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‘Fomenting misunderstanding for partisan reasons,’ Green Leader May slams ‘horrific’ Conservative response to Khadr’s $10.5-million settlement

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May likens Conservative tactics to 'the kind of cesspool politics of the U.S.'

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr, 30, pictured in Mississauga, Ont., on Thursday, July 6, 2017. The federal government apologized to Mr. Khadr for its role in his imprisonment and awarded him $10.5-million as part of the civil suit launched against Ottawa for Mr. Khadr’s wrongful imprisonment.The Canadian Press photograph by Colin Perkel

PUBLISHED : Monday, July 17, 2017 12:00 AM

While the Conservatives have rallied to criticize the Liberal government’s $10.5-million settlement with former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says the Conservatives’ response has been “horrific” and that it’s “fomenting misunderstanding for partisan reasons.”

“It’s horrific. There’s a complete disconnect from the reasons that the apology and some level of compensation is appropriate,” said Ms. May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.). “There’s been an atmosphere of seeking partisan advantage by accelerating a lack of public awareness and understanding, which I think is really lamentable.”

She said “it’s clear” the Conservatives “see a winner” in championing this cause.

“There’s a lot of reasons people could find this offensive, and that’s why it’s the obligation of people in elected office to explain it rationally and calmly,” even if you disagree, she said.

  

Ms. May said it’s important that Canadians understand why what previous federal governments, both Conservative and Liberal, did was wrong, and that Canadian citizens, even those appropriately arrested outside the country for crimes or alleged crimes they committed, have a right “for their government to come to provide consular assistance.”

While she said she thinks some opposed to the settlement have spoken out in “reasonable tones,” much of the commentary she’s heard from the Conservative Party has been “not just feeding into misunderstanding, it’s fomenting misunderstanding for partisan reasons.”

“If you’re prepared to pull Canada into the kind of cesspool politics of the U.S., sure, it’s fair game. But if we want to have a country where the people who hold elected office have a minimum standard of respect for the rule of law, then it’s not,” said Ms. May.

Mr. Khadr was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 after being accused of killing U.S. Sgt. Chris Speer in a firefight a few months earlier at an al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan. Mr. Khadr, who was born in Canada, was 15 years old at the time.

  

Three years after his imprisonment, and two years after being interviewed by RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service investigators while in detention, Mr. Khadr was charged with war crimes. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to charges as part of a plea deal which restricted his sentence and provided for his repatriation to Canada.

Mr. Khadr has since said his confession was the product of torture in Guantanamo, and that he pleaded guilty in order to be repatriated to Canada. An appeal of Mr. Khadr’s war crime convictions by the military court is ongoing.

In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the federal government had violated Mr. Khadr’s constitutional rights, that CSIS officials had obtained evidence from Mr. Khadr under “oppressive circumstances,” that Mr. Khadr had been subjected to sleep deprivation and was denied adult counsel, and that the government should remedy the wrongs committed against him.

In turn, Mr. Khadr and his lawyers filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government, seeking $20-million in damages for wrongful imprisonment.

  

On July 3, news broke that the government reached a settlement with Mr. Khadr that involved a payment of $10.5-million and a public apology.

On July 7, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) said during a news conference that the settlement was “disgusting” and a “slap in the face to the men and women in uniform.” He added that it shows “contempt” to Sgt. Speer’s widow and the “true victims in this whole ordeal.”

“Make no mistake, this settlement is a choice by Justin Trudeau,” said Mr. Scheer. “For all their bravery and sacrifice, our veterans now see Prime Minister Trudeau handing $10.5-million to a convicted terrorist who fought against them in Afghanistan.”

A July 11 email note from the Conservative Party signed by Mr. Scheer said: “As Prime Minister, I would have fought against this payout in court and made absolutely clear— taxpayers won’t be rewarding an admitted terrorist.”

A day earlier, Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, Ont.) sent out an emailed missive, stating that it was “the Trudeau Liberals’ decision to secretly pay out the convicted terrorist so that his victims could not benefit, and theirs alone.” It included links to both a crowd-funding campaign for Sgt. Speer’s family and one to donate to her riding association.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) addressed media on Parliament Hill on July 7 and spoke to the apology released in print earlier that day.

“On behalf of the government of Canada, we wish to apologize to Mr. Khadr for any role Canadian officials may have played in relation to his ordeal abroad and any resulting harm,” said the apology.

“We hope that this expression, and the negotiated settlement reached with the government, will assist him in his efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in his life with his fellow Canadians.”

Mr. Goodale said the settlement was the “only sensible course” and pointed blame at the former Conservative government under Stephen Harper, which fought previous court orders to repatriate Mr. Khadr up to the Supreme Court.

“I hope Canadians take away two things today: First, our rights are not subject to the whims of the government of the day,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said at the press conference on July 7. “Second, there are serious costs when the government violates the rights of its citizens.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould noted that Canada had already spent $5-million on legal expenses in the case.

Responding to questions on the settlement from the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany earlier this month, Prime Minister Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) stressed that the settlement was not about what happened in Afghanistan, but the fact that Mr. Khadr’s rights were violated, adding that the Charter of Rights protects all Canadians, “even when it is uncomfortable.”

Canada isn’t the first country to pay compensation to citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay, with Britain reportedly having paid millions to several citizens, though Canada’s public apology seems to be unique, The Toronto Star reported. The Australian government also reached a similar confidential settlement in 2010.

An online survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute between July 7 and 10 found that 71 per cent of the 1,521 respondents felt the federal government had made the wrong decision and should have fought the case in courts rather than agree to the settlement.

Disapproval was highest in Alberta, where 85 per cent of respondents said the government made the wrong move, and lowest in Quebec and B.C, where 68 per cent of respondents felt the government was wrong. Based on party affiliation, 91 per cent of past Conservative voters said the government was wrong, while 64 per cent of NDP respondents said the same, along with 61 per cent of Liberals. The survey did not break out data on Green Party supporters.

Moreover, 65 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the Liberal government had no choice but to offer the settlement it did, and 64 per cent felt Mr. Khadr remains a “potential radicalized threat.”

Asked if Mr. Khadr had been treated fairly or unfairly, 42 per cent said they were unsure, while 34 per cent said he’d been treated fairly, and 24 per cent said his treatment had been unfair.

Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, said the issue is clearly one the Conservatives can “build on as an issue or a wedge to really get their base motivated.” Based on poll numbers, she said the Conservatives “may find some past Liberal and even some past NDP voters who agree” that the Trudeau government was wrong to settle.

“It’s definitely an issue where the Conservatives have an opportunity to sink their teeth into the issue and find some energy, find some mojo if you will,” she said.

“The thing about summertime is while the Trudeau government may be protected from awkward exchanges in Question Period, it can also be a bit of a vacuum—a time vacuum and an issue vacuum—in which things like this can foment over the course of the summer if different parties sort of bang away at their own bases,” Ms. Kuri added.

Mr. Scheer has indicated plans to focus the first opposition day when the House of Commons returns in Septebemr on the government’s settlement with Mr. Khadr.

Andrew House, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former Conservative staffer, said his sense is Conservatives are “angered at two levels” over the settlement.

“The first is the shock of seeing a person many still view as a confessed terrorist and murderer receiving a multimillion-dollar payout. At an emotional level, that’s really hard to absorb,” he said.

But on a “deeper level,” he said those paying attention to coverage have noted that “it appears the government and Khadr’s lawyers may have worked to intentionally exclude others who have suffered in this,” referring to mention in media reports that the government sought to reach a settlement swiftly to “get ahead” of attempts to enforce a 2015 Utah court order awarding Sgt. Speer’s widow and Sgt. Layne Morris, who lost sight in one eye in the 2002 firefight, US$134-million in damages from Mr. Khadr.

On July 13, an application to have Mr. Khadr’s assets frozen pending an application to enforce the Utah judgment in Canada was dismissed by the Ontario Superior Court.

“In appearing to block a victim from collecting on a judgment, the government was bound to create a nasty, polarized debate where the facts went by the wayside as emotion took over. That’s on the government. That’s not something the opposition is trying to exploit,” said Mr. House.

“The Conservatives are holding the government to account in spite of the many ways in which the government has tried to escape that accountability. If that accrues to the oppositions advantage, I think that’s fair game,” he said.

Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and a past Conservative strategist, said all sides are “playing politics” when it comes to the settlement. He said from a communications perspective, the Liberals largely have “handled it well” in allowing news to get out while the prime minister was busy at the G20 summit in Hamburg.

Conservatives, he said, have seized the divisive, emotional issue, and polling indicates “the vast majority of the public is with them.” But Mr. Powers said the Conservatives need to be “very careful not to overreach.”

“There is the possibility that they fall back into the pattern of having too negative and too hostile of a tone,” he said. “I think they feel right now they have latitude because even Liberals supporters and New Democrat supporters, according to that poll, are both in the 60s in opposition to all of this.

“So I think [the Conservatives] will have to find a measure of balance once people’s emotions settle a bit more on this whole matter because they’re not going to want to trip themselves up in trying to make too much out of something that they’ve already effectively won the argument around.”

lryckewaert@hilltimes.com
The Hill Times

The case of Omar Khadr, a brief timeline:

Sept. 19, 1986: Omar Khadr is born in Canada, at hospital in Scarborough, Ont., now part of Toronto. Both his parents are also Canadian citizens, however, until 1995, he lives with his family in Pakistan.

1996: After a brief return to Canada, the family moves to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where they live in Osama bin Laden’s compound. Later this year, Mr. Khadr and his brothers attend weapons training camps connected to the Taliban and bin Laden.

July 27, 2002: Coalition forces, including U.S. troops, move on the Al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan. During the fight, Mr. Khadr is alleged to have thrown a grenade, killing U.S. Sgt. Chris Speer, a medic. Mr. Khadr is injured during the battle after being shot three times, ultimately losing sight in one eye, and is captured.

October 2002: Accused of killing Sgt. Speer, Mr. Khadr is transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

February 2003: The RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigators interview Mr. Khadr at Guantanamo Bay.

March 2004: Fatmah Elsamnah, Mr. Khadr’s grandmother, files a $100,000 lawsuit against the Department of Foreign Affairs, charging that Ottawa failed to protect Mr. Khadr’s rights as a Canadian citizen. She later files a similar suit against the U.S.

Aug. 10, 2005: The Federal Court rules Canadian agencies, including CSIS, are violating Mr. Khadr’s Charter rights by providing U.S. investigators with information obtained through their interviews.

Nov. 7, 2005: Three years after his imprisonment, the U.S. military charges Mr. Khadr with conspiracy, attempted murder, and aiding the enemy in relation to the 2002 firefight.

February 2006: In a default judgment, a U.S. civil court orders the Khadr family to pay US$102-million to Sgt. Speer’s widow, Tabitha Speer, and Sgt. Layne Morris, who lost sight in one eye during the 2002 firefight. This order has yet to be enforced.

March 17, 2008: Mr. Khadr says he was threatened with rape and violence in attempts to force a confession by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.

May 23, 2008: The Supreme Court of Canada rules Canadian officials’ sharing of information on Mr. Khadr with the U.S. to have been illegal, and orders the federal government to provide Mr. Khadr’s lawyers with files compiled by CSIS and Foreign Affairs officials during their interrogations of him at Guantanamo Bay.

Aug. 8, 2008: Mr. Khadr’s lawyers sue the government in Federal Court, demanding his repatriation and arguing the government was ignoring its obligation to help to reintegrate and rehabilitate children illegally used in armed conflict, and that Mr. Khadr suffered torture in Guantanamo Bay.

April 23, 2009: A federal court justice rules in favour of Mr. Khadr, saying the federal government violated his Charter rights by not demanding his release from Guantanamo.

June 2009: The government appeals the federal court ruling, with a repatriation order put on hold pending the appeal.

Aug. 14, 2009: The federal court of appeal upholds the ruling requiring the Canadian government to seek Mr. Khadr’s repatriation to Canada.

Aug. 25, 2009: The government files another appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada over the repatriation ruling.

Jan. 29, 2010: The Supreme Court of Canada finds the Canadian government violated Mr. Khadr’s constitutional rights and should remedy wrongs committed against him, but refrains from ordering the government to seek Mr. Khadr’s repatriation. The SCC found that CSIS officials got evidence from Mr. Khadr under “oppressive circumstances” in 2003, and that Mr. Khadr had been subjected to sleep deprivation and was denied adult counsel.

Feb. 15, 2010: In a diplomatic note to U.S. officials, the federal government asks that information from Canadian authorities’ interviews with Mr. Khadr’s not be used against him because of the Supreme Court’s finding that Mr. Khadr’s Charter rights had been violated in the process.

Aug. 9, 2010: At a pre-trial hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. Khadr pleads not guilty to five war crime charges, including murder. His confessions are ruled admissible, despite arguments from Mr. Khadr’s lawyers that they were the product of torture.

Oct. 25, 2010: A pre-trial deal is reached, as part of it Mr. Khadr officially changes his pleas to guilty on all five charges, giving him the opportunity to apply to be transferred to a Canadian prison after a year in a U.S. facility.

Oct. 31, 2010: Mr. Khadr is sentenced to 40 years jail time by jurors, but the pre-trial deal limits his sentence to eight years.

Sept. 29, 2012: Mr. Khadr is brought back to Canada on a U.S. military plane and transferred to the Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ont.

April 28, 2013: Mr. Khadr’s lawyer indicates plans to appeal his terrorism convictions.

May 28, 2013: Mr. Khadr is transferred to a maximum-security prison, the Edmonton Institution.

Feb. 11, 2014: Mr. Khadr’s lawyer confirms he was again transferred to the Bowden Institution, a medium-security prison near Innisfail, Alta.

May 22, 2014: Sgt. Speer’s widow and Sgt. Morris sue Mr. Khadr for almost US$45-million in a wrongful death and injury lawsuit filed in Utah, based on Mr. Khadr’s guilty plea in Guantanamo.

2014: Mr. Khadr re-launches his lawsuit against the Canadian government, seeking $20-million in damages for wrongful imprisonment and arguing his Charter rights had been violated. His original, amended lawsuit filed in 2004 had foundered after a judge ruled it needed to be re-written.

April 24, 2015: Mr. Khadr is granted bail by an Alberta judge, pending the appeal of his guilty plea, with his terms of release to be determined by May 5.

May 5, 2015: The federal government requests Mr. Khadr not be given bail, despite the court ruing, arguing it threatens the agreement under which he was brought back to Canada. Nonetheless, bail conditions are announced requiring Mr. Khadr to wear a tracking bracelet, live with one of his lawyers, have a curfew, have supervised internet access only, and only communicate with his family in English by phone or video under supervision. Two days later, the government’s request is rejected.

May 7, 2015: Mr. Khadr is released on bail.

June 8, 2015: The U.S. Federal Court in Utah awards Sgt. Speer’s widow and Sgt. Morris a total of US$134-million in damages to be paid by Mr. Khadr, in a default judgment.

June 8, 2017: An application is filed at the Ontario Superior Court to enforce the 2015 Utah court order.

June 22, 2017: Lawyers for Khadr and the Justice department concluded mediations and reached a deal for the government to apologize and provide $10.5-million in compensation.

July 3, 2017: The deal to provide $10.5-million in compensation is made public for the first time through media reports.

July 7, 2017: The federal government officially apologizes to Mr. Khadr for “any role Canadian officials may have played in relation to his ordeal abroad and any resulting harm.”

July 13, 2017: A Toronto court hears a request from the lawyers for the families of Sgt. Speer and Sgt. Morris to have Mr. Khadr’s assets, and his share of the $10.5-million settlement, frozen pending a trial on enforcing the 2015 Utah court order. The request is ultimately dismissed.