of Guantanamo for years after he should have been sent home ,he would have won and deserved compensation for Canadian collusion for his years of suffering and torture in Gitmo .It was also clearly the prudent thing to do as it would have cost much more if it had gone n to trial.

    It is also worth mentioning that the other countries who had citizens at Gitmo also settled before the cases went to court because both government and security officials would have had to testify under oath about information they would prefer to keep secret for security reasons. Our allies would have been particularly displeased with us if we had let this go to trial

    It may have been endlessly entertaining to see Harper,Chretien and Martin and the head of CSIS and the RCMP on the stand but it would have caused waves with our allies who all settled similar cases out of court.

    Conservatives have exploited this issue with their sudden concern for a woman
    who was widowed 15 years ago (and whose “kids” are grown up now) contrasted to their indifference to the suffering of Canadian vets when they were in power.They are using it for fundraising and to collect names and addresses for future such populist dog whistle shenanigans.

  7. “furious reaction that breaks down along political lines. There are the “Never Pay” Conservatives, the “Had to Pay” Liberals and the “Must Pay” NDP.”

    FAKE news from the art salesman. According to polls over 70 per cent of Canadians oppose the deal: this includes over 60 per cent of both Liberal and NDP supporters.

    • On the last Power and Politics they mentioned that the CBC had a new poll I think by Mainstreet Research that showed 61 percent opposed-a drop of 10 percent in a week.Probably as people became more aware of the issues and options the opposition will drop as the first poll was taken very early on when the information had just been leaked..

      And yet not a peep about this anywhere else and in fact even by the CBC.

      No headlines about the drop in opposition whereas the very questionable Angus Reid poll which was done by polling a group of volunteers must be in the running to be the most widely quoted poll ever .

      • It likely dropped because of the B.S. Trudeau was feeding them about how much money he saved.

    • In this case the majority is wrong – or the poll questions were.

      How often have ‘we’ hung or jailed innocent people?

      • The poll is correct so, I have to conclude that you are wrong.

  8. The fascinating article here is the two-year-old one from Amanda Lindhout about her friendship with Khadr and Rinelle Harper. The comments on the article were *mostly* people calling Khadr a horrible terrorist. But the article itself noted that in 2015, Khadr was often recognized in Edmonton (Alberta, our most-conservative province) and people would come up to him with words of support.
    It seems like he’s much more unpopular with people not in his presence, throwing insults from their armchairs, than he is with real people in the real world.

    I’m really in favour of this being an election issue. I think the Conservatives are in for a surprise about how little support Khadr-persecution really has. The National Observer has an eye-opening article about how shaky the case against Khadr would have been if it had been adjudicated in a REAL court with real courtroom rules of evidence:

    …I think if this case gets thrashed around in the media for a year or so, the facts in that article are going to be much more widely known, and far from opposing the settlement, people will start getting angry that Khadr was not given more defense when it would have mattered to him. The utter cowardice of the Canadian government saying nothing when the US was violating it’s *own* dearest principles really is staggering.

    • Remember that since arriving back to Canada (if not before) anything that Khadr has said, was by the advice of his lawyers.

      • Until very recently he was still ‘before’ Canadian courts and had been in Canadian prison. He was wise to listen to his lawyers, everything he said might have been used against him. Still might.

    • I agree – it should be an election issue. I think you are completely wrong regarding support for this payment. I think it has been the worst mistake Trudeau has made in a very disappointing tenure as PM.

      • Trudeau just ‘trumped’ his way out of this one by appointing the perfect Goveror General.

        Sunny ways at the G12, opening the rock concert held to distract from the rioting, ‘the Kid;’ remains golden. NAFTA’s next and the governors loved him. Hell, he could even talk to Putin without wilting!

        • Trudeau is breaking one promise after another and he’s leading Canada into the same debt sewer his father did. Surfer dude will be a one term blunder.

          • Time for “Selfie-boy” to go.

    • Harper very wisely didn’t make this an issue. It was Tory jingoism at its worst.

      • I wish there was an election right now. With Trudeau’s smoke around electoral reform and the Khadr settlement which 71% of Canadians don’t support, we’d be rid of the spend thrift before he bankrupts the country. He’s following the same path as his socialist father whose main legacy was massive debt and 18% mortgages.

        • Totally agree!!

    • Jerome, you need to understand politics a little better. Edmonton is not conservative. They continually vote Liberal or NDP and in the last election they voted NDP hands down with over 50% of the vote.

  9. Doesn’t anyone in the news media get that the case against Khadr was based on the U.S. claim that he was the only Al Qaeda still alive when the grenade was thrown, so he must have thrown it? One of the U.S. soldiers involved testified under oath that there were two Al Qaeda still alive when it was thrown.

    Take a look at the photos in this article and explain how he could have been the one who threw the grenade:
    What if Omar Khadr isn’t guilty? | National Observer

    • It wasn’t part of the ‘evidence’ read into the conviction record – hence it does not exist. Khadr’s day in court was an ‘item’ in the program.

    • Khadr may not be guilty of the particular crime he is accused of, but he is a terrorist nonetheless because there is video of him happily and freely making IED’s.

      We should have fought in the courts till the end because he was/is a terrorist who built IED’s.

    • Really interesting article – thanks for posting.

  10. Terrorism has won in the country by this payment and millions of Canadians including myself are disgusted with it…..Trudeau and the Liberal Caucus should hold their heads in shame..

    • I’m disgusted that politicians felt that was an acceptable way to treat a Canadian citizen.

      Thanks be to God (or Allah) for our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for the Supreme Court and the others who adjudicated for Khadr so fairly and so well, and to Khadr’s legal team who provide a benchmark of ‘service’ for the legal profession. His lawyers deserve a Nobel prize.

      Assuming Tories are incapable of meaningful change, they will never get my vote.

  11. Like those who repeat te amne failed exercise hoping for a different outcome, the Tories are still trying to justify the kind of behaviour that no Canadan venturing overseas would want from the government that issuers his or her passport. Governmemt exist in those situatios to try to ensure that the rights of a citizen atre maintaied to the highest degree possible and to ameliotrate if possible the excesses of foreign laws in foreign lands. The Tory government was noteworthy in retrieving a Canadian woman convicted of fraud, from a Mexican prison by private jet to an immediate release in Canada. That same goernemt almost simutaneously turned its nack on another Canadian citizen already imprisoned, longer in far more nebulous circumstances and under far more strigernt circumstances. As time passed they were told thssst what tthey were dong contravened the Charter of Rights and freedoms and that they were wroing in failing to attend to citizen Khadrs well-being. They were told twise by the highest court odf the land that they were wrtong. They spent millions in legal fees to appeal this. They left office with Khadr still in a Canadian prison and a court docket filed with further appeals.

    The office of the Solicitor General soon affected Khadr’s realease on bail and eventually set him free. The appeals were quietly dropped.

    As in all such cases where government are maliciously neglectful Khadr’s lawyers instituted a tort against that instiytution. Again, wheter by act of political wil oor the realization that a nother loss could be really damaging to the public purse an offer od settlement was tmade and the offer taken.

    What should hqvew been a siugh f relief becaome a roar of protest that what General Rick would have called “scumbag” was getting money from the taxpayers of Canada. A terrorist – who actually might never have been ‘a terrorist’ – other than in his probably coerced, plea-bargained ‘confession’ – was getting a reward that had he dome he sme thing two short years later, or in front of a fornmidably-’emebedded’ unofficial Canadian sniper with the US forces at that time, might have gotten him a bullet more than the three he received.

    We should be glad he wasn’t awarded costs, for he’ll probably spend lots of his ‘award’ to repay his legal time for 9 hard years of work (court and travel costs alone might break his bank). He will have to defend himself against those who feel that whatever he gets should go to the widow and children of a soldier, who but for a twist of fate, might have traded places with the sole surviving occupant of the home they attacked that day in 2002.

    • Pheck fat fingers and no edit function. Come on Macleans, get modern!

    • There is only one result to be proper justice in this crime. Kadr is a convenient Canadian recruited and trained by his terrorist father. I expect this will not end until proper fair justice is handed to Mr Kadr.

  12. “How much money goes to the Khadr lawyers? ”

    Is this really a question, because it is utterly stupid. As his lawyer pointed out, he could not say anything about that because it is protected by solicitor-client privilege.

  13. A pretty good analysis … but some questions come to mind:
    1. Why does Evan Solomon use the word “allegedly” in referring to Khadr possibly throwing the grenade that killed Chris Speer & wounded Layne Morris yet he unequivocally writes “… Khadr was, according to international standards, tortured.” What factual evidence was there of actual torture? Who — besides Khadr himself & his lawyers — stated that the former was “tortured”?
    2. Why is the Conservative position reduced to “good politics” whereas the other two parties’ position is supposedly based on principle, though their communication strategy apparently — or is it regrettably? — has thus far failed to persuade many Canadians?
    3. Why is the media, Solomon included, perpetuating the myth that “he [Khadr] was 15 years old, the international definition of a child soldier”? Actually, the “child soldier” tag does not apply to Khadr because according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, (1989) #2:
    “2. States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities.”

    Get it? Under the age of 15. In fact, Khadr was two months’ shy of his 16th birthday (born Sept. 19, 1986 and the grenade incident took place on July 27, 2002). (Info from Omar Khadr timeline, A chronology of Omar Khadr’s life and his long legal odyssey
    By The Canadian Press
    Fri., April 24, 2015)
    4. Why is practically every article dealing with Khadr use the undated photograph of a very young Khadr? Surely someone could find out when that photo of a pre-teen (?) Khadr was taken?

    • Edit of #4: “Why does practically every article …” instead of “Why is practically every article …”

    • Have agreed as follows:
      Gabby: Thanks for this. Just spotted it now. In the unlikely event you check back here – I got this from the link you provided:

      PART I
      Article 1
      For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

      The convention is full of all kinds of directions about how to treat a person who is under 18. The citation you made is only referring to recruiting. So it says Signatories should avoid recruiting children under the age of 15. That is all that paragraph is about. It has nothing to do with how to treat a person under the age of 18 caught up in the war in Afghanistan, for example. For the purposes of the Convention, in other words, being under 18 is the key.

  14. Add me to the list of those who believe that whatever his age, Khadr was and remains a killer. He deserves only condemnation.

    I have ground combat expedience. Do you?

  15. Kadr should not have been spared that day. He chose his father’s side and he should have paid the ultimate price when combatting our forces. Anyone that votes for the Liberals are sanctioning approval to this crime. My personal hope is Kadr never enjoys the blood money. Hopefully he feels the full justice he deserves when it must be meted by the people.

  16. Has anyone even considered the ied’s built by Khadr may have actually killed Canadian troops? I wonder how Trudeau #2 would have handled that? Of course, based on Trudeau #1’s 2nd WW record, not much respect for our military anyway.