This article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen – tj
September 1, 2010 – U.S. President Barack Obama has claimed, with some legitimacy, that his administration has moved the yardsticks a fair distance down the field.
Not only has introduced and stickhandled through Congress a comprehensive health-care bill, but he’s met his pledge to get combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August, passed sweeping reforms of America’s financial system, rescued GM and Chrysler, and effectively switched his country’s military focus to the far more crucial Afghanistan.
It is a 20-month record that would make any president proud, but considering the fractured and vitriolic nature of American politics today, it should illustrate just how committed his administration is to — as Mr. Obama put it recently — govern rather than politic.
But it isn’t this march of progress for which the president increasingly is being identified. On the hard right of the nation, people such as firebrand Glen Beck are questioning Mr. Obama’s religion, his attitude to white people and even his name.
On the left and internationally, as The New York Times pointed out in a weekend front-page story, his government is being identified by its handling of the case of Omar Khadr, a young Canadian who is the first prisoner to go before a military tribunal at the Guantánamo Bay military base.
Mr. Obama had barely unpacked at the White House when he committed to Americans and the world that he soon would be closing the notorious facility. But like a monster in a B Grade horror movie, the unmet promise keeps coming back to haunt the president, with each appearance more frightening than the last.
Friend and foe alike are taken aback by a democratic government putting on trial a former child soldier, based on evidence gathered through coercion — either using torture or at least threats of rape.
Even members of the former Bush administration told The Times they are concerned about what this case says about the United States.
“Optically, this has been a terrible case to begin the commissions with,” offered Matthew Waxman, the Pentagon’s top detainee affairs official during the Bush administration.
“There is a great deal of international skepticism and hostility toward military commissions,” he noted, “and this is a very tough case with which to push back against that skepticism and hostility.”
While President Obama can rightly insist that he inherited the Khadr case — and the base — from president George W. Bush, it was the current administration that painted itself into a corner.
It now finds itself ignoring fundamental principles of justice, as well as the UN declaration on the rights of a child that states enemy combatants younger than 18 years should be rehabilitated rather than be treated as prisoners.
And there is no way to soft-pedal this case. Mr. Khadr was 15 when he was captured after a firefight during which some American fighters, according to their own accounts, executed combatants.
Although Mr. Khadr was shot while he cowered in the rear of a compound, he remarkably survived and was hauled off to provide information and serve as a scapegoat.
It is to the shame of the Canadian government that he remains the only citizen of a democratic country still held at Guantánamo. All other democracies negotiated to have their citizens released.
But it is to the special shame of the Americans that Mr. Khadr continues to be held and is expected to be tried.
According to The Times article, however, it isn’t for want of trying to plea bargain the case away. The Canadian was offered a short jail term if he would plead guilty, but to his credit he believes that would let the American government off the hook too easily.
In an effort to distance itself from the process, the Obama administration established the military tribunals to handle the cases. Officials now claim they are reluctant to pursue a plea bargain for fear it would compromise the military tribunals’ independence.
That has left the White House on the sidelines when the commission tossed one potential juror because he, like most of the world, questioned the legitimacy of the Guantánamo system.
It allows the use of evidence obtained through torture and threats of rape, and journalists were banned from covering the trial after they reported on publicly available information the commission wanted kept secret.
This although it was considered imperative that the first Guantánamo trial be transparent, fair and adhere to due process.
Canada’s intransigence over repatriating a citizen, Mr. Khadr’s unwillingness to surrender, and the American administration’s desire to whitewash a badly flawed system have exposed Guantánamo as a sham and made it more difficult for allies to continue to co-operate with the U.S.
It is a sorry legacy for a president who came with such hope.
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“Democracy cannot be maintained without its foundation: free public opinion and free discussion throughout the nation of all matters affecting the state within the limits set by the criminal code and the common law.”
-The Supreme Court of Canada, 1938