Video footage of a young Canadian detainee being interrogated at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay has sparked a fierce debate among Canadians who worry whether the case is hurting their country's image.
Editorials, radio call-in shows and interactive Web sites have been bombarded by reactions ranging from sympathy to contempt for Toronto-born terror suspect Omar Khadr, who is shown sobbing for his mother and pleading for Canada's help during the 2003 questioning by Canadian intelligence agents.
The seven hours of grainy footage recorded by a hidden camera were released by Khadr's attorneys last week, providing the first look at interrogations inside the U.S. military prison.
"True, there are no visible torture scenes in this first glimpse of the notorious detention camp," wrote the editorial board at The Toronto Star the day after the release.
"Rather, what truly jolts the Canadian viewer is the realization that the whimpering from a despondent inmate, and the questions from a manipulative interrogator, come not from Americans or other foreigners, but from an entirely Canadian cast."
The son of an alleged al-Qaida financier who was raised in Afghanistan, Khadr is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces soldier during a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan that left another soldier blinded in one eye.
Found near death
Khadr, who was 15 at the time, was found in the rubble of a bombed-out compound badly wounded and near death.
The footage shows a 16-year-old Khadr begging for medical help for battle wounds to his chest and back that he says had not healed six months after his arrest. He also tells his interrogators about abuse he says he faced at the hands of U.S. officials, and asks repeatedly to be returned home to Canada.
Khadr's defense team released the tapes in hopes of generating sympathy for the young prisoner and to try to persuade the Canadian government to seek custody before he is prosecuted for war crimes at the U.S. special tribunal in Guantanamo this year.
Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has maintained he will not seek Khadr's return to Canada and his position was unchanged after the release of the video.
Harper argues that the previous Liberal government decided that Khadr should face a war crimes trial in Guantanamo. He says his Conservative government, which took office in 2006, sought assurances that Khadr would be treated humanely and that he cannot intervene now that Khadr's legal process has already begun in Guantanamo.
The case is the latest to prompt a debate in Canada over their country's image under Harper's Tory government.
"We have a tradition of acting responsibly for our citizens, for having a sense of fairness and justice, which Omar Khadr is not being shown," Ed Broadbent, a board member of the Canadian Civil Liberties' Association and former leader of Canada's New Democratic Party, told The Associated Press.
"The fact that he remains in that prison is a blow to our government and country. The boy needs to come home."
A flurry of condemnation
Not everyone supports returning Khadr to Canada. The video footage has prompted a flurry of condemnation for both Khadr and his family from Canadians who believe he should remain in Guantanamo to face a war crimes trial.
They cite the family's ties to radical Islamic causes: Khadr's late Egyptian-born father, Ahmed Said Khadr, and some of his brothers fought for al-Qaida and the family once lived in one of Osama bin Laden's compounds. A brother, Abdullah Khadr, is in prison on terror charges in Canada awaiting extradition to the United States.
"Omar Khadr is Canadian-born, but arguably the family is Canadian only by convenience. Omar was not fighting Canadians, and is not a Canadian issue. The Australian 'illegal combatant' held at Guantanamo was returned to Australia only after he pleaded guilty. If Omar pleads guilty, perhaps he'll serve his sentence here — though I'd still argue he shouldn't," Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington wrote Wednesday.
Amid the debate, Canada's former Prime Minister Paul Martin said this week he was wrong to allow Khadr to remain at the U.S prison.
"I think Bill Graham, who was foreign affairs minister at the time, said it the best. Which was, 'If we had known then what we know now, then we would have taken strenuous steps to repatriate Mr. Khadr to Canada,' Martin told CTV's Question Period in an interview broadcast Sunday.
The polarized reaction to the video comes as little surprise to Delta Media public relations expert Bernie Gauthier. While the footage clearly shows a frustrated teen under stress who lacks the gruff demeanor one might expect of a soldier, the orange prison jumpsuit and security camera footage might also feed into the public's image of criminality, Gauthier said.
"The question and vital point now is how we choose to respond to (the video) and what legacy the government will formulate in its response to it," said Broadbent.