Dal students stand up for Khadr

Students rally to support Omar Khadr, an Afghan Canadian imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay

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Students signed postcards addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in support of Khadr. (Photo: Kathryn MacDonald)

Students in Dalhousie University's Children and War class tried to lure others to a rally in support of Omar Khadr with baked goods and coffee on Friday.

Students crowded around a table of snacks outside the Ondaatje auditorium to grab a brownie and sign postcards addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

More than 140 students signed up to attend the rally on Facebook, but there were only about 30 people inside the spacious auditorium.

"I'm glad people came at all," said Emma Moore, one of the student organizers. "Ideally it would be a huge campus rally, but you have to start small."

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Professor Shelly Whitman spoke at the rally. Pictured behind are student organizers Cameron Landry and Emma Moore. (Photo: Kathryn MacDonald)

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El Jones, spoken word artist, performs her poem "Omar Khadr" at the rally in support of Omar Khadr.

She said the low attendance speaks to the lack of awareness about Khadr's case.

Khadr's lengthy confinement

Khadr is a 24 year-old Afghan Canadian who was arrested in 2002 in Afghanistan for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. He has been held in Guantanamo Bay prison for the last eight years.

Khadr was only 15 when he was imprisoned.

According to international legal definitions, Khadr was a child soldier. Child soldiers are not held accountable for their crimes because of their age.

Shelly Whitman, professor of the Children and War class, said she thinks there's a double standard.

"We have child soldiers from other parts of the world who have committed far more heinous crimes. Maybe killed thousands, raped, even killed members of their own family," she said.

"But we don't hold them accountable for what they do because we recognize under international law that it's illegal to use children in armed groups."

Khadr reported being tortured while being held in Guantanamo. He said he was deprived of sleep for periods up to a month, and threatened.

He said he was shackled to the floor for a long period of time and then dragged back and forth through a mixture of pine oil and his own urine as a human mop. He was then denied a change of clothes for two days.

"It really is just embarrassing to be Canadian, to see what our government has done," said student organizer Cameron Landry. "We just felt like we had to do something."

The last straw

Khadr pleaded guilty to five war crime charges on Oct. 24th to reduce his sentence to eight years in prison. His confession is what motivated the students to organize the rally. "I think that made a lot of us really angry and really upset and frustrated," said Moore.

The federal government has to agree to repatriate him for the plea deal to be successful. It has refused to repatriate him for years despite requests from UNICEF, Amnesty International and the Canadian Bar Association.

The government finally agreed to bring him back to Canada but event organizers aren't convinced. "Nothing has been signed and our government does have the ability to go back on what they said," said Rhian Williams, another student organizer.

They're also worried that Khadr's case will set a new precedent for child soldiers. "To try a 15 year-old for war crimes -- that seems like a really slippery slope," said Moore.

Shelly Whitman said she believes that by holding Khadr accountable for his actions, Canadians are sending the world a message that adults who recruit and indoctrinate child soldiers won't be held responsible, but children will.

She said adults put children in these situations.

"How did he get to Afghanistan?" said Whitman. "Do you think at the age of 12, 13 he just picked up and bought his own plane ticket and went there? No."

The rally featured a speech from Whitman, a performance by spoken word artist El Jones and a clip from Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, well-known humanitarian and Canadian senator, from his recent visit to Dalhousie.

The rally was the first activity by students of the Zero Force, a movement started by the Child Soldiers Initiative to take action against the use of children in armed conflict.

Rhian Williams said she hopes more students will take action and continue to write letters to the government about Khadr's case. "If you have something to say, your government, regardless of what we might think, will always listen."

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