In Canada, an Outcast Family Finds Support

Fatmah Elsamnah, left, the grandmother of an 18-year-old Canadian citizen held at Guantanamo Bay, comforts his mother, Maha Khadr.
Fatmah Elsamnah, left, the grandmother of an 18-year-old Canadian citizen held at Guantanamo Bay, comforts his mother, Maha Khadr. (By Rick Eglinton -- Toronto Star)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 9, 2005

TORONTO -- The thundering F-16 and A-10 warplanes reduced the fighters' compound in Afghanistan to smoldering rubble. No one could still be alive, figured the U.S. soldiers crouched nearby. But inside, saved by a half-standing wall, a lanky 15-year-old waited as the wary soldiers neared.

As the Americans recount it, he leapt up, threw a grenade and was cut down by the soldiers' fire. The grenade scored: A 28-year-old sergeant was mortally wounded.

The boy was not, however. Blinded in one eye, his chest ripped opened by bullets, Omar Khadr lay on the ground and asked the soldiers to kill him -- in perfect English.

He was a Canadian.

"Everybody who walked by wanted to put a round in him," said Master Sgt. Scotty Hansen, who was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor after the battle in 2002. "But we all knew that's not the way we do it."

Omar Khadr survived. Today, he is 18, a prisoner at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an increasingly awkward presence there for the Canadian government. His mother, sister and brother Abdurahman -- who was briefly imprisoned with Omar at Guantanamo -- have become what Omar's lawyer calls "the most despised family in Canada."

Abdurahman has publicly declared them to be al Qaeda members. His sister has said they all wished for martyrdom. Family members have spoken scornfully of Canadian society, as they receive medical care and welfare payments that keep them in a pleasant apartment in Toronto.

"They've dubbed us the First Canadian Terrorist Family," Omar's sister Zaynab, 25, said recently in an interview. "I don't want to be in a place where I'm not wanted. Give me my passport and I will leave." The Canadian government has impounded the family's travel documents, pending resolution of their case.

But as Omar's confinement at Guantanamo grows longer, he has begun to gain grudging support from constitutional experts and editorial writers. They are pushing the government to demand that the United States either put him on trial or release him.

"Regardless of how much the Khadr family is despised here, Canada's lawmakers cannot look the other way when a citizen is held in foreign custody for years, under abusive conditions, and denied due process," said an editorial in the Toronto Star in February. "That makes Ottawa a silent partner in human rights abuse."

A lawyer for the Khadrs, Dennis Edney, has sued the government and also charged that officials have been negligent because they have made little effort to find another Khadr who has Canadian citizenship -- Omar's brother Abdullah, 24. He disappeared in Pakistan last fall, and the family has said he might be in Pakistani or U.S. custody.

"Canadian citizens should not be left beyond the reach of law," said Alex Neve, head of the Ottawa office of Amnesty International, a human rights group.

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