May 31, 2008

WAR CRIMES DOSSIER: Omar Khadr torture tape sought in Canada

Release sought of Khadr interrogation footage

From Saturday's Globe and mail

Canadian intelligence agents were videotaped as they questioned a 16-year-old prisoner held in Guantanamo Bay, and a court battle is brewing to force disclosure of the footage.

A videotaped interrogation of Omar Khadr over three days, conducted seven months after he was shot and captured in Afghanistan, has been kept secret for five years. Yet efforts are under way to force government officials to release four DVDs containing the recordings that may yield insights into the secrets of the U.S. prison camp and one of Canada's more ethically fraught investigations.

“There is a strong public interest in seeing first-hand the effect this terrible ordeal has had upon a young Canadian citizen,” said Nathan Whitling, a Khadr family lawyer who hopes a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling will allow him to obtain and circulate DVDs showing the February, 2003, interviews.

The footage was publicly mentioned for the first time in a Guantanamo Bay proceeding this spring, said Mr. Whitling, a dual citizen fighting for his client in both Canada and the United States. Until then, he said, only privileged parties knew about the recordings.

The military commission prosecuting Mr. Khadr in the death of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan may or may not air edited portions of the footage, Mr. Whitling said. But because U.S. copies are unlikely to travel from coastal Cuba or Washington agencies, he will be fighting in court to push Canadian officials to release any copies they retained.

The Globe and Mail and CTV on Friday filed a joint motion seeking to intervene and argue that the footage should be widely released. “The public disclosure, to the greatest extent possible, of the records and videotapes detailing the interviews Canadian officials had with Omar Khadr is of the utmost importance,” said Peter Jacobsen, a lawyer who recently represented The Globe and Mail in a bid to reveal a $500,000 (U.S.) bounty the United States paid for the capture of one of Mr. Khadr's brothers.

The Supreme Court of Canada last week ruled that federal officials breached Omar Khadr's rights by travelling to a military prison that operates outside the continental United States. No one has ever suggested the Canadians mistreated the prisoner, but the top court found it was wrong for the agents to visit a prison camp eventually found to be “illegal under both U.S. and international law.”

Because the contents of the interviews were shared with U.S. prosecutors, the Supreme Court last week ordered that Canada must now also release all relevant records to the Khadr defence. The Federal Court of Canada is to vet materials in coming weeks to make sure nothing is disclosed that compromises national security.

Canadian officials have not acknowledged they have copies of the DVDs, but will likely argue that any footage is the fruit of a sensitive intelligence investigation – and its release for public consumption could poison international intelligence relationships.

Arguments over the rights of the accused to see sensitive state information are bogging down terrorism-related prosecutions in Guantanamo Bay and beyond.

The Pentagon this week removed the U.S. military judge in the Khadr case after he threatened to suspend proceedings if prosecutors withheld evidence. The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has recently complained that the “judicialization” of intelligence practices is lifting the “veil of secrecy” over agencies like CSIS.

CSIS's intelligence interviews, in general, are legally designed to be kept out of court, but this is being challenged. Today, the 21-year-old Mr. Khadr is becoming a political cause célèbre, even though his case was politically untouchable a few years ago. Still, he was held in higher esteem by security agencies for his “intelligence value.”

Raised in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he was offered up by his father – since eulogized as a “martyr” for al-Qaeda – as a translator for insurgents. In 2002, the teen survived a 500-pound bomb blast and three bullet wounds when he was captured during the deadly battle in which he is alleged to have killed a U.S. soldier.

After Mr. Khadr was sent to Guantanamo, the Pentagon invited Canadian agents to come down to further their own investigations.

Court documents show that a CSIS official and a Department of Foreign Affairs official involved in the interviews brought gifts of Big Macs and chocolate bars to try to induce Mr. Khadr to talk. It is unclear what intelligence was garnered, but the agents did carry back some sympathy. An internal DFAIT memo described Mr. Khadr as a “thoroughly ‘screwed up' young man,” whose trust had been abused by just about everyone, including “his parents and grandparents, his associates in Afghanistan, and fellow detainees.”

And now, Canada's top court has ruled that the agents themselves abused the trust Mr. Khadr was entitled to place in his country of citizenship, meaning the recordings of these conversations could emerge depending on what the Federal Court decides.

Images matter profoundly in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Footage casting Mr. Khadr in a negative light has been aired on CBS's 60 Minutes. A video first recovered by the U.S. military in Afghanistan showed al-Qaeda fighters filming themselves in anticipation of a U.S. assault – and a pre-battle Mr. Khadr apparently helping to build bombs.

No comments: