OTTAWA — The Harper government has taken a keener interest in the simmering Omar Khadr file than it publicly lets on, newly obtained documents indicate.
The Conservatives have repeatedly rebuffed calls to bring the Toronto-born teen home from a U.S. military prison, saying American proceedings against Khadr must run their course.
But it seems much more has been happening behind the scenes.
Records obtained under the Access to Information Act show federal officials sent at least five diplomatic notes to the United States about the Khadr case over a one-year period shortly after the Tories took office.
Officials also buttonholed a visiting U.S. diplomat to raise concerns in January 2007, expressed frustration at lack of access to court documents, and weighed the legal aspects of subjecting Khadr to judicial proceedings in Canada.
The Canadian Press obtained hundreds of pages of heavily censored records about the Khadr case from the Foreign Affairs Department. It took a complaint to the federal information commissioner to dislodge the files, initially requested in early May 2008.
Khadr, 22, is being held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan seven years ago.
Khadr’s captors threatened him with rape, kept him isolated and deprived him of sleep by moving him from cell to cell.
The Federal Court of Appeal has upheld a judge’s order to bring Khadr home, but the federal government is challenging that decision in the Supreme Court of Canada.
The newly declassified records show the file has been a major preoccupation for the Harper government.
The Canadian Embassy delivered a diplomatic note to the U.S. State Department in April 2006, followed by at least four others over the next year. Contents of these messages were considered too sensitive to disclose.
On Jan. 18, 2007, officials raised the issue of Khadr’s lack of access to Canadian counsel and reiterated a request for information about the case with Clint Williamson, U.S. ambassador for war crimes, during his visit to Ottawa, one document says.
Foreign Affairs has sent observers to the military court proceedings against Khadr in Guantanamo Bay, but one who attended in March 2008 had trouble making sense of pre-trial discovery motions due to lack of American co-operation.
“I note that the proceedings were particularly difficult to follow, as I had not been given any of the materials beforehand, despite our requests,” legal officer Suneeta Millington wrote. “As such, arguments were made without the observers being privy to any context or background information.”
The files reveal government lawyers have provided secret advice on the Khadr case in the face of pressure from parliamentarians, rights groups and academics to intervene more forcefully.
In addition, an open letter from dozens of law professors urging Canada to raise the issue of Khadr’s status as a child soldier was widely circulated within government by Sabine Nolke, director of the United Nations, human rights and economic law division of Foreign Affairs.
Nolke also took special interest in a flurry of public correspondence in February 2008, asking a colleague: “Of the 262 letters on Omar Khadr, how many were pro (eg. ’child soldier,’ ’bring him back’) and how many were con (’keep the terrorist at GTMO’)?”
The Federal Court of Canada ruled in April that the Conservative government must ask the United States to return Khadr from Guantanamo “as soon as practicable.”