Once Guantanamo's youngest prisoner, Omar Khadr seeks ‘renewal and reconciliation’ in Canada

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr, 30, is seen at a home in Mississauga, Ont., on July 6. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press via AP) Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr, 30, is seen at a home in Mississauga, Ont., on July 6. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press via AP)

In 2003, the U.S. Army’s Guantanamo Bay facility received a 16-year-old boy, Omar Khadr. Omar would become Gitmo’s youngest prisoner. Born in Toronto, Ontario, he had been captured by U.S. special forces in 2002; U.S. military believe he was responsible for the death of a U.S. service member during a brutal, four-hour firefight. Mr. Khadr said in an affidavit that he has no memories of that battle or of throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khadr spent a decade at Gitmo, where he was interrogated by Canadian and American military and frequently mistreated. Left with what he called a “hopeless choice,” he entered a guilty plea to charges that included murder and was sentenced to eight years plus the time he had already spent in custody. He returned to Canada two years later to serve the remainder of his sentence and was released in May 2015 pending an appeal of his guilty plea, which he said was made under duress. “Any participation in al-Qaeda-related activities was at the demand of the adults around me,” he said in his affidavit.

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Since he was a Canadian citizen, Mr. Khadr’s situation raised significant questions about Canada’s responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens. In 2010 Canada’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled Mr. Khadr’s rights were violated by his detention.

Mr. Khadr’s situation raised significant questions about Canada’s responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens.

The facts of his case were muddled by conflicting testimonies, and international human rights groups regularly denounced his captivity, given his age and the ambiguity of his alleged offenses. But while Canada’s federal courts ruled in Mr. Khadr’s favor several times, even granting him the right to sue the Canadian government, the federal government under Stephen Harper was able to paint Mr. Khadr as a terrorist who deserved to be kept behind bars.

After completing his sentence, Mr. Khadr faced an uncertain future. What to do with a young man who has been excoriated for years as a terrorist by Canadian government and press?

Earlier this month, the federal government, now under Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, formally apologized to Mr. Khadr and settled out of court for $10.5 million. According to a recent poll, a majority of Canadians, across party lines, disagreed with the settlement. Amid national dissatisfaction, however, support comes from a committed group of Christians who have journeyed with Mr. Khadr for nearly a decade.

Occasionally, a small, Christian liberal arts school makes headlines because of the way its faith comes into conflict with the culture surrounding it. Even in Canada, not exactly known for U.S.-style religious liberty conflicts, those headlines often have to do with “conservative” issues like a school’s stance on same-sex marriage. Trinity Western University, for example, remains mired in an accreditation fight because of institutional views on sexuality. The King’s University, a Christian school in Edmonton, Alberta, however, has made headlines over the last decade because of a different kind of faith-and-culture clash—a decision to support Mr. Khadr.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to be Canadian than the day I watched federal ministers explain [the settlement decision] passionately, patiently and clearly to the news media,” says Arlette Zinck, an associate professor of English at King’s. Ms. Zinck teaches literature in King’s Edmonton classrooms and taught Mr. Khadr in an interrogation hut in Guantanamo Bay. She testified on his behalf at one of Mr. Khadr’s trials.

“It takes courage and conviction to be willing to face what is certain to be costly in the short-run swing in public opinion,” Ms. Zinck says of the Liberal government’s apology and settlement. “They did it because it was the right thing to do.”

A number of Ms. Zinck’s students and fellow faculty concluded that supporting Mr. Khadr was the right thing to do long before the federal government in Ottawa made its decision. Many made up their minds back in 2008, after hearing from Mr. Khadr’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, at a conference hosted by the university.

“He spoke for an hour,” recalls Ms. Zinck. “At the end of that hour, we had 600 newly voting-aged Canadians deeply engaged with a story that talked about the transgression of human rights and Canadian charter rights against a Canadian who’s just their age. And they were riveted.”

But at the end of his talk, Mr. Edney had described Mr. Khadr’s situation as hopeless. “My colleagues and I, we’re looking at each other, responsible for bringing this conference to our students’ doorstep,” Ms. Zinck said. “We were now facing the word ‘hopeless.’” She was not content to leave the conversation there. “As people of faith, we don’t do ‘hopeless.’ ”

What ensued was a long campaign, carried on by students, faculty and staff, to understand Mr. Khadr’s situation, which culminated in welcoming him as a student of King’s in the fall of 2015.

Melanie Humphreys, president of The King’s University, remembers the energy surrounding Mr. Khadr’s case. “It was happening well before I started here,” she says. Students and faculty had made her aware of Mr. Khadr’s story, but the case took a significant personal turn when Mr. Edney called on her to write a letter of intent allowing Mr. Khadr to attend King’s as a condition of his bail. As she contemplated the decision, she says issues of integrity to the Christian vision of King’s and concerns for safety, including Mr. Khadr’s and those who worked at the university, were front and center.

In the end, Ms. Humphreys wrote the letter. “We talk about renewal and reconciliation,” she says. “Can we really say with integrity that we are doing that if we can’t follow through with Omar? We were looking to live into our mission with the hospitality of offering hope and an opportunity. We serve a God of second chances. Why would we not be able, if everything we believe is about renewal and being able to step into second chances, to hold this opportunity of education open to Omar?”

The decision was not met with unanimous approval. Ms. Humphreys says opinion was divided on campus. Ethan Van Der Leek, a student at King’s from 2009 to 2013, was among the students who supported it. “When I heard [Omar’s] story and facts,” he says, “I thought this is exactly what Christians are supposed to be doing: visiting the prisoner, doing justice.”

Mr. Van Der Leek now works as a chaplain with the Christian Reformed Church, the same denomination affiliated with his alma mater, at the public Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Questions regarding Mr. Khadr and his settlement have come up in his own campus ministry, and he says he tries to “gently introduce these important, sometimes controversial issues and keep the conversation alive and open, not letting...ideology shut it down, so you can’t even have a reasoned discussion about it. I think that’s something I could say I’ve learned from [Ms. Zinck] and other profs at King’s.”

Amid the swirl of controversy generated by the decision to admit Mr. Khadr, Ms. Humphreys and Ms. Zinck are insistent that their primary goal is to help him feel at home. “Omar’s biggest wish is just to be a normal person,” says Ms. Humphreys, and many at King’s are trying to help others understand his situation in order to make that possible.

“I think if you see anything that’s still driving our faculty to give interviews, it’s the opportunity to teach. [Ms. Zinck] and others are like, okay, we’ve come on this journey, journey with us a little further. Come learn some of the things we’ve learned about living into faith with the ‘other,’ so to speak.”

Ms. Zinck says she has nothing but compassion and understanding “for those who just don’t get it, who have been misled by responsible people who should know better.” She argues that the Harper government used Mr. Khadr’s case for political gains. “I've been watching this for almost nine years, and the shift in public understanding and the level of discussion around this issue has changed dramatically and very positively.”

Contemplating the personal and professional risks of supporting a young person who has been accused of terrorism, Ms. Zinck calls it a “mystery of our faith, worked through an understanding of the crucified Christ who rose again, that allows us to understand that we can, with God’s help, bear our vulnerability. “As we accept that yoke, the infinite powers of God come along beside us to carry it. We felt that here,” she says. “We have, as a community, felt that. And it’s been the greatest blessing of my life.”

Corrections on July 26; 8:20 p.m.: The King's University was misidentified as King's University College; Arlette Zinck's name was misspelled as "Zink." Dennis Edney's name was misspelled as "Edny."

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