Corrections Canada claims an interview with Omar Khadr would require unprecedented security precautions, including a prison lockdown, despite the fact that the 28-year-old often receives visitors and has been described as a model prisoner.
An outline of the proposed security measures, contained in a court affidavit filed by the Bowden Institution, were made only after the Toronto Star, CBC and White Pine Pictures asked a federal court to intervene, arguing the government was violating the constitutional guarantee of a free press and the public’s “right to know” in blocking access to Khadr.
“Omar has seen a reduction of his security level from maximum to medium in the last year, and yet the government is suggesting it will require extraordinary security measures to allow him to speak to the media? No other prisoner would be gagged in this way,” said lawyer Patric Senson, who is representing the Star and other parties.
Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada, said he could not comment specifically on Khadr’s case, but said he was surprised by the response of the medium-security facility where Khadr is being held.
“I have never heard of a case where a federally sentenced offender has been denied outside contact other than having to lock down an entire institution,” Sapers said in an interview Thursday.
“I am getting an increasing number of inquiries from media outlets asking for assistance or advice in regard to pursuing interviews with Correctional Service staff or inmates,” he said. “The impression I’m left with is that it is increasingly difficult for journalists to cover Corrections news.”
Repeated requests over the last two years to interview Khadr have been denied by government officials citing a section of a policy known as the “commissioner’s directive.”
Internal emails obtained by The Canadian Press show one interview request, made soon after Khadr arrived in Canada in 2012 and was incarcerated at the Millhaven Institution, was approved by the warden, only to be overturned 90 minutes later by the office of the public safety minister.
Meanwhile, Khadr has been visited by teachers, lawyers, students, relatives and other members of the public who have become involved in his case during his incarceration in Ontario and Alberta.
Federal inmates are permitted to give interviews unless a warden finds that the risk is too great to staff and inmates, or to the operations of the facility — a decision that should be independent, free from political interference, said Sapers.
Sapers also said facilities conduct “risk assessments,” before having to take the rare step of locking down an institution — if one was conducted at Alberta’s Bowden Institution assessing the impact of an interview, it was not included in the government’s federal court filing.
According to the affidavit filed by John McKill, Bowden’s acting assistant warden of management services, an on-camera interview with Khadr would take place in the administrative building, forcing other inmates “to be confined to their residential living units while the set-up for the interview and the interview itself took place.”
McKill’s affidavit also notes that the building, which lacks “internal barriers,” is used throughout the day for a variety of purposes, including “work, participation in educational upgrading classes, and correctional programs, visits, parole board hearings and telephone calls with counsel and legal advisers.”
Senson, along with Toronto lawyer John Phillips, will argue that McKill’s affidavit should not be considered by the federal judge reviewing the media’s claim since it was not provided until legal action was taken.
“The government was clearly trying to justify political decisions after the fact when it provided the court with its reasons for denying this interview with Omar,” Senson said in an interview Thursday.
No date has been set for the federal court judicial review, which received widespread support from civil rights groups and other media organizations when filed this summer.
“The government has repeatedly expressed its views on Mr. Khadr’s case and it is only fair play in a democracy that other voices — including Mr. Khadr’s himself — have equal air time,” wrote the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
A New York Times editorial stated: “The Canadian government should allow the interview and let Mr. Khadr, now an adult, share his perspective on his ordeal. The public has been kept waiting long enough.”
Khadr has been in custody since the age of 15, after he was shot and captured following a firefight with U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
In 2010, he pleaded guilty to five war crimes, including murder for the death of Delta Force soldier Christopher Speer, who was fatally wounded in the 2002 firefight.
He was transferred to Canada in 2012 to serve the remainder of an eight-year sentence as a condition of his plea deal. He has since said he accepted the deal only to be released from Guantanamo and has no memory of the firefight.