HUMAN rights lawyer Dennis Edney believes his Scottish stubbornness has made him the fighter he is today and allowed him to develop one of the most high-profile and controversial casebooks to-date.
AFTER Dennis Edney visited Guantanamo Bay to represent its youngest inmate, he described how he “went in a lawyer and came out a broken father”.
The Scots solicitor said: “I never thought I would go to such an evil place and see such evil being done. Guantanamo changed me.”
The experience cemented in the mind of this lorry driver’s son from Dundee the need to keep picking at the sore that is Guantanamo.
Proud of his reputation as a thorn in the side of government, Dennis is one of Canada’s most respected human rights lawyers and his casebook is both high-profile and controversial.
Quite a feat, considering the ex-footballer didn’t enter the legal profession until he was touching 40.
He said: “What has made me a fighter, taking on governments, is my own Scottish character. We don’t like to see the underdog being picked on.”
For more than eight years, he represented Omar Khadr, who was imprisoned in Guantanamo when he was only 15. Khadr is described by supporters as a child soldier following orders and by critics as a trained radicalised fighter whose father was in Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle.
Khadr was captured in 2002 in Afghanistan and spent a decade at the Guantanamo prison on US territory in Cuba, which was set up after the September 11 attacks on the US to hold suspected terrorists.
He received an eight-year sentence in 2010 after being convicted of throwing a grenade that killed US army sergeant Christopher Speer in Afghanistan.
But there have been doubts over whether he threw the grenade and his lawyers argued that he was a child coerced into participating in terrorist activities by his father.
Khadr was allegedly tortured at Bagram internment base but when Dennis first met him, it was in a windowless, cold cell in Guantanamo, where he was kept alone, chained to the floor.
To the embarrassment of the authorities, Dennis secured the release of CCTV footage that showed Khadr being subjected to relentless interrogations.
There have been only three trials in Guantanamo and they were in military courts. Khadr’s was the only one where the accused was alleged to have killed an American soldier.
He confessed to the crimes, Dennis argued, so he would be transferred home to Canada to serve the rest of his sentence. He explained: “He would have confessed to anything, just to get out of that hellhole.”
Dennis came from a poor home in Lochee, Dundee. His mother was a Catholic and his father a Protestant. And prejudice against the marriage made it difficult for his dad to get work. It was his first taste of bigotry.
“I saw the cruelty of it all. A different religion made it hard for my father,” said Dennis.
He left home at 17, with “limited education and opportunities” but a resilience that has stood him in good stead. He went into law late in life after travelling the world and playing low league professional football in San Francisco, before setting up his own construction and trucking companies in Canada.
When the Canadian economy dived in the 80s, his companies struggled, so, an avid reader with a sharp mind, he took up law. He was 35 when he went to Northumbria University in Newcastle.
He said: “I came to law quite easily, maybe because I was always good at breaking rules, so I was able to think of ways around breaking rules. I think I also bring a practical, common sense approach because of my background.”
He loved the opportunities, the space and the people of Canada, so he moved his life there and set up a legal practice. His Canadian wife of 25 years is in medicine and they have sons Cameron, 22, and Duncan, 17.
He soon became involved in high-profile, controversial cases. One of the first was Brian Mills, who was accused of the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. Dennis created a storm when he successfully argued against a law that stated a defendant shouldn’t be able to view the alleged victim’s medical records.
Mills was cleared but the decision to change the law was overturned. Nonetheless, it brought Dennis to the fore and he appeared at the Supreme Court of Canada, where he was booed by women’s rights campaigners.
Less than one per cent of lawyers ever get to the Supreme Court of Canada, but Dennis has been there seven times. He has also appeared in front of the US Supreme Court.
He represented Liam Towson, the IRA gunman who was convicted in 1977 of murdering British Army captain Robert Nairac and served 13 years before being released in 1990.He fled to Canada and Dennis stopped him being extradited to the UK.
Dennis also defended Fahim Ahmad, the ringleader of the Toronto 18, al-Qaeda members who were accused of planning to detonate truck bombs and storm the Canadian Broadcasting Centre and Parliament.
He painted his client Ahmad as a fantasist who had been entrapped by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He got seven years while the rest got life.
Dennis has won numerous human rights awards and is now helping the Memory Commission of Argentina, who are working to bring the former military junta to court. But it is Guantanamo that remains a focal point.
He said: “It is a place where habeas corpus (an arrested person’s legal right to be brought into court or before a judge) has been abandoned, secret courts were created to hear secret evidence, guilt inferred by association, torture and rendition nakedly justified.”
In the early days of the Bush administration in 2004, he became involved in a legal battle in the US Supreme Court, calling for the right of Guantanamo detainees to have a fair trial before a judge.
It was a landmark win but then the Bush government overruled the court.
Barack Obama, he says, has merely “codified” in law the abuses Bush allowed to happen under his administration.
Dennis said: “The rule of law doesn’t apply in the US when it comes to Guantanamo detainees.
“The world is being told the worst of human beings are in Guantanamo. If that is the case, then put them on trial, and if they are really bad, let’s lock them away for ever.”
Dennis has worked often for free, been called a terrorist and his family have been verbally threatened. So why does he do it?
He said: “I want to take on governments and, with my Scottish stubbornness, I am very hard to knock down.
“Sometimes there are things you have no choice but to fight for, because it is important and absolutely right to do it.”