Dennis Edney, the defence lawyer for Canadian detainee Omar Khadr who was locked in Guantanamo Bay, presented a talk hosted by the Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee. Held at Isabel Bader Theatre at the University of Toronto downtown campus last Wednesday, the event was almost full, with over 400 people in attendance from a total of 497 seats available.
Edney was named among the top 25 most influential lawyers in Canada in 2015 by the Canadian Lawyer Magazine. He has received several awards, including the National Pro Bono Award in 2008 and a human rights medal in 2009, for fighting Khadr’s case without personal gain—a case that lasted for 15 years.
Charged with murdering U.S. Army Sergeant Christopher Speer in 2002, Khadr was captured by American forces and incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay at the age of 15 for ten years. Following his return to Canada in 2013 to serve the rest of his sentence, the Alberta Court of Appeals granted him bail in 2015, awaiting his appeal results in the U.S. In July 2017. The Liberal government issued a $10.5 million settlement with Khadr, for violating his civil rights.
Citing his 15-year journey defending Khadr, Edney stated that it began when he saw the photos of the Guantanamo Bay detainees back in 2002.
“When I saw the media images of Guantanamo detainees on CNN, […] cuffed while kneeling on their knees at the feet of U.S. soldiers, I was outraged. And particularly outraged when I learned that a 15-year-old Canadian boy was amongst them,” he said. Explaining that he tried to reach the Liberal government at the time and did not receive a response, he added, “But when you have the drive, the desire, and it’s something you think is really important and right, you’ll find your way.”
According to Edney, he first saw Khadr when he was chained to the floor in a cell that was freezing cold as a way to prevent the detainees from resting and sleeping.
“I walked into this building that was deadly quiet, deadly quiet. And shackled to the floor on a cold concrete windowless cell was a tragic figure of a young boy, blind in one eye, [had shrapnel] in his remaining good eye, partially paralyzed on his right side. And his whole body suffering from extensive injuries,” said the defence lawyer.
“I remember when I walked into that cell that it stunned me. I had a difficult time controlling my own emotions. I didn’t know whether to shout, to scream, to cry, I didn’t know what to do. I was not prepared and I’m a serious criminal lawyer of all kinds of cases—I was not prepared for what I was witnessing.”
The Canadian government’s settlement in Khadr’s case brought a wave of controversy from the opposition in the country. The leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer, tweeted a video of himself in July saying that Canadians were shocked at the government’s decision. He referred to the $10.5 million settlement as a “secret payout to the terrorist who killed U.S. army sergeant Christopher Speer in Afghanistan.”
“This payout is a slap in the face of the men and women in uniform who face incredible danger every day to keep us safe,” said Scheer at the time. “[Justin] Trudeau promised transparency from his government and he had multiple opportunities to explain his choice in this matter, but he’s refused. This sends a terrible message to Canada’s men and women in uniform, and allies around the world.”
On the other hand, Edney commented during the Wednesday talk on the Liberal government’s decision, saying he was appalled at their justification of the $10.5 million issued to Khadr. “They didn’t talk about the horror they created, assisted in. What they talked about was ‘We know the Supreme Court ruled so we had to do something.’ It was half an apology,” he said.
Following Edney’s speech, the floor was open for a Q&A session.
A question posed by an audience member asked about the main things Edney had learned from his journey throughout those 15 years.
“I think I became more human. I didn’t become angry, bitter. I understood that we stand up for our rights, or lose our humanity or cease to lose our humanity with […] fear. Fear can make you do anything. Governments put fear into us for the wrong particular endeavours,” he said.
According to the chair of the Hart House Debate and Dialogue Committee, Aceel Hawa, in an interview with The Medium, this was Hart House’s highest turnout.
“I think this has been the event with the highest turnout at Hart House ever, so I’m extremely proud to have such a hard working committee,” she added, “I couldn’t have done it without them. This is by no means organized by myself alone, so I’m really appreciative and thankful.”
Edney will be coming on November 2nd to the University of Toronto Mississauga for an event hosted collaboratively between the UTMSU, the Muslim Students’ Association, and the UTM Political Science and Pre-Law Association.