GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – A tiny crack appeared in Ottawa’s long-standing reluctance to bring Omar Khadr home Wednesday after a military judge called a 120-day halt to the Guantanamo Bay prisoner’s war-crimes trial at the behest of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Obama, his presidency just hours old, ordered prosecutors to request the hiatus late Tuesday in order to allow for time to review the case of Khadr and 244 other detainees held at this infamous prison, according to prosecution documents.
That move prompted signals from Defence Minister Peter MacKay that the federal Conservative government would take Obama’s cue and re-examine its oft-repeated position that due process in the U.S. should be allowed to run its course.
“Everyone involved in these cases will be reassessing their positions,” MacKay said in Ottawa.
That appeared to bring out Kory Teneycke, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who reiterated the government’s more familiar message: Khadr faces serious charges and the U.S. process must run its course.
“We are just not going to get into hypotheticals around different scenarios,” Teneycke said.
“We’ll simply wait and see what comes forward from the United States around this issue. We’ll address other questions if and when they arise.”
Khadr’s defence, which had earlier pushed hard for the charges to be stayed, did not oppose Wednesday’s motion.
“The practical effect of this ruling is to pronounce this military process dead,” Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, Khadr’s lawyer, said minutes after the judge, Col. Patrick Parrish, granted the continuance in a single-sentence ruling.
Reached in Toronto, Khadr’s older sister expressed mixed feelings at the news.
“I’m glad my brother is not going to trial, but I really would have preferred he was coming home, and he’s not,” Zaynab Khadr said in an interview.
“He has been there for six years. Delaying justice is not justice at all.”
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to take the necessary steps to bring Khadr back to Canada.
“I don’t pronounce on his innocence or guilt, I just think enough is enough,” Ignatieff said in Montreal.
“I want to make it clear – I don’t have an ounce of anti-Americanism in my blood. I have great respect for the constitutional and legal traditions of the United States of America, but I think Guantanamo has been a disgrace to those traditions.”
In addition to Khadr’s trial, Obama’s order also resulted in a temporary halt to the proceedings for the five accused co-conspirators in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Family members of 9-11 victims, gathered in Guantanamo to watch the proceedings, were outraged.
“Mr. Obama has offered up the lives of almost three-thousand Americans on the … altar of political correctness,” said an angry Don Arias, whose brother Adam died in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“My brother will not be a sacrificial lamb on that altar.”
The relatives, who complained the accused 9-11 conspirators were laughing at the legal system, called on Obama to ensure justice was done immediately.
The options now open to Obama, who during his election campaign promised to shut down Guantanamo Bay and who has since signalled doing so would be among his first priorities, include attempting to try the detainees in a U.S. federal or military court.
He could also establish a special terrorist court, although most observers consider that unlikely, in part because Democrats in Congress oppose such a move.
Detainees not considered dangerous could be sent back home, or to third countries, including Canada.
The Toronto-born Khadr, 22, is charged under an internationally condemned military commissions process with killing an American soldier in violation of the rules of war.
It is alleged he tossed the hand grenade that killed Sgt. Chris Speer following a four-hour firefight near Khost, Afghanistan, in July 2002, when he was just 15.
Khadr is the lone westerner still held at Guantanamo, but Harper has steadfastly refused to get involved, saying the proceedings here had to run their course.
Harper can no longer “hide behind” that argument, Kuebler said.
“There is now no excuse, no reason whatsoever, for the prime minister not to do what really in our view has always been the right thing and intervene and get Omar Khadr, this Canadian citizen, back to Canada for the help and support that he needs.”
But Teneycke said serious charges against minors are common and “the process for addressing those is through a judicial process, not an arbitrary political one.
The defence had originally wanted all charges stayed against Khadr and the other detainees, but Kuebler said he’ll settle for the suspension, which lasts until May 20, 2009, provided it leads to serious discussions about getting Khadr home.
“He is anxious, he is nervous, he doesn’t quite know what is going to happen – none of us does,” Kuebler said of his client.
“He’s hopeful, as we are, that this is finally going to create the conditions under which the Canadian government can do the responsible thing.”
In a statement, Amnesty International, which has long opposed the commissions system, called the hiatus in the tribunals “a positive first step” but also said it hoped it was a “clear signal of this administration’s intention to move away from unlawful practices of the past.”