By Noah Miller
Outrage continues to build around the government’s failure to end Canadian citizen Omar Khadr’s seven year incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The solemn faces of almost 250 concerned Calgarians lined a lecture theater in Cragie Hall on Monday night to listen to Khadr’s Edmonton lawyer Dennis Edney discuss the issue.
Khadr was detained seven years ago as a supposed “child soldier” who allegedly committed war crimes and supported terrorism. It was also alleged that he threw a grenade that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier. Despite the lack of proof that he committed the said actions, Khadr remains the only citizen of a Western Nation not to be repatriated.
This Monday’s event, “Omar Khadr and the Canadian Conscience,” was sponsored by a group of concerned Calgarians, the Consortium for Peace Studies and the Dr. Irma Parhad Programmes at the University of Calgary. On the table was Canadians’ obligation to secure Khadr’s release.
As the keynote speaker, Edney’s message was one of responsibility to our fellow citizens — a responsibility to speak up when their rights are infringed.
“We have to make people accountable, we have to make our government accountable,” said Edney. “We are far too complacent.”
Edney emphasized that “we get the kind of government we deserve” and that we have exactly that. He expressed his position that there is not enough public outcry over Khadr’s situation. However, Edney also stated that he thinks that “Canadians are good people” and that “at some point the Canadian people will rise.”
A group of expert panelists comprised of Canadian Civil Liberties Association general counsel Nathalie Des Rosiers, esteemed Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock and Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre executive director and University of Calgary sessional instructor Linda McKay-Panos accompanied and corroborated Edney. All of them stressed the importance of supporting each other in asserting our rights. Des Rosiers’ citing of Martin NiemÃ¶ller’s poem “First they came . . .” embodied the point that if we do not stand up for one another’s rights, who will stand up for ours?
Though Edney managed to maintain the crowds spirits with his sense of humour and charismatic personality, he made it clear this fight is very personal for him. Edney — who has taken the case pro bono — said there are many reasons why he is doing it.
“It’s perhaps how I’m made, it’s perhaps I believe in the system of justice, perhaps it’s about if I didn’t, who is going to do it. . . ,” said Edney. “But more importantly, when I met Omar I couldn’t turn my back.”
Edney described Khadr as the most “abused and tortured” individual he has ever met and said meeting him changed his life.
“It’s been very painful,” said Edney. “There are times I felt like crying. I am still shocked at how human beings can allow him to be treated so inhumanely. I have become angry and intolerant about use of the word torture as an everyday piece of language.”
Throughout the night there seemed to be a recurrent theme: “What does it say about the rest of us if we let this happen to Omar?”
“It says that the government undervalues us as citizens,” said Edney. “It says that anybody who goes abroad such as Omar can be harmed, and can be harmed by their own government.”
Edney didn’t hesitate to say what students could do to help.
“Every university student has access to a computer… email every politician and let them know that they are going to be accountable in the next election, that’s what they don’t want to hear,” said Edney. “Then get together with your friends to meet with your local MLAs … don’t allow them to say to you … ‘I am not up to date on this’ or ‘I rely on central headquarters to tell me what to say’… your argument is ‘you are supposed to be working for us!’”
In the interim, Khadr remains detained in Guantanamo, while Edney prepares to thwart the Canadian government’s attempts to overturn previous court decisions ordering them to push for Khadr’s release. Edney said his release is just a phone call away, but the government refuses to make it.
Edney offered words of challenging encouragement. “It’s your life, your society — make it what you want.”