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Bush Visits Canada: Will He Be Arrested for War Crimes?

Bush's diplomatic immunity is gone. Protesters are calling for his arrest as he visits Calgary to deliver a speech.

As with previous visits to Canada, George W. Bush will be greeted in Calgary today with protests and calls for his arrest and prosecution for war crimes.

But one key difference separates this from past visits -- he now lacks diplomatic immunity.

In one of his first international appearances, the former president is expected to speak before an audience of 1,500 over the lunch hour today at Calgary's Telus Convention Centre.

The speech, which takes place the same week as the sixth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, is by invite only and will be closed to the media.

Invitations for the event said Bush will focus on "the challenges facing the world in the 21st century" and reflections on "eight momentous years in the Oval Office."

Welcoming Bush to Calgary will be a rally and protest, the culmination of a week-long campaign organized by The People vs. Bush, a committee of peace, labor, social justice and environmental groups. The events also included a mock war crimes trial on Saturday (Bush was convicted), and a public forum outlining the case for investigation and prosecution.

Ahead of the visit, a group called Lawyers Against the War sent a letter to the RCMP war crimes section requesting the police force bar Bush from entering Canada, citing torture and other war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay committed under his watch.

"We are now very sure that the crimes were committed," said Gail Davidson, author of the letter and co-founder of the Canadian-based international organization of jurists. "The Bush administration planned, authorized, directed and funded those crimes."

Not like last time

When Bush visited Ottawa in 2004, Davidson, a Vancouver lawyer, filed a criminal information, a sworn document used to initiate a criminal proceeding. But charges must first be approved by the attorney general and the Canadian government claimed Bush had diplomatic immunity as a head of state.

With that protection now aside, legal experts argue the possibility exists for Canada to prosecute Bush under the principle of universal jurisdiction, similar to what was used to arrest and indict former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Britain.

"There certainly is jurisdiction under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act," said Michael Byers, UBC law professor and the Canadian Research Chair in International Law and Politics.

The act, passed in 2000, allows the Canadian government to charge someone for war crimes even if the accused is a foreign citizen and the crimes took place abroad.

"It's absolutely cutting-edge legislation," Byers said. "It's probably the best and most wide-reaching legislation in the world and we can be proud of it. The only thing we can't be proud of is our reluctance to implement it."

'Difficult to conceive': Byers

To date, there has been only one prosecution under the nine-year-old law.

Rwandan war crimes suspect Desire Munyaneza is still awaiting a verdict in a Quebec court and faces a life sentence in a Canadian prison.

Enacting the legislation requires the consent of the federal government, throwing the probability of a prosecution of Bush in serious doubt.

"It's difficult to conceive of the Harper government allowing an arrest of a former U.S. president," Byers said. "This is a government that won't even request the repatriation of Omar Khadr," he said, referring to the Canadian citizen who has spent the last six years held at Guantanamo Bay on the accusation of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15.

While Byers said he favours a criminal investigation into Bush's alleged crimes, he is not supporting calls for a Canadian prosecution at this time.

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