OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian court ordered the government on Thursday to press Washington for the release of Omar Khadr, a Canadian man who has been held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002.
The judgment by the Federal Court is a major embarrassment for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has resolutely brushed off demands that he intercede on behalf of Khadr.
“This court orders that ... the respondents (the government) request that the United States return Mr. Khadr to Canada as soon as practicable,” Judge James O‘Reilly said.
Khadr is charged with killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002, when he was 15. Khadr, now 22, is the only citizen of a western nation still imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Opposition legislators and other critics have long argued that Canada should press for the release of Khadr, who they say was a child soldier when the alleged killing took place.
Harper and his Conservative government say Khadr was charged with a very serious crime and that the proceedings against him should be allowed to unfold.
But O‘Reilly said “the ongoing refusal of Canada to request Mr. Khadr’s repatriation to Canada offends a principle of fundamental justice” because Ottawa is obliged to ensure Khadr is being treated properly.
He also cited Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says no Canadian can be deprived of the right to life, liberty and security except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
Khadr has alleged U.S. interrogators have repeatedly threatened to rape him.
Harper told Parliament that “we will be looking at the decision very carefully, and obviously considering an appeal.”
Nate Whitling, one of Khadr’s lawyers, said he was pleased with the result.
“It obviously shows that (Harper) has been wrong all along and that he apparently doesn’t have any understanding of either international law or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Whitling told Reuters by telephone.
“He should now do what every other leader of every other democratic nation has done, and that’s to secure the repatriation of one of its citizens,” he said.
The U.S. case against Khadr was halted in January to give U.S. President Barack Obama time to decide whether to scrap the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals. Obama has promised to shut down the prison camp at the U.S. military base in Cuba.
Whitling said it was possible that Khadr could be prosecuted in a regular U.S. court.
Harper met Obama in Ottawa in February but did not bring up the case.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Peter Galloway