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The Toronto Star

Protesters Hopeful of Guantanamo's Demise

Obama can stop Gitmo courts, help Khadr despite closure delay: Amnesty

Andy Blatchford

Activists of the Amnesty International (AI) human rights watchdog demonstrate in downtown Prague Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009. Protests have taken place across Europe to mark the seventh anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. Sunday marked the seventh anniversary of the first prisoners arriving at Guantanamo.(AP Photo/Roman Vondrous, CTK)

MONTREAL - Demonstrators in Montreal and around the world marked the seventh anniversary of the opening of the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay on Sunday with rallies demanding its closure.

The marches came as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama stepped back from a campaign pledge to shut down Guantanamo - where Canadian Omar Khadr has been held for over six years - within 100 days of taking office.

In a TV interview that aired Sunday, Obama acknowledged that his promise to close down the widely opposed military prison will be more difficult than he expected.

His words were taken as a setback by organizers of the rally outside the U.S. Consulate in Montreal, but they still believe Obama could take swift action to shutter what they call an illegal system.

"We were disappointed by that, but we're happy that (Obama) replies to us, which was not always the case by the Bush administration," said Beatrice Vaugrante, the director of the Francophone Canadian branch of Amnesty International.

She said Obama, who takes over the U.S. presidency on Jan. 20, should stop the ongoing military commissions, including Khadr's proceedings.

"He could really act to stop this legal process," said Vaugrante, adding that about 50 people attended the Montreal demonstration.

"There is no such thing as a fair trial for Omar Khadr, that's for sure."

Khadr, 22, faces war-crimes charges for allegedly killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan with a grenade when he was 15 years old. He was arrested in July 2002 following an intense battle during which he was severely wounded.

Khadr, the only western citizen still held at the detention camp, is scheduled to stand trial later this month.

If Gitmo is shut down quickly, Khadr could be tried in a U.S. court or Prime Minister Stephen Harper could ask the Americans to repatriate him.

So far, Harper has refused to get involved in the case, arguing the American legal process has to play itself out.

In an interview that aired on ABC's This Week, Obama, who has been receiving daily national security briefings since his election in November, said that his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo will be more of a challenge than he anticipated.

"It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize - and we are going to get it done - but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication," he said.

The Canadian government's position could be a factor in slowing Obama's drive to meet the 100-day commitment, said international law expert Michael Byers.

"The Obama team may be discovering that the reluctance on the part of certain allies to take Guantanamo detainees is actually causing some delay in their plans," said Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

"Obviously, one of those allies who could and should be helping the Obama team is Canada, in terms of requesting and accepting the repatriation of Omar Khadr."

Byers said Canada could take over custody of Khadr, assess his psychological condition and determine if judicial proceedings could still be carried out against him.

Despite the expected delay, he's convinced Khadr will eventually be brought to Canada.

"I think it's just a question of time," Byers said in a phone interview. "I think Obama is committed and has just reaffirmed his commitment to closing the prison."

On Sunday, protesters calling for the prison camp's closure also took to the streets in London and Madrid.

The detention facility at Guantanamo, which holds about 250 detainees, was set up following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.


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