The U.S. government is refusing to answer repeated requests from Canada for assurances that a Canadian teenager and terror suspect jailed in Guantanamo Bay for the past three years will not face the death penalty.
Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew recently wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requesting "formal assurances that Omar Khadr will not face the death penalty" according to Mr. Pettigrew's spokesman, Jamie Christoff.
In the letter, sent in February, the minister also underscored "the importance that Omar Khadr have the opportunity to respond to the allegations against him," Mr. Christoff said.
But the United States remains non-committal.
The response, received this month, was that "the United States was prepared to discuss procedural guarantees" only once the teenager's legal status is clarified, Mr. Christoff said.
Under normal circumstances, it would be illegal for the United States to execute those who committed crimes when they were minors. But as with more than 500 prisoners at the detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Khadr's legal status remains ambiguous.
Three years ago, when he was 15, Mr. Khadr was shot and arrested after a battle with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, where his extremist parents had moved him from Canada. U.S. soldiers say he killed an American medic with a grenade, though Mr. Khadr has yet to be formally charged with any offence.
Now 18, Mr. Khadr has been in U.S. custody since 2002, and has been declared an "enemy combatants" without the standard protections of the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war.
Only a handful of the Guantanamo prisoners have been formally charged and referred to military commissions -- the tribunals that will weigh evidence of terrorism charges and mete out punishments. But the legality of these commissions is also being attacked in various U.S. court battles.
In September, the United States released documents alleging Mr. Khadr has acknowledged roles in various acts of terrorism in Afghanistan, including translating for al-Qaeda and laying landmines against U.S. convoys. But, he has yet to be formally designated for any commission.
In an interview, U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said President George W. Bush will ultimately decide what to do with Mr. Khadr. "It would be speculative" to discuss any possible death-penalty proceedings at this point, he said.
"No decision has been made as to whether he will be designated by the President for a military commission or whether he will be formally charged following any such designation" Mr. Vasquez said.
"If he is charged with a crime, he would receive access to counsel and he would receive a fair trial."
In the past, Canada has tended to only say that it has made "high-level" diplomatic representations on the Khadr case. But Mr. Christoff, the spokesman for Mr. Pettigrew, said that the recent correspondence builds on exchanges that the minister and his predecessor, Bill Graham, had with former secretary of state Colin Powell. Mr. Graham had asked for similar assurances Mr. Khadr would not be executed.
Canadian officials, including Mr. Pettigrew, are obligated by law to take steps to ensure that Mr. Khadr gets due process. Still, Ottawa has clear reservations about helping, and being seen to help, members of the Khadr family. While Mr. Pettigrew has written letters on behalf of Mr. Khadr, the Foreign Affairs Minister recently told The Globe and Mail's editorial board that he did not raise the subject when he met Ms. Rice last month at the President's ranch in Crawford, Tex.
The teenager's lawyers say the recent correspondence is significant, but Canada ought to be doing more. They complain they are constantly being kept out of the loop.
"It's better than nothing, but it's not enough," said Nathan Whitling, one of Mr. Khadr's Edmonton-based lawyers.
New York lawyers are also working on the case. They say that they are mired in proceedings, but it would be almost inconceivable for the United States to try to put Mr. Khadr to death.