The story of Omar Khadr is tragic and sad. On a human level, it is the story of a young Muslim boy who has been caught in the so-called “War on Terror” and saw his life totally “hijacked” since. On a political level, Omar Khadr became the tool of legal vengeance and humiliation of American policies aided and supported by some Canadian officials and politicians, to punish the “bad Muslims”, those who found themselves caught in the web of national security.
I gave an interview to Mind Bending Politics (MBP), a political blog focusing on Canadian politics and policy.
MBP: There has been a lot of talk about the government awarding Omar Khadr $10.5 million over the past week at various media outlets. Can you provide your initial thoughts on the Khadr settlement? Do you think justice has been served?
Mazigh: For years, as a human rights advocate and as someone who went through injustice with my entire family, I closely followed the case of Omar Khadr. I signed petitions for his return, wrote several articles about him, attended rallies and organized event for his lawyer to speak about the case. So when I recently heard that Omar Khadr reached a settlement with the government, I was very pleased and I felt that finally justice has been served for this citizen who has been imprisoned in the infamous Guantanamo prison when he was 15 years old for almost 10 years, who has been abused by Americans officials and by Canadian officials. Omar Khadr was never given the chance to due process. He was basically dehumanized through false claims, and became the target of legal vendetta by the previous Canadian government. He had to pay for the mistakes of his family and used as “scarecrow” for anyone who dares to criticize the war on terror or issue any doubt about its efficiency.
MBP: This issue regarding the Khadr settlement has been very polarizing for Canadians. Why do you think that is, and also do you think a lack of information regarding what rights are afforded to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and how they are upheld could also be contributing to that polarizing debate around the settlement?
Mazigh: Unfortunately, this polarization was influenced by political partisanship, by emotional reactivity and by some media outlet with political and social agenda. In some inflamed discussions, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was rarely considered and the facts were totally and deliberately ignored. Actually, rather than real facts, false claims or distorted facts took over and became the norm. We heard things like “Omar Khadr is a convicted terrorist”, “Omar Khadr was brought to court”, and “Omar Khadr killed a paramedic”. For years, those distorted facts were challenged explained around Khadr left some citizens feel cheated or betrayed by the government. Indeed, it is false to say that Omar Khadr is a convicted terrorist. He was brought in front of a military commission that was considered by many experts as “Kangaroo court”. This presumed “conviction” was nothing than a “sham”. People look at the US and think that it is the country of freedom and constitution so how possibly can we have a “sham” there? It is important to remember that Guantanamo is a military prison. In 2002, 779 prisons were flown from Afghanistan to Guantanamo. By 2011, 600 prisoners were released most of them with no charges. Today there are 41 detainees left and many of them are cleared to go home but still imprisoned.
The successive American administrations had hard time to convict these prisoners. There is a flagrant lack of evidence at the first place and a documented use of torture. Also, some people keep repeating “Omar Khadr killed a paramedic”. The sergeant was not acting as a medic when he was at the battlefild. He was tragically killed in the battle and there is no evidence that Omar Khadr killed him.
MBP: You were instrumental in bringing your husbands case forward to the Canadian government, and to us Canadians. I remember following his situation and eventual resolution for some time. Some Conservatives commentators have raised your husband’s payout when speaking on the Khadr settlement as legitimate because your husband was found innocent of any wrong doing, and are arguing that Khadr’s settlement isn’t legitimate because of a conviction by a US military tribunal. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has come out publicly supporting the Khadr settlement statingthat “It’s a legal truism that a right without a remedy is no right at all”. I was just wondering if you would be willing to respond to the way the some are using the settlement your husband has received to delegitimize Khadr’s?
Mazigh: Unfortunately, once again, it is a political partisanship war. My husband, Maher Arar, was compensated under Stephen Harper government and the public announcement about the apology and compensation at that time was also demonized by some groups and individuals. My husband was called “ a terrorist” even after the settlement and up to today some people are resentful to his settlement. When, my husband was in a Syrian dungeon some conservative MPs, rose in the House of Commons and denounced the security laxness of Canada and praised the seriousness of the US administration after arresting a “terrorist”, my husband. People tend to forget and turn a blind eye on the stigma ones go through even after the settlement. People look at the dollar figure and forget that it is impossible to find a job when you were once labelled a terrorist, despite your numerous degrees and skills. Money won’t bring back your life, your name or your reputation.
Today, the individuals and groups attacking Omar Khadr, don’t think about his future, his career, his family, his children. It is the least of their worries. They are so angry that he received money, period. And by the way, that 10.5 millions settlement isn’t even exclusively for Omar Khadr. His lawyers are sharing it with him.
MBP: There was a recent poll done by Angus Reid, in which 71% of Canadians surveyed believed that the Trudeau Government did the wrong thing by paying Khadr money and that the courts should have decided whether his detention was illegal. Missing from this poll was anything regarding the actual reason why Khadr was paid out, and that’s the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 3 times that Khadr’s rights were violated. If you were part of a polling agency, what question would you ask to Canadians regarding the Khadr settlement?
Mazigh: The polls are dangerous for our democracy. I am not saying they shouldn’t exist but we can’t govern according to them. The rule of law isn’t a popularity contest. Actually, it can be the total opposite. Courageous governments around the world were always attacked and criticized for controversial decisions. Take issues like: abortion, same-sex marriage…The Supreme Court ruled on these issues and the government had no choice than to accept these decisions. In the case of Omar Khadr, it is the same situation. The Supreme Court ruled three times in his favour and today the Canadian government had no choice than to accept and reach a settlement. This decision will never make everyone happy and comfortable but this is why we live in a democracy. We constantly disagree but the Supreme Court is our ultimate test. Take the example of “banning the Niqab at the citizenship ceremony” in 2015. This political wedge issue was used by politicians to win votes. It literally divided voters across the political spectrum but the court ruled that Ms. Zunera Ishaq, the lady at the centre of the controversy, was allowed to keep her Niqab. Many Canadians disagreed and felt uncomfortable but today it is the past.
MBP: Do you think as a result of the polarized political environment in Canada that our constitutional rights as citizens could be at further risk of being infringed upon in the future? If so, could you explain what can be done to get accurate information regarding our constitutional rights out to Canadians at large, and what you would like to see politicians do to ensure that government respects the rights of all Canadians through successive governments?
Mazigh: I am afraid that this polarization we live through is complex and the result of multiple factors. It is not only a matter of getting the accurate information about our constitutional rights. People are becoming less and less trusting of political elites and more and more ready to accept any information that would reassure them in their beliefs, be it false. This polarized environment is exacerbated by a hard and precarious economic situation for many citizens. The monetary settlement received by Omar Khadr make many Canadians feel uncomfortable because many Canadians are being laid off their jobs, many young people are unemployed or have unpaid internship. So they feel cheated and left out by the government.
When, Canada decided to join the so-called “war on terror”, the politicians narrowed it down to a “national security” issue but in reality it is far beyond that. The so-called “war on terror” eroded our civil liberties and rights. They made us accept things like “it is OK to spy on us”, “it is OK to use torture to gain useful information”, “a terrorist doesn’t deserve due process”. On the other hand, people don’t see the increase in the military budget, the billion of dollars to buy military equipment and join wars and the cuts in the social services and in education. We need to have a public discussion on these issues but unfortunately; we are made to feel that we should join on side or the other. In reality, we will never enjoy security if we don’t accept that we have international obligations and rules to respect and that our population need to see the full picture and not just one citizen receiving 10.5 million dollars as if he won a lottery ticket.
MBP: What do you see as the greatest challenge to civil and human rights, now and in the future and Canada?
Mazigh: The greatest challenge to civil and human rights is fear. We think that this happen elsewhere and not in our backward. But it is a slippery slop. When people are afraid of losing their jobs, losing their identity, losing their comfort, losing their kids, they become irrational and they can accept fake news and they can even welcome totalitarianism. Civil and human rights were instituted after the Second World War after the humanity experienced the worst. After 9/11, some politicians are trying to play the fear card again. Guantanamo was justified through fear and a need for security. Military courts were justified by fear.
In Canada, we shipped citizens to torture and deprived them for their rights because we were afraid of them, of their beliefs and we collectively presumed they were dangerous to our security. Security became an illusion being sold by some politicians to obtain more votes. Meanwhile, our social programs are being cut and defunded, our economy still rely on non-renewable energy, the economical inequalities are increasing and the politicians are not offering any serious plans to tackle them.
MBP: What do you see as recent steps forward in advancing civil and human rights in Canada? What would you like to see happen, both nationally in Canada and internationally to advance civil and human rights?
Mazigh: Canada must live up to its international reputation. For centuries, Canada has let down its indigenous people. It is time to build new relationships based on respect and equality. We can’t have human rights for some, it is a recipe for social uprising. Last year, Canada announced its intent to finally ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture after ignoring it for years; I hope this matter would be expedited. This way, cases like Omar Khadr would be less likely to happen in the future. In Canada, we need to have more accountability when it comes to issues like policing and national security. There were new announcements by the federal government that are very promising but we have to remain vigilant as abuses are not only committed by individuals but also by institutions. Internationally, we should partner with other countries to advance human rights in other place of the world. We can’t be happy of what we are achieving in Canada, we live in a globalized word and abuses in other part of the world would eventually affect us. So we have to help alleviate oppression overseas and make our global impact as “lighter” as possible.