Former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr is fighting the federal government and the Canadian corrections system for a chance to speak to the news media for the first time.
Jailed since he was 15 over war crimes in Afghanistan, the 27-year-old – denounced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and some cabinet ministers as an al-Qaeda terrorist and convicted murderer – is fighting for the right to tell his story to Canadians.
In a letter that provides the first public indication directly from Mr. Khadr that he blames his father and that he would like to speak to Canadians about himself, he expresses worries about misinformation “about me, whether from family members or others.”
“Much of the Canadian Public’s impression of me comes from certain comments made by members of my family, which are untrue,” he wrote. “I was a child when I was placed in harm’s way by my father.” Ahmed Said Khadr, his father, is believed to have been a senior al-Qaeda member. He was killed in Pakistan in 2003.
The letter, addressed last summer to warden Kelly Hartle of Edmonton Institution, where Mr. Khadr was then being held, was in protest against its refusal to allow him to be interviewed. It was contained in a Federal Court filing on Tuesday.
“I believe it is in everyone’s interest, including the public, Edmonton Institution and my own interest that I be heard and seen on a one time basis,” he wrote.
Mr. Khadr also wrote that he was assaulted in jail by a white supremacist who wrongly believed he had killed a Canadian soldier.
The filing, made by the Toronto Star, the CBC and White Pine Pictures Inc., a documentary company, cites a report of political interference in overturning a warden’s acceptance of an interview request. It also says refusals by the warden of Bowden Institution in Alberta, where Mr. Khadr is currently held, violate the public’s right to know and were made without adequate explanation. Mr. Khadr’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, is co-operating with the media challenge.
The wardens of the Edmonton Institution and the Bowden Institution say they denied the interview requests because of the potential for disruption of their jails and because it would not be good for Mr. Khadr’s rehabilitation to increase his notoriety.
Correctional Service Canada said it could not comment on a specific case. Lawyers say it is highly unusual for interview requests for prisoners to be denied.
“I’ve never heard of it,” said Eric Gottardi, a Vancouver criminal lawyer.
Even people who were to be hanged were allowed to speak to the media, said Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association. “If you had the right to speak to someone in 1960 or whenever the last hanging was, why wouldn’t you now?”
The court filing includes a Canadian Press story from April, 2013, in which the office of then-public safety minister Vic Toews intervened to block an interview with Mr. Khadr. The warden at Millhaven Institution in Kingston, where Mr. Khadr was then being held, had accepted the request. Ninety minutes later, the minister’s office stepped in, according to internal e-mails obtained by CP.
After eight years incarcerated at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Khadr accepted a plea bargain from a U.S. military commission, pleading guilty to five charges, including the war crime of murder, in return for an eight-year sentence and return to Canada. He was not permitted to speak to the media while detained at Guantanamo. He has been jailed in Canada for nearly two years.
In the letter, Mr. Khadr states: “I have also been labelled a terrorist even although I have never been convicted of a terrorism act.”
John Phillips, a lawyer representing the media groups, said the comments by Mr. Harper, calling Mr. Khadr an admitted murderer, show the public importance of letting Canadians hear directly from him.
“The Prime Minister and every academic, and every person on the right and the left, have been discussing him. The one voice that’s never been heard is Omar’s voice,” he said. “At some point this guy is going to be released. The public has heard nothing but vilification of him. Maybe we all want to know and need to know who he really is.”
A corollary to media freedom is the right of Canadians to know, Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Khadr won a court challenge earlier this month against the federal government ordering that he be moved from the harsh system of the federal penitentiaries to a provincial adult facility. The government is appealing the order.
SEAN FINE – JUSTICE WRITER
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jul. 23 2014, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jul. 23 2014, 4:52 AM EDT