OTTAWA - Even by the surreal standards of the Omar Khadr saga - one that has seen allegations of doctored evidence and arguments over whether the detained Canadian is allowed to read a Lord of the Rings screenplay - the scene in Ottawa yesterday was striking: About 50 teenagers dancing and demonstrating on Parliament Hill, chanting "Omar! Omar!" and demanding Mr. Khadr get a fair trial.A group of students from Quebec and Ontario descended on the nation's capital to demonstrate against Mr. Khadr's now-six-year detention in Guantanamo Bay.
Mr. Khadr faces multiple charges, including murder, before a U.S. military tribunal. The charges stem from an Afghan firefight in 2002 during which Mr. Khadr is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. He could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted. At the time of the alleged incident, Mr. Khadr was 15 years old - the same age as many of the students demonstrating on his behalf.
The latest rally in support of Mr. Khadr - one briefly attended by Senator RomÃƒ©o Dallaire - reflects a growing shift in attitude toward the now-21-year-old Canadian.
In large part because of the Canadian public's extreme dislike of Mr. Khadr's al-Qaeda-affiliated family, many politicians were unwilling to call for his release from Guantanamo Bay. However, in recent months, all three opposition parties have done just that, joining a number of legal and human-rights groups whose members testified before a parliamentary subcommittee about the Khadr case this week.
Mr. Khadr is scheduled to make another appearance in a Guantanamo Bay courtroom this week. His case has not gone to trial yet but has been mired in arguments between military defence and prosecution lawyers over discovery issues - the two sides are far from agreeing on what evidence should be disclosed to the defence.
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Mr. Khadr's defence team was dealt a major blow last week when a military judge denied a motion to dismiss charges against him because of his age at the time of his alleged offences. The ruling came as Mr. Khadr's lead military lawyer, Lieutenant-Commander Bill Kuebler, was in Ottawa trying to drum up support for his client.
On Monday, the president of the Canadian Bar Association addressed the House subcommittee on international human rights, which is studying the Khadr case.
"Our commitment to justice is challenged where the individual is unpopular and accused of terrible crimes," Bernard Amyot said. "While the charges Khadr faces are serious, this is no reason to continue to subject him to an illegal process before a U.S. military court."
Like the Liberal government before them, the Conservatives have so far refused to interfere in Mr. Khadr's case. Virtually every time they have spoken about it, government politicians have steadfastly stuck to three talking points: That the charges against Mr. Khadr are very serious, the government has sought and received assurances he is being treated humanely, and that any talk of Canada interfering to bring him home are "premature" while a U.S. legal process is continuing.
So far, the growing support for Mr. Khadr's repatriation doesn't appear to have swayed the government's position.
© 2008 Globe and Mail