OTTAWA — The United States is frustrated by Canada’s reluctance to ask that convicted war criminal Omar Khadr be returned home, a U.S. military lawyer charged Thursday.
Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson, Khadr’s lead U.S. military lawyer, candidly described the frustration of American officials he’s spoken with. They can’t understand why Canada has not formally followed through on a plea-bargain deal to request the transfer of Khadr from his U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“There’s a great deal of frustration on the U.S. side,” he said. “The U.S. is basically saying: approve this transfer so we can make it happen.”
Jackson was one of four lawyers for Khadr — one of two to wear U.S. military uniforms — who made an impassioned plea for the return of the last Western national to held at the much-maligned U.S. military prison.
“My government is not known for being soft on terrorism. The U.S. would never agree to transfer a detainee, especially to an ally, if they believed that that detainee was in any way a threat,” said Jackson, a 15-year army veteran, whose client list has included radical jihadists and disgraced American comrades.
“I can tell you that the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with Omar is all I can rely on, to say that he’s a good person, with a good heart.”
Khadr’s legal team broke its silence and spoke candidly about their client in an attempt to prod Canada to honour a deal that would see him brought back to Canada.
So far, their request continues to fall on deaf ears in Ottawa, which has yet to formally ask the U.S. for Khadr’s return.
Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire, a longtime advocate for child soldiers, joined Khadr’s lawyers in making the plea, and later pressed the government for answers in the Senate’s final question period on Thursday.
Marjory LeBreton, the government house leader in the Senate, offered nothing new, sticking to the government line that a decision would come in due course.
“I actually did think we’d get through a full couple of months without a question on Omar Khadr,” LeBreton quipped.
While the question may have annoyed the Tories’ ranking senator, Jackson offered insights into how the Khadr case could be straining Canada-U.S. relations south of the border.
He recalled one instance when a senior U.S. officer at the Cuban base asked him: “When the hell is Omar going back to Canada?”
Other fellow Pentagon-appointed defence lawyers have told Jackson that Canada’s conduct is dissuading other Guantanamo inmates from making deals that might resolve their cases — something that has been called the “Khadr effect.”
“The U.S. government is in a bad position negotiating with other deals because of how Omar Khadr’s case has basically failed to come to completion,” said Jackson.
“The Khadr effect is alive and well at Guantanamo Bay.”
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta signed off of Khadr’s transfer in April, he added.
Meetings on the logistics of Khadr’s possible transfer between the two countries have now stopped, and senior U.S. officials are privately questioning why the Harper government hasn’t formally made a request to bring him home, said Jackson.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Steve Pike said the American and Canadian governments have been in regular contact on the case and have “worked diligently” to ensure that all legal requirements are being met.
“We will not speculate about transfer timelines or about the pending review by the Canadian government,” Pike said in an email.
“The U.S.-Canada bilateral relationship is one of the strongest and most important in the world. It is based on close partnership and co-operation in a broad range of issues. This issue is one of those areas of close co-operation.”
Khadr, 25, was eligible for transfer back to Canada last October.
He pleaded guilty in October 2010 to war crimes committed in Afghanistan in 2002 as a 15-year-old, including the murder of a U.S. army medic in violation of the rules of war.
Khadr was sentenced to eight years, with one year to be served in Guantanamo Bay, by a military tribunal that has faced criticism across the globe.
The Toronto-born man is studying behind bars in an attempt to one day be able to restart his life and become a contributing, peaceful member of society, said Jackson.
He has learned to sing “O Canada,” has studied science mathematics and constitutional law, read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and has even drawn lessons from reading “The Hunger Games” and the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Road,” said Jackson.
“We had a very interesting discussion about The Road. His insights into those books show you he’s a guy who gets it. He gets what it takes to be a useful member of society,” said Jackson.
“The Road” tells the story of an unnamed man and his son who wander Earth’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, fending off cannibals, among other threats, but who ultimately find the faith to carry on.
Jackson said the story helped Khadr understand the long, hard road he would eventually face when he has finished serving his sentence and was trying to rebuild his life.
Khadr would not be a free man upon return to Canada. Corrections Canada would assess where he would serve the remainder of his sentence, said Khadr’s lead Canadian lawyer John Norris.
Norris said he might have to consider further legal action to force Ottawa to live up to its plea-bargain agreement.
Norris noted that former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon has confirmed in the House of Commons that Canada would honour its agreement with the United States.
“The conduct of the Canadian government is unconscionable,” he said.