Toronto — At a glance, they look like unrelated events unfolding thousands of miles apart and yet, they’re both windows into Canada’s passive partnership with the U.S. in the war on terror.
On Tuesday, the release of a previously classified video shows a Canadian teenager accused of killing a U..S soldier in Afghanistan sobbing during an interrogation by Canadian intelligence officials in Guantánamo Bay.
Meanwhile, in British Columbia, protesters gathered at the Canada-U.S. border to dispute a federal court’s decision the day before to deport Robin Long, a 25-year-old U.S. Army deserter who fled to Canada in 2005, refusing to fight an “illegal war of aggression” in Iraq.
In a country that provided refuge to an estimated 90 percent of some 100,000 deserters and draft dodgers who went into exile during the Vietnam War, it’s an unprecedented decision – though perhaps not unexpected, given the political temper of the times in Canada.
“These two events are intimately connected,” explains Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. “They are a sad legacy of our alignment with the Bush administration in the post-9/11 world. Both reflect a desire of the Canadian government to choose its relationship with the Bush administration over human rights.”
He adds that while the former Liberal government had worked to accommodate some of its closest ally’s preferences since 9/11, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is following in lock step with U.S. foreign-policy goals.
The lawyers for 21-year-old Omar Khadr released the video of his Guantánamo interrogation hoping to pressure Ottawa into lobbying Washington for the repatriation of Mr. Khadr, still not convicted after six years in detention. He is the only Western detainee left at Guantánamo.
“It’s time for Canada to stand up to the United States,” says Nathan Whitling, one of Mr. Khadr’s lawyers. “Canada is not a puppet to the United States or the Bush administration.”
The Canadian government has firmly maintained its stance, however. In a written statement to the Monitor, Eugénie Cormier-Lassonde, spokesperson for Canada’s department of foreign affairs, says Khadr faces “serious charges … includ[ing] murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, material support for terrorism, and spying, all in violation of the laws of war.”
Khadr, born in Toronto and raised by Muslim fundamentalist parents, was sent to Guantánamo at age 15 after being captured in Afghanistan and deemed an “enemy combatant.” The Pentagon alleges that Khadr threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier during an attack on a suspected Al Qaeda compound. According to an in-depth Rolling Stone profile citing U.S. government information, Khadr and his family had lived in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, before going to fight with the Taliban against U.S. forces.
The case has divided Canadians. Some decry the notion that he should be returned to Canada because of his alleged links to terrorism. However, human rights advocates and legal groups around the world have been pushing for Khadr’s release, arguing that he is a “child soldier,” and raising concerns about the implications of this case on human rights around the world.
Foreign affairs critic Wayne Marston of the National Democratic Party says Khadr should be given a chance to salvage the rest of his life. “He was an immature juvenile,” explains Mr. Marston. “He was following the lead of his father. In many ways, he was simply acting as a dutiful son.”
While Khadr awaits a fall trial in Guantánamo, Mr. Long, the U.S. Army deserter, was quietly deported to Fort Knox, Ky., Tuesday morning. He’s believed to be the first resister to the U.S. war effort in Iraq to be sent out of Canada.
“It’s immoral,” says Sarah Bjorknas, coordinator of the Vancouver War Resisters Support Program, whose group has been contacted by some 50 deserters. “This is about protecting international human rights. It’s a terrible precedent and we’ll be working to make certain it doesn’t happen again.”
Ms. Bjorknas says she believes the move is particularly troubling because, having been a vocal opponent to the Iraq war, Long will be treated harshly by the American military.
Long joined the U.S. Army in 2003 believing the war in Iraq was justified. But he changed his mind during training, troubled that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and by images of the mistreatment of Abu Ghraib detainees in 2004. He filed a refugee claim in 2005 — the only way deserters can stay in Canada, a change since the Vietnam days — arguing that he would suffer irreparable harm if sent back to the U.S.
In her ruling, Federal Court of Canada Justice Anne Mactavish disagreed. She said that according to the evidence before her, between 2002 and 2006 about 94 percent of U.S. deserters were not prosecuted or jailed. She cleared the way for Long’s deportation late Monday, dismissing further appeals to stay in Canada.
U.S. desertions:Vietnam vs. war on terror
Approximately 500,000 U.S. military personnel deserted during the Vietnam War, with an estimated 100,000 draft or military resisters going into exile – at least 90 percent to Canada. From 2002 to 2007, some 24,000 U.S. soldiers have deserted, an estimated 50 to 200 of whom have gone to Canada. Now, deserters must be granted refugee status to stay.