Walkom: Khadr deal recognizes Ottawa went too far in war on terror

The Omar Khadr settlement is a sign of the times. It marks a belated recognition that Canada went overboard in the war against terror.

The deal reached between Khadr’s lawyers and the federal government, whereby Ottawa will pay the 30-year-old Muslim-Canadian roughly $10 million in compensation, is not the first of its kind. It won’t be the last.

Prodded by the courts, the government is admitting that its preoccupation with national security in the years following 9/11 allowed – and in some cases encouraged – the abuse of Canadian citizens and residents.

Earlier this year, Ottawa quietly settled with three other Muslim-Canadians — Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin — to avoid a court judgment.

That came almost 10 years after an inquiry, headed by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, found that the actions of Canadian security officials had contributed to the torture of these three men in Syrian and Egyptian jails.

The trio filed a $100-million lawsuit. It is not publicly known what they settled for.

This spring, Ottawa also settled one of two lawsuits filed by Abousfian Abdelrazik.

He’s the Canadian who was stranded in Sudan for six years (sometimes in jail, sometimes not) because successive Liberal and Conservative governments made it impossible for him to come home.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives finally relented in 2009, but only after a federal court judge forced their hand.

Two years ago, the Conservative government also settled, for an undisclosed amount, a bizarre case involving Algerian refugee claimant Benamar Benatta.

In 2001, Canadian officials had illegally transported Benatta across the border to the U.S. where they handed him over to the FBI as a terror suspect.

The Americans quickly determined he wasn’t a terrorist, but kept him in jail anyway for five years. He eventually made it back into Canada and is now a Canadian citizen.

The big one though is the settlement reached with Canadian citizen Maher Arar.

In 2007, he received $10.5 million – plus $1 million more to cover his legal costs — in compensation for Ottawa’s role in his rendition by the U.S. to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured.

That settlement too came only after a judicial inquiry, which effectively cleared Arar of any role in terrorism, forced the government’s hand.

At one level, Khadr’s case differs from the others.

He has always admitted he was fighting on the side of the Taliban in 2002, when he was wounded and captured by U.S. forces invading Afghanistan.

Theoretically, Ottawa could have charged him with treason.

But since he was a child of 15 at the time, I suspect the government would have had a hard time making that charge stick.

Or, given that he was a Canadian citizen and child soldier, Ottawa could have pressed the Americans to release him into Canadian custody. But to its shame, the Liberal government of the day didn’t do that either.

Instead, it collaborated with the Americans to confine Khadr, without the protection of the Geneva Conventions, in the U.S. prison camp at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay — where, to put it mildly, he was interrogated harshly.

He spent 10 years there and eventually took the only exit available —which was to plead guilty, in a military court of dubious legitimacy, to what the U.S. claimed were war crimes.

These “war crimes” included killing an enemy soldier during battle.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that Canada’s participation in the illegal and coercive interrogations at Guantanamo Bay had violated Khadr’s Charter rights.

With that ruling, it was just a matter of time until he received some kind of compensation from the Canadian government.

Now that time has come.

Conservatives such as party leader Andrew Scheer say Khadr does not deserve any money.

They miss the point.

The point is not to enrich Khadr. In fact, I’d bet he would gladly give up the $10 million if he could be miraculously transported to an alternate reality where none of the events leading to this settlement had ever happened.

Rather, the point is to drive home to government, in language it can understand, that the struggle against terrorism does not give the state carte blanche, that even those whose actions make them unpopular must be treated fairly.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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