Remember Guantanamo?

Family and supporters of Omar Khadr rally across the street from the US consulate on University Ave in Toronto in January 2009

Since prior to taking office, President Obama made a series of promises regarding the trial of Guantanamo detainees and the eventual closure of the facility. Almost four years later, the off-site prison for terrorist suspects remains in place and what is more problematic, the bureaucratic red tape around trying suspects has not improved.

Perhaps the story of Omar Khadr, an inmate in Guantanamo, illustrates the challenges that have lingered best. At fifteen years old, Khadr who is also a Canadian citizen, was taken into custody by US armed forces and charged with throwing a grenade that killed a member of the American military and planting roadside bombs. Despite the fact that he was a child soldier and that the international humanitarian law demands that child soldiers be treated as victims rather than as perpetrators of crime, he was held in Guantanamo and tried in a military court.  Again his trial in a military court was problematic by international standards since terrorist suspects are not in militaries but are classified in under a vague category—international combatants.

Ten years have past since then, and at 25 Mr. Khadr accepted a plea deal which had strongly signaled that by November of last year he would be returned to Canada where he would serve the remainder of his sentence. In order to receive this deal, Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty to all charges against him and in return he had his sentence capped from 40 years to with the promise of being repatriated.

The problems arising in the repatriation process are both bureaucratic and political. The US administration took longer than expected in reviewing his release but has since November finished this process, however in order for the US to take the next step, which requires that Defense Secretary Panetta sign the paperwork, Khadr must first be invited back by the Canadian Minister of Public Safety, Vic Towes. However, as a recent New York Times article suggested, the Khadr family is unpopular in Canada and the government in place has been hesitant about the case. As a result, the plea deal which was offered to Khadr has only been met in part.

This has become increasingly problematic because the tactic of the plea deal was being relied on by prosecutors to finalize the trials of other international combatants being held in Guantanamo. This tactic is becoming obsolete, however, as other prisoners observe that the terms of Khadr’s deal have not been met. As a result, the process of finding an alternative to Guantanamo is becoming  a more complex and lengthy process.

Repatriating detainees is a long, burdensome and political process as the case of Omar Khadr demonstrates. However, if the US intends on closing the prison, a solution must be found to the red tape that stands in the way.

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