WASHINGTON AND TORONTO - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama was saddled with the full heft of the Omar Khadr dilemma yesterday as hundreds of human rights activists pleaded with the incoming U.S. leader not to launch his administration with America's first-ever trial against a child for war crimes.
The push came as members of his transition team revealed Obama is poised to issue an order - perhaps within hours of his Jan. 20 inauguration - to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba where Khadr is being housed.
Children's rights advocates joined Canadian Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire yesterday in calling for the halt of Khadr's prosecution at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The trial is set to begin Jan. 26, six days after Obama takes office.
"We're actually going to give credence to those who want to continue to use child soldiers if we leave Omar Khadr in that inappropriate process at Guantanamo Bay," Dallaire told a packed press conference in Washington.
Ex-Sierra Leone child soldier and now UNICEF ambassador Ishmael Beah warned if Obama's administration prosecutes "a child who had been used in war" it would send an unprecedented message, squandering the moral high ground. Other nations won't be interested in upholding relevant international law and human rights issues "if we are already breaking it," he said.
Toronto-born Khadr was 15 when shot and captured in Afghanistan after a 2002 firefight with U.S. forces. He is charged with five war crimes, including murder for the death of Sgt. Christopher Speer.
Obama was sent a joint statement signed by more than 400 U.S.-based human rights groups and individuals calling Guantanamo's "fatally flawed" trials a violation of international law protecting the rights of juveniles caught in armed conflict.
On Sunday, Obama told ABC closing the prison was more difficult than expected and unlikely to occur in his first 100 days of office.
But U.S. media report Obama is preparing to issue an executive order his first week in office - perhaps his first day - to close the prison, according to transition team advisers. If he issues the order, the process of transferring the remaining 248 detainees to their home countries, a third country willing to accept them as refugees, or the U.S. for prosecution, can begin.
His executive order would also have to disband the military commissions under which Khadr is charged to effectively halt the trial.
"It is impossible to imagine President Obama signing an order to close Guantanamo that does not include termination of the flawed military commission process," Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, Khadr's Pentagon-appointed lawyer said.
"The handwriting is on the wall and the ball is now in the Canadian government's court to step up and be part of the solution ..."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said while his government's position on Khadr's detention remains unchanged, "we will be working with the incoming administration to figure out what their policies will be in those particular cases."
Meanwhile, an Angus Reid/Toronto Star poll indicates Canada is still divided in its opinion of Khadr's fate. Of 1,003 Canadians polled last week, 40 per cent said they would repatriate Khadr to Canada, 38 per cent said he should remain in Guantanamo, and 22 per cent said they were undecided.
With files from Bruce Campion-Smith