Omar Khadr, The King’s University, and Micah 6:8
By Roy Berkenbosch
Editor’s introduction: Omar Khadr, an Afghan-Canadian, is accused of having thrown the grenade that killed American Sergeant Christopher Speer in 2002 when Khadr was 15. He was incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for ten years. The Government of Canada’s interrogation of Omar at Guantanamo “offend[ed] the most basic Canadian standards [of] the treatment of detained youth suspects,” according to a 2010 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada. He eventually pleaded guilty to the crimes of which he was accused in exchange for an 8-year sentence and a transfer to a Canadian prison in Edmonton.
The King’s University, a CRC-affiliated Christian university in Edmonton, became involved with Khadr’s case after his lawyer presented at a King’s conference. Students and professors became involved in initiatives such as prayer groups, correspondence, and rallies and eventually, under the leadership of Professor Arlette Zinck, some faculty began tutoring Khadr, including Professor Roy Berkenbosch.
Why did King’s begin to work with Omar? Why did you get involved?
I invited Dennis Edney, Omar’s lawyer, to tell Omar’s story to our students at the September 2008 Interdisciplinary Studies conference. His passionate telling of Omar’s story and the apparent injustices suffered by Omar really struck a chord with our students and they wanted to do something to help. They were encouraged to learn as much as they could about the case in order to respond knowledgeably and not only emotionally. Dennis was and remains a powerful advocate for Omar and he told us that there were meaningful things to be done, not least of which was to tell Omar’s story to others, to support him in simple ways like writing letters, and to ask for accountability from the Canadian government. The fact that Omar was a similar age as our students, that he was Canadian, that he was being tortured at a discredited U.S. facility in Cuba – all these factors lent a sense of urgency to the cause. The pursuit of justice is a major and pervasive theme in our curriculum at King’s and having been presented with Omar’s plight, there was no way we could not act.
Tell us a bit about your relationship with Omar.
Before he was released from Guantanamo, my involvement was limited to prayer, support, advocacy, and working with colleagues to do whatever we could to keep the matter before our students and our constituency. When Omar was transferred to prison in Canada I visited him there and we became friends. When he was a student at Kings he would drop by my office to chat. He’s been to our home and we chat by phone. I consider Omar a friend to be treasured, a neighbour to be welcomed, and a brother to be respected.
When you receive criticism about this work, what makes you continue?
We have certainly been criticized at King’s for our advocacy and I’ve been personally criticized as well by some folks. But I believe Omar’s treatment in prison required intervention. Also, his pro bono lawyer needed support, the callous disregard for Omar expressed by many people including some government officials needed to be exposed, and there had to be some accountability.
Omar was a child when he was taken to Afghanistan – he deserved protection. I felt an obligation as a human being, as a Canadian citizen, as a teacher of students, and above all as a follower of Jesus. I’ve been teaching students at King’s for 20 years, urging them to embrace the Micah challenge to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God – to know about Omar’s plight and not act on that knowledge would be to fail in so many ways. The core of the biblical story is forgiveness, renewal, and reconciliation. I am thankful that God placed Omar in our path to help us learn more about what that all means.
There’s some debate around the basic facts of Omar’s case, such as whether he actually threw the grenade. Do you believe that Omar is guilty of throwing the grenade that killed a U.S. soldier?
We’ve always been pretty careful at King’s to say that we are not competent to make that call and that our interest is primarily in advocating for due process and fair treatment, and to heed Jesus’ teaching about visiting those in prison. That being said, from all that I’ve read and from the testimony of those who are in the best position to know the facts, I believe that Omar was not guilty of throwing that grenade. When he was found he was terribly wounded, shot in the back, was blind, concussed, had a broken ankle, and was buried under rubble. Yet in that condition, he is accused of throwing a grenade 80 feet over an 8-foot wall.
Sam Morison, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Defense assigned to Omar’s case, spoke at King’s back in 2013. According to Morison, the U.S. military had no case that would stand up in any normal court of law. Morison’s bottom line conclusion was that “Omar Khadr was neither charged with nor pled guilty to any conduct for which he could be tried in a military commission. To the contrary he was himself the victim of a war crime.” Those are the words of the attorney for the U.S. government. I tend to believe him. Readers can view the full presentation by Mr. Morison in this video or read this account of the inconsistencies between the various accounts offered by the U.S. military to learn more.
How do you respond to people who say that this is a payout for a convicted terrorist and that this settlement is offensive to the widow of the fallen U.S. soldier, Sergeant Speer?
In the first place, this is not a payout. It is a settlement incurred by the Canadian government for repeatedly and belligerently ignoring the rule of law. There is a price to be paid for the violation of the rights of a citizen, who was only a child at the time. Not only did the Canadian government not act on Omar’s behalf when it should have, it acted against his best interests. Secondly, he is not a convicted terrorist in my opinion. The ‘court’ that convicted him was a sham; I see his confession as an act of desperation to get out of Guantanamo. Readers may be interested to know that even if the military commission at Guantanamo had acquitted Omar, they were not going to set him free. He was facing 40 years in that discredited place. Thirdly, I would ask why his accusers are willing to accept the outcome of a sham procedure at Guantanamo, but not the ruling of the justices in the Supreme Court of Canada?
With respect to Tabitha Speer and her children, I deeply regret their loss. I wish it had never happened. I wish the whole campaign in Afghanistan had not happened. Nothing I can say, nothing Omar can say, no amount of money paid to him or to her will bring back her husband. This is the terrible price of war. I hope she has a community of friends committed to helping her find a way forward that is not tinged with vengeance.
What has been the effect of this connection with Omar on your own faith journey? On the faith journeys of your students?
This experience has touched the lives of students deeply, especially those who were around in 2008 and shortly thereafter when most of the student involvement happened. Our journey with Omar has been a blessing to King’s. It has helped us gain more clarity about who we are and why we do what we do. There have been highs and lows, for sure, and plenty of frustrations when it seemed that things were not going as we hoped and prayed they would. I drew a lot of strength from my colleague Arlette Zinck who deserves much credit for investing herself so heavily in Omar’s education.
As for myself, I thank God for Omar and for the providential way his life intersected with mine and that of King’s. In the face of the firestorm that erupted upon news of the government’s apology and settlement, he has remained stoic, generous of spirit, thoughtful, and kind. I interviewed Omar a while back for one of our conferences and I asked him how he maintained hope. His answer has stayed with me: “A few years ago, I realized that if you want something so pure (as hope), you have to get it from its original source. And the most pure hope is from God. Once I realized that and embraced it…hope opened a lot of doors for me, to bypass the anger that might restrict me.” What a moment it was to hear that testimony.
This settlement has become a hot-button issue in Canada recently. What does the debate tell you about Canadian society?
Clearly we are a divided people on this issue. Recent polls continue to show a considerable amount of anger about the settlement. In one way I don’t blame people for being angry, but they should direct their anger where it belongs: at successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative, that failed to do the right thing.
The persistent naming of Omar as a ‘convicted terrorist’ and worse reveals a dark heart among some quarters of Canadian citizenry. I lament that; it tells me that people are not availing themselves of the full story but are defaulting to stereotypes and caricatures. Some people want to believe the worst and that is a sad reality. But I am also heartened by the wise and generous responses of others. They give me hope that, given time, Omar will accomplish his stated objective when he was released from prison, namely, “to prove to Mr. [Stephen] Harper that I am not the person he thinks I am.” Well said, Omar.