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Obama's Election Won't Assure Khadr's Release

President would consider freeing him – but only if Prime Minister asks, says former Pentagon adviser

by Michelle Shephard

Despite Barack Obama's promises to close the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr is not likely to be sent home any time soon unless Ottawa lobbies for his release, says a former top Pentagon official.

Charles Stimson, who served as the Pentagon's chief adviser for detainee affairs until his resignation last year, said without a call from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it's unlikely Khadr's case would become a priority during Obama's early days in office.

"It needs to be leader of state to leader of state. I can't predict what Obama would do if Harper asked ... but it would up the ante," Stimson said.

"This president would have to give that serious consideration."

Stimson, now a senior legal fellow at Washington's Heritage Foundation, was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for detainee affairs when other Guantanamo detainees were repatriated, including German-born Murat Kurnaz.

"That took a long time and there were a lot of overtures at lower levels, through my office and slightly above my office, before it got to the president," Stimson recalled.

"My office basically said, `If you want him back, you get (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel to ask, because we're not giving him back.'"

She did, and Kurnaz was transferred to Germany in August 2006. Eight months later, Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty in a political deal that allowed him to return home to serve a nine-month sentence. His repatriation left Khadr as the sole detainee from a Western nation at Guantanamo.

Harper has vowed not to interfere with Khadr's military trial, despite calls from the public to act. The Toronto-born prisoner has been held without trial since he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 at the age of 15. International Trade Minister Stockwell Day yesterday reiterated that pledge to defer to the U.S. concerning Khadr's trial. Day was public safety minister until last week's cabinet shuffle.

Pressure for Canada to denounce Guantanamo has been coming from Ottawa's opposition parties and civil rights organizations, not from forces within the Canadian government, says Gar Pardy, a former consular chief with the foreign affairs department.

"I think everybody's got their heads down on this issue because the Prime Minister has spoken so definitively on that matter and I don't see anybody saying, `But Mr. Prime Minister, you're wrong.'"

It's possible Obama, who has vehemently denounced the Military Commissions Act governing Guantanamo's trials, could suspend the war crimes trials now underway. Khadr's trial is scheduled for Jan. 26 - six days after Obama's inauguration.

But halting the military commissions would be only a temporary reprieve until his administration decided how to prosecute Guantanamo detainees. Obama hasn't been clear but has suggested either moving cases to the U.S. federal courts or to traditional military court martial.

Either way, Stimson says Khadr's case is different from many of the others, such as the recent conviction and light sentence of Osama bin Laden's driver. Yemeni Salim Hamdan was convicted in August and is due to be released Dec. 31.

Khadr is charged with five war crimes offences, including murder for allegedly throwing a grenade in Afghanistan that killed 28-year-old U.S. Sgt. Christopher Speer.

"He's entitled to a fair trial and I hope he gets a fair trial, but when you have blood on your hands it is a far different situation than being the limo driver, in America's eyes," said Stimson, who resigned due to controversy over derogatory remarks he made about lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners.

"There is a strain within our criminal justice system and within all American's DNA of retribution ... . Retributive justice is about who we are. Punishment matters to us. Murder is as big as it gets."

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