Omar Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured by American forces in Afghanistan. A Canadian citizen, he was imprisoned for a decade in Bagram and Guantanamo prisons. He was the first child in modern history to be convicted of a war crime. Sara Naqwi, living in Dubai when she saw a documentary on Omar, was so moved by his plight that she immediately decided to take action. She joined the Free Omar Khadr Now campaign, which is the only official group that fights for Omar’s rights. Sara Naqwi speaks to SISTERS magazine about the journey that led her to Omar, the campaign and its tireless work.
Umm-e-Ismaeel: Please tell us a little about yourself.
Sara Naqwi: I’m a writer and a postgraduate student, studying International Crimes and Criminology in Amsterdam, and also one of the members of the Free Omar Khadr Now campaign.
UI: What is the Free Omar Khadr Now campaign?
SN: The campaign comprises of an international team of concerned citizens who are committed to seeking justice and freedom for Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was detained for over 10 years and tortured by the US government in Bagram and Guantanamo from age 15 and remains imprisoned in a Canadian medium security prison in Alberta for the last two years.
UI: How did you get involved with the campaign?
SN: I came across the Canadian documentary You Don’t Like the Truth | 4 Days in Guantanamo on Al Jazeera TV channel. The footage exposes Canadian intelligence personnel interrogating a 15 year old Omar in Guantanamo over a span of four days. When fellow Canadians from his government come to see him, Omar is thrilled and thinks they are there to free him. As the interrogation progresses, Omar realises they are not there to help him but simply to assist the Americans in torturing him further. On the fourth day, Omar breaks down in tears, crying for his mother in an empty interrogation room as the hidden camera keeps rolling. Witnessing a child break down in utter helplessness in a lawless environment compelled me to do something. I started researching Omar’s case by contacting lawyers and NGOs and came across one of the founders of the campaign, Aaf Post – a wonderful Dutch lady who was just as driven to help Omar – and from there, our campaign grew.
UI: How were Khadr’s 10 years in Guantanamo?
SN: During a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, Omar was shot twice in the back by a US soldier and nearly died when he was transferred to Bagram US military base. He never received proper medical treatment. When he regained consciousness, he was subjected to torture and harsh interrogation methods that lasted until he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, he was subjected to extreme interrogation techniques, which included being shackled in painful positions for hours, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement for months in cold windowless cells, being beaten by guards and so on. Dennis Edney once said that the first time he went to Guantanamo to meet Omar, he went in as a lawyer, and he came back as a broken father. When he first saw Omar, he found him huddled, shivering, in a very cold cell, which was windowless with fluorescent lights on 24/7 – so he could never properly sleep.
His body was damaged; he was blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other with shrapnel inside both eyes and shrapnel wounds all over his body, causing pus to flow. He was denied proper medical care. Omar had not spoken to anyone in months, and he had gone far within the recesses of own mind. Dennis described the young Omar as a “broken bird”. Omar had just turned 16 when he was sent from Bagram to Guantanamo. He never met with his family the entire time he was in Guantanamo until his repatriation to Canada ten years after his incarceration.
UI: Is your campaign work what led you to choose criminology as your postgraduate major?
SN: I was very young when I first witnessed the devastation the war on terror brought upon the world. In 2001, on news channels, I saw towns in Afghanistan obliterated by US bombardment. Then Iraq was destroyed. Even though I was aware of how Muslims worldwide had become the target of racism, I knew little about the politics behind the war on terror.
I constantly heard about the illegal means used by the Bush administration to achieve ‘justice’, but I was ignorant about what it meant to breach international law. I knew Guantanamo Bay was a place where young and old men were locked up and forgotten, but I was unaware of the illegal torture, the detainment of individuals who were never charged or convicted and the military tribunal that is a sham court. Nor did I know that the youngest detainee was merely twelve years old and the eldest in his nineties. When I learnt about Omar’s incarceration, I knew I was trying to comprehend a highly political case and in order to understand the complexities behind the ongoing war on terror, I decided to pursue further studies in international law.
UI: What work is the group doing to bring about Khadr’s release from imprisonment in Canada?
SN: We are raising awareness of Omar’s plight within communities in and outside Canada, writing articles for online media and maintaining an online petition on Change.org. We keep the Canadian public well informed by providing access to documentation on the only official website with sourced material on Omar – www.freeomarAkhadr.com – which is regularly frequented by government officials, lawyers, journalists, activists etc. We also monitor media stories and provide corrections to misleading or incorrect news items, and most recently, we developed material for high school students and Christian and Muslim groups to raise awareness about Omar’s case.
UI: Have you been in contact with Khadr?
SN: I’ve been in touch with Omar for almost two years now through post mail, and I must say, his letters are a treasure to read. They are quite revealing of his personality – warm, loving and very dignified. Members of our group have visited Omar in prison, and what I repeatedly hear about him is that he has a strong presence, he is very friendly and is a deep thinker. He loves to receive letters from people, and I encourage readers of SISTERS magazine to write to him (the address is on our website). Omar is working very hard to get his high school diploma with a wonderful education team led by King University College’s professor, Arlette Zinck, who has been in touch with Omar since he was in Guantanamo. He has a thirst for knowledge and is an avid reader. Omar simply wants to live a normal, ordinary life and aims to become a doctor, particularly because he has lived with severe pain and does not want any human to suffer this way. It is a marvellous thing to witness the strength of the human spirit in Omar, who has suffered far worse than anyone I know, yet he retains his faith in humanity and focuses on life’s beauty and, to quote Omar, “Life for me is too beautiful to stain it with unforgiveness or hate. These do not have a place within me.”
UI: How can our readers help in moving this campaign forward and freeing Omar Khadr?
SN: Omar’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, has been working for his client, pro bono, for 10 years. Because the Canadian government has ignored the rule of law and Omar’s rights as a Canadian citizen, Mr. Edney has had to fight a number of legal battles and these have been costly. Readers can help by making a donation to Omar’s legal fund on our website freeomar.ca by clicking on “How to Help.”
And finally, one must not forget how countless Muslims have been affected by the war on terror, and in Omar’s case, continue to suffer to date. The Prophet r said that Muslims are like one body, and when any limb of it aches, the entire body aches. When I remember this hadith, I ask myself, where are the Muslims calling out for justice, especially in regards to our children who have seen and suffered from nightmares a wild imagination cannot conjure up? I also find it interesting that in Omar’s case, it is mostly non-Muslim women who are seeking justice day and night, for a young man they have never met.
Contact Sara Naqwi by following her on Twitter@FreeOmarAKhadr.
Umm-e-Ismaeel has lived in Saudi Arabia, N. America and now resides in Pakistan. She is an ESL teacher and freelance writer; her work has been published in various magazines and ezines. In her free time, she enjoys baking and painting, learning Arabic and having fun doing creative things with her son.