By: Erica Howes
When Dennis Edney walked into Guantanamo Bay for the first time, he said he was reminded of animals.
“My dogs were treated better than these human beings. They were in six by eight foot cages,” he explained in a talk at Carleton University on May 14. “But these weren’t human beings, not to the vast majority of the world because the politics of fear had spread readily in the United States.”
Edney, a Canadian lawyer, was visiting Guantanamo Bay in 2002 after being assigned the case of Omar Khadr. Canadian citizen and child soldier, Khadr was 15 when he was arrested and taken to Guantanamo after being convicted of throwing a hand grenade in Afghanistan and killing an American soldier. Khadr was locked up for 13 years. Edney and fellow lawyer Nate Whitling stood by Khadr’s side during three trials at the Supreme Court of Canada. The Canadian government appealed two trials after judges granted Khadr bail. On May 14, the Court rejected the government’s final argument that Khadr should be tried as an adult and he walked free at age 28.
With Edney being in Ottawa last week for the final court ruling, Carleton hosted an event entitled “Omar Khadr: Facts Over Fear.” Edney shared his experiences working on Omar Khadr’s case with a packed room of students, journalists and Ottawa residents.
He opened the talk by explaining the first time he met Khadr, an experience he said he will never forget.
“I remember walking into this freezing cold cell,” he said, adding how it was routine at Guantanamo to keep prisoners cold and uncomfortable so they couldn’t get any rest. “I was a father and I knew my kids were home with my wife and they were safe. Here is this boy in a remote place in this cold, lack of feeling building… subject to torture. I couldn’t believe it.”
For the first two days Edney saw Khadr, he didn’t speak. Edney said it wasn’t until his third and last day at Guantanamo that he was desperate and started pulling things out of his wallet to show Khadr. One thing caught his eye.
“I took out a hockey card of my son,” Edney said, explaining how Khadr felt it in amazement because he hadn’t felt people, books, television, anything to stimulate his mind in a long time.
It was then that Khadr started talking to Edney, but Edney said Khadr had no expectation for him to be anything but a temporary companion.
“As I was leaving he said to me, ‘You’ll leave me, everybody does.’ I said to him, ‘No I won’t, I’ll be there for you’.”
Thirteen years later, Edney is sticking to his promise. As of last week, Omar Khadr is a free man living with Edney’s family in Edmonton.
Although Edney said he never considered himself a human rights lawyer, it was a fight for justice that drove him for all those years. He said Khadr told him about coming off the plane and being thrown on the pavement, which made many prisoners go unconscious. Edney said Khadr talked about being hung by his arms against a door frame for so long he would urinate himself and the guards would force him to wipe it up with his own hair.
“How can any of us think of ourselves as a civil society when we allow places like Guantanamo to exist?” he questioned.
But his frequent trips come at a cost. Edney’s work on the Omar Khadr case was completely pro bono, meaning Edney was providing his services for free.
The Free Omar Khadr Now Campaign was established to support Edney and Whitling, his partner in court, and lift some of the financial burden.
Robert Betty, a representative from the Free Omar Khadr Campaign, also spoke at the event at Carleton. Betty got involved after attending an event in Edmonton about Khadr’s case seven years ago and being a father himself, he said he felt like he had to do something.
“I was leaving that auditorium and Amnesty International, a co-sponsor of the event, was handing out orange wristbands,” he said, holding up his wrist. “One side it says Repatriate Omar Khadr and the other side says Justice for Omar Khadr. I made a decision back then that I wasn’t going to take this off until I was satisfied that both of those objectives had been accomplished.”
Betty said he’s finally getting close to taking off the wristband.
Edney emphasized he has been “honoured” with the people he’s met throughout the past thirteen years who are supportive of his work and especially for the Omar Khadr Campaign that has helped with heavy finances.
“There were times I felt ashamed that I have misused the family savings like I have, and yet, my wife has always disputed it, and she’s right,” Edney said. “Because if I had the opportunity to do it again, would I do it? Of course.”
Check out Isaac Würmann’s opinion piece on Omar Khadr and Canada’s corrections system.