WASHINGTON - A prominent Canadian senator urged Barack Obama to send Omar Khadr home from Guantanamo Bay on Monday as aides to the U.S. president-elect sent their strongest signal yet they intend to waste little time closing down the controversial American prison.
And the military lawyer for Khadr said the expected closure could put pressure on Canada to take him back, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested it may not affect the case because Khadr - unlike many at Guantanamo - is facing charges.
Senator Romeo Dallaire was in the U.S. capital to argue that Khadr, who has been held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo since 2002, was a child soldier whose detention is an affront to both international law and human rights.
"We've got a Canadian citizen who at the age of 15 was shot up and involved in a conflict as a child soldier and has been sitting in an American jail," Dallaire told a D.C. news conference on Monday, just two weeks before Khadr's trial is scheduled to begin.
Before the day was out, however, aides to Obama - speaking on condition of anonymity - said the U.S. president-elect would order the prison closed as early as his first day in office, although it would take significantly longer for the facility to shut its doors.
The advisers said the executive order would direct the new administration to look at each of the roughly 250 Guantanamo detainees to see whether they can be released or if they should still be held - and if so, where.
That would likely see Canada come under pressure from the new U.S. administration to take Khadr back, said Navy Lt.-Cmdr. William Kuebler, the military lawyer who represents Khadr in the U.S.
"It really puts the pressure on the Canadian government to now step up and be part of the solution to this problem," Kuebler said.
"It is theoretically possible to try him in a court of law in the United States. I can't imagine a prosecutor who looked at this evidence wanting to do that. So I really think it does put the pressure on Canada to step up now and be part of the solution."
But Harper cautioned that one shouldn't "necessarily leap to the conclusion" that closure of Guantanamo will change things for Khadr.
"The promise that president-elect Obama made was that he would close down the facilities in Guantanamo," said Harper, speaking in Surrey, B.C. "That's primarily as I understand it because of the objection to the fact that many people at that facility are not charged with anything.
"I don't think you can necessarily leap to the conclusion that will affect people who have in fact been charged and are facing legal process. We don't know the answer to that question. Obviously we'll be working with the incoming administration to figure out what their policies will be."
Dallaire, the retired general who oversaw the UN's peacekeeping missions during the Rwandan genocide, said his hand has been forced by the inaction of the Conservative government regarding Canada's only Guantanamo detainee.
"The reason I'm down here is because I've gotten nowhere with the Canadian government," said a visibly annoyed Dallaire. He suggested Harper's refusal to get involved in the Khadr case has been "unstatesmanlike."
Dallaire said he tried to convince U.S. Congress in August that Khadr should be returned to Canada. But his attempt to convince Harper to press the Americans to send Khadr home "has been to no avail."
"I am here again today to try to convince the transition team and your president-elect to offer up Khadr to the Canadian government," Dallaire said.
"Why should you get involved in a process that is inappropriate and against rule of law? Why drag you into this, when in fact Canada should be taking responsibility and sorting it out themselves?"
Khadr - the son of alleged al-Qaida figure Ahmed Said Khadr, who died in a raid in Pakistan in 2003 - is accused of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a battle in Afghanistan. He was seriously wounded in the 2002 incident.
The fact he remains incarcerated in the U.S. should be considered a mark of shame for Canada, his sister Zaynab said in an interview in Toronto.
"The whole world has condemned Guantanamo and Canada has been silent - Canada has been complicit in torture," she said. The question now becomes what happens to the prison's occupants, including Khadr, she added.
"What's going to happen to these people even if they do shut down Guantanamo? "Where are they going to go?"
Khadr's mother, Maha Elsamnah, also expressed uncertainty about the fate of her son.
"It's all in Harper's (hands), not in Obama's," she said. "If Harper only once demands Omar's return, Omar would be back. If Harper doesn't budge (and) they transfer Omar to another jail in the States, we're still in a vicious circle."
Dallaire was joined at Monday's news conference by human rights activists, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone and a child psychiatrist as they discussed what they called "the scourge" of using boys and girls as agents of war.
"No child has the criminal intent to commit a war crime," said David Crane, a law professor who was once the chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone International War Crimes Tribunal.
While it was in progress, five human rights groups - the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch - publicized a letter urging Obama to stop Khadr's Guantanamo Bay trial.
The letter says the charge should either be dropped against Khadr and he should be repatriated to Canada, or, if there's evidence to support the charge, prosecuted in U.S. federal courts.
Both Dallaire and human rights groups argue there's broad global recognition that the use of children in armed conflicts is a serious abuse. They point out that no existing international tribunal has ever prosecuted a child for war crimes.
Kuebler, meanwhile, said he's not overly surprised Obama is making the closure of Guantanamo a high priority.
"It is consistent with president-elect Obama's campaign statements, consistent with his promise to take steps to restore the credibility of the United States and its commitment to the rule of law."
Dallaire agreed Obama would be lightening his burden by returning Khadr to Canada.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is to the benefit of this country, to your new president, that in fact this case is given to the appropriate authorities, and that is the Canadian government," he said.
"If we take Omar Khadr back, we take one of (Obama's) problems away. I mean, we alleviate the situation for him where he doesn't have to look at a case of a Canadian child soldier being prosecuted in a process that is considered to be inappropriate."
Harper has been firm in his position not to intervene in Khadr's case, saying a judicial process is underway.