Public editor: Why can’t the Toronto Star interview Omar Khadr?

 By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

Guantanamo’s child is all grown up now, a man imprisoned since the age of 15 and prepared to tell his own story.

 By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

Guantanamo’s child is all grown up now, a man imprisoned since the age of 15 and prepared to tell his own story.

But, as the Star’s Michelle Shephard reported recently, Canadian prison officials have refused to let her interview Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, the now 27-year-old Canadian citizen who spent 10 years in the U.S. military prison before being transferred to Canadian incarceration in 2012.

Khadr has polarized public opinion for more than a decade. To some, he is a child soldier and victim of torture left too long in a notorious post-Sept. 11 military prison. To others, he is a terrorist who pleaded guilty to “heinous crimes.”

At the age of 15, Khadr was captured in Afghanistan following a firefight with U.S. forces in which a U.S. soldier was killed. He was charged with murder and four other war crimes. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to throwing the grenade that killed the soldier.

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As Shephard has reported, Khadr recanted recently, stating that he could not remember the firefight and that he believed accepting the Pentagon plea bargain was the only way he would get out of the U.S. military prison and back to Canada.

Shephard, the Toronto Star’s award-winning national security reporter has followed Khadr’s story for 12 years, making numerous trips to and from Guantanamo to report on the first war crimes trial since the Second World War. Her 2008 book,,Guantanamo’s Child, chronicled Khadr’s early years growing up surrounded by Al Qaeda (his father was associated with Osama bin Laden), reported on allegations of torture and abuse at Guantanamo and probed the U.S. military tribunal case against him.

Throughout those years, Shephard interviewed hundreds of people about Khadr but never had the opportunity to speak directly with this controversial Canadian citizen. Then last year, Khadr, who is now incarcerated in Alberta’s medium-security Bowden Institution, agreed to talk with Shephard in an on-camera interview.

But, Canadian prison officials blocked the Star reporter, denying her permission to interview Khadr and keeping him from telling his own story.

In response, the Star has joined with CBC and White Pine Pictures (which is producing a documentary about Khadr that Shephard is co-directing with filmmaker Patrick Reed) to seek a federal judicial review of the prison’s refusal to allow the interview.

I was heartened to learn of the Star’s decision to be part of this legal action. Given the strong public interest here, it is outrageous to me that we cannot tell you Khadr’s own story.

The lawsuit argues that this is a breach of the public’s right to know. Shephard’s interview with Khadr is “a matter of great public importance,” it states, adding that an interview would “provide an opportunity to ask questions about Khadr’s case that have gone unanswered during his 12 years in custody shielded from the public.”

Certainly, no journalist anywhere is more qualified than Shephard to interview Khadr and ask him the tough questions demanded here. She has earned this interview many times over.

But this is not about a journalist getting the big story. This is about your right to know.

As Shephard told me this week: “After so many years, so many interviews, the public has heard from every person I can think of who was involved in this case, except Omar Khadr himself.

“It’s quite amazing really, and our argument seems pretty simple: politics cannot trump the constitutional protection of free speech and the public’s right to know.”

Politics do indeed seem to be at play in blocking Khadr from talking publicly.

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