In early September 2008, the name Omar Khadr meant nothing more to Arlette Zinck, an Anglican and professor of English literature at The King’s University in Edmonton, than it did to millions of other Canadians.
She had a vague notion, from news headlines, that Khadr was a Canadian citizen being held by U.S. forces at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison. Little did she know, in the weeks to come, how entwined her own life would become with Khadr’s and his long legal odyssey.
Zinck’s involvement began innocuously enough: with an address by Dennis Edney, Khadr’s lawyer, at an interdisciplinary studies conference held at King’s that fall.
King’s is a Christian university founded by members of the Christian Reformed Church, and Zinck was dean of arts at the time. The theme of the conference was “invisible human dignity,” and Edney shared Khadr’s story. He spoke about the work he and a team of pro bono lawyers were doing on Khadr’s behalf.
Khadr had been taken to Afghanistan as a child by his father, al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Khadr. In 2002, during an assault by U.S. forces on the compound where 15-year-old Khadr was staying, he was alleged to have thrown a grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer. Khadr was gravely wounded and blinded by shrapnel in one eye when he was captured; he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay later that year.
In 2003, Khadr was interviewed by RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigators, and in 2005 a Federal Court judge ruled that CSIS had violated Khadr’s Charter rights by sharing with U.S. investigators the information it gleaned from this interview. The U.S. military charged Khadr with conspiracy, murder, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. Khadr alleged he had been threatened with violence if he didn’t confess.
“For that entire period [when Edney was speaking], you could have heard a pin drop,” Zinck recalled. “It was clear—and this was sort of the intangible—that Mr. Edney was motivated not only by the love of the law, but by a love for the young man who was in the centre of his story.”
Edney closed his address by concluding that Khadr’s case was essentially hopeless. “This young man is going down,” was what Zinck remembered him saying.
But Zinck felt it was “not pedagogically responsible” to leave her students, who had been so moved by Edney’s address, on such a grim note, so she took the stage and encouraged them to look into the matter further.
“We are a faith community; we don’t do hopeless,” she said, assuring them of faculty support if they wanted to engage with Khadr’s case.
She assumed the students would talk about it for a few days and then lose interest. What happened next left her, in her own words, “flabbergasted.”
Dozens of students poured themselves into researching Khadr’s case, writing to their members of parliament and then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and organizing a viewing of the CBC documentary The U.S. vs. Omar Khadr.
In November, a group of students sought Zinck’s help in organizing a rally to raise awareness about Khadr’s case in the wider Edmonton community.
The energy, Zinck said, was remarkable. She also found it to be a humbling reminder of the Christian values of the students.
“King’s is a faith community, and we engaged with this issue out of that identity from the beginning,” she said. “This was about finding the Good Samaritan story in our own lives…Had our students not made us pause, we too might have walked past.
Alongside the public action, another group of students had approached Zinck about the possibility of reaching Khadr directly. Together, they wrote dozens of “respectful, transparent greetings” on Alberta tourism postcards and mailed them to Guantanamo. Not a single one made it through, said Zinck.
When Edney heard that the students were trying to communicate with Khadr, he offered to serve as a go-between. An exchange was established, and Khadr’s lawyers eventually asked Zinck if she would be willing to use her own letters to provide him with correspondence lessons.
She agreed. They began a back-and-forth in which Khadr would select books from the prison library that they would read and discuss together.
In 2010, Zinck was invited to serve as a personal and academic reference for Khadr at his sentencing hearing. Earlier, Khadr had pleaded guilty to five war crimes and confessed to throwing the grenade that killed Speer.
Khadr was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but part of the plea deal limited the sentence to eight years. (He would end up serving five, on top of the eight years he had already served in Guantanamo.)
Zinck, however, considers the trial to have been a violation of the rule of law, as the Military Commissions Act under which Khadr was charged did not come into effect until 2006—four years after the alleged crimes took place.
The U.S. military defence team arguing Khadr’s case asked Zinck and her colleagues at King’s if they would be willing to design a formal curriculum that would carry him through what was supposed to be his last year at Guantanamo.
It was, as Zinck put it, a “delicious opportunity” for the professors. Khadr had only a Grade 8 education, but his letters revealed an intelligent young man who loved to read. How could they design a curriculum that would tap into his abilities and help him catch up on the years of schooling he had missed, given that he was incarcerated in a high security offshore detention facility?
What took shape was a “cross-Canada tour” of great Canadian novels by writers like Rudy Wiebe, Margaret Atwood, Joy Kogawa and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Khadr’s lessons were thematically connected to issues raised in the novels, but also focused on building up his skills in writing and arithmetic.
Khadr was “100% engaged” from the beginning, said Zinck, and she fondly recalled receiving letters of thanks from him in which he compared math problems to “oil for [his] rusty brain.”
She described him as resilient. “We saw a young human being who had lived through hell, who bore absolutely no ill-will toward anyone and who was entirely focused on moving forward, on finding a way to be a blessing to others,” she said, noting that Khadr had expressed an interest in pursuing nursing.
In September 2012, after a decade at Guantanamo, Khadr was moved to Millhaven Institution, a maximum security prison in Bath, Ont. His studies continued, and in May 2013, he was moved to the Edmonton Institution. In February 2014, he was reclassified as a medium security inmate and moved to Bowden Institution in Innisfail, Alta. When he was released on bail May 7, 2015, he had completed all but one high school course. He completed the remaining credits upon release.
That fall, Khadr walked into a classroom at The King’s University for the first time. He was 28 years old, and had spent almost half his life behind bars.
But Khadr’s time in the spotlight was not over. The $20 million civil lawsuit he had launched against the Canadian government for allegedly conspiring with the U.S. to torture and deny him his rights was settled for $10.5 million in July 2017; on July 7, the Canadian government issued an apology.
The backlash was intense. An Angus Reid Institute poll showed that more than 70% of Canadians disagreed with the Trudeau government’s decision to settle the lawsuit and pay the multimillion-dollar settlement.
Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, called the settlement a “slap in the face to men and women in uniform who face incredible danger every day,” according to the CBC.
When asked what she thought of the furor her former student’s settlement had caused, Zinck said, “The political voices that are screaming over this settlement—I want to say there is not a one of them in that mix who would be willing to live under the law under which Omar was convicted.”
Zinck acknowledged that she has encountered “an awful lot of pushback from an awful lot of places” because of her support for Khadr.
However, she said she has felt supported throughout by her fellow-Anglicans at her home parish, St. John the Evangelist, Edmonton.
“One of the loveliest parts of this has been the opportunity to speak to other Christians out of that robust sense of the Christ-call, to sit down and have sometimes very lengthy discussions where we don’t necessarily agree on all points, but…have this conversation in the contest of shared values,” she said.
Looking back at the nine years of her involvement in Khadr’s story, Zinck said she really didn’t have much of a choice.
“We felt that we had arrived at the scene of an accident, and in that moment in 2008, there were only two alternatives: stay and help, or walk away,” she said. “The Christian message is you stay, you do your piece, however humble and tiny that piece may be.”
Asked whether she ever had any doubts or second thoughts about her decision to become Khadr’s long-time tutor, Zinck said, “Not one. Not ever. This work and getting to know Omar is one of the great joys of my adult life. I thank God that he called me to do this work.”
Omar Khadr declined a request for an interview.
Note: A correction has been made to this story. The King’s University was founded by members of the Christian Reformed Church, but is not officially affiliated with it.