In August 1970, during the trial of Charles Manson and three co-defendants, President Richard Nixon went on one of his resentful verbal rambles against the press, using what he considered the sensational coverage of the Manson trial to snipe at the fourth estate. (In fact, coverage of the trial by the LA press, if steady, was considered fastidiously restrained at the time.) Carried away by the sound of his own voice, Nixon charged that the press were romanticizing Manson, and then said: "Here was a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason."
"MANSON GUILTY, NIXON DECLARES." The Manson trial was already an intense and dangerous process. The jury were sequestered; assault and death threats were common and believable; one defence attorney would die under suspect circumstances during the trial. Recognizing immediately what the president had done, the presiding judge ordered the windows of the jury's bus covered and forbade anyone to bring a newspaper into his courtroom. One defence attorney did, however, and left the paper (negligently or maybe not) lying on his table. Manson leapt forward, grabbed the paper with that headline in huge bold type and held it up for the jury to view.
The judge was forced to halt proceedings and debrief all the jurors. Some had not seen the headline; those who had were predictably incensed that the president would try to usurp their authority to try the case; and all was well ... until the next day, when Manson's female co-defendants rose in court and chanted out Nixon's charge all over again.
Fast forward to the House of Commons, 24 April 2009, rambling remarks from Lawrence Cannon, boy foreign minister, on the ruling of Federal Court Judge James W. O'Reilly that the Canadian government has a duty to repatriate Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay:
... Mr. Cannon's comments in the Commons yesterday also strayed from the usual Conservative talking points on the file - namely, that Mr. Khadr faces serious charges, including murder, and that Ottawa will not interfere with continuing legal proceedings in the United States.
"As a matter of fact, last night we were able to see television footage of Mr. Khadr's alleged building and planting of explosive devices that are actually planted in Afghanistan," Mr. Cannon told the House. "Those devices are the devices that basically have taken away the lives of young Canadian men and women."
Mr. Cannon was apparently referring to footage that was previously leaked, in violation of court rules, to the news show 60 Minutes. Mr. Khadr's defence lawyers have so far been unable to prove who leaked the video.
"There's never been any allegation that Omar conspired to injure Canadians," said Nate Whitling, one of Mr. Khadr's Canadian lawyers. "This is clearly an attempt to prejudice our client on spurious grounds."
I am not a lawyer, so I don't know the grounds on which a court or the Speaker could censure Mr Cannon for remarks made in Parliament, but that statement is surely deserving of censure. The odd reference to viewing a video "last night," a video that has been around for a long time and about which there is much prior intelligent comment, suggests that Mr Cannon is simply clueless on this file, as does the
cover-up conflicting statement from his communications director.
But it seems to me a terrible abuse of power that government ministers (or even little spokespersons) should be able to make insinuations about the criminal guilt of individual Canadian citizens, especially when no legitimate prosecutor has ever raised such charges and when Omar Khadr is still, under any legal process, however suspect, as the U.S. military commissions are universally considered to be (well, except by the Harper cabinet), entitled to the presumption of innocence.
The continued persecution of Omar Khadr would be farcical if it weren't also verging on sadistic. Bring him home, you incompetent pinheads.
Catching-update: Very interesting to read, on Aaron Wherry's blog at Maclean's, the scrums with Bob Rae and Paul Dewar following minister Cannon's performance yesterday. Just keep reading and clicking through the transcripts until you get to Wherry's conversation with li'l Kory.