Omar Khadr: into the unknown

Khadr lived in Guantánamo Bay far longer than Canada. What will happen now that he’s ‘home’?

Omar Khadr goes into the unknown

Janet Hamlin/Pool/Reuters

In the spring of 2004, when Omar Khadr was a still a teenager, a Foreign Affairs bureaucrat flew to Guantánamo Bay for a jailhouse meeting. An internal government memo—secret at the time, but now part of Khadr lore—famously described what the Canadian visitor found: a “thoroughly screwed-up young man” who had been “abused” by every adult in his life, from his radical parents to fellow detainees. “Before he is returned to Canada (if this were to be a possibility) some thought should be given to managing this process,” the memo continued. “The social service agencies should play a major role.”

Khadr, of course, was still years away from coming home. Shot and captured on an Afghan battlefield, and shipped to Cuba shortly after his 16th birthday, he grew from boy to man behind the world’s most infamous bars. Along the way, he learned to survive and endure, not just the incessant interrogations, but the manipulation of older, more sinister cellmates. As Khadr told one psychiatrist in 2010, just four months before pleading guilty to war crimes: “I grew up a little bit more and I became more independent in my thoughts. Right now, nobody can influence me to do anything.”

As desperate as he was to escape Guantánamo, Khadr became accustomed to the rhythms and the routine, as prisoners so often do. Popular with the jailed and jailers alike, he spent much of his incarceration in a communal lock-up, sharing meals and prayers and games of soccer with other detainees. He watched television. He played basketball. After a decade inside the wire, Khadr understood how to navigate the strange world of Gitmo—and how to get things, from acne cream to “special comfort socks” to more juices and salads in his lunch. He saw a doctor three separate times just for his dandruff.

Tortured or not (he claims he was; a U.S. military judge said the “overwhelming credible evidence” suggests he wasn’t), Khadr was clearly mistreated, at least in the eyes of Canadian justice. Denied a lawyer for two years, but grilled by visiting CSIS spies, the then-Liberal government was hardly naive about what was happening at Guantánamo Bay. The same memo that labelled Khadr “thoroughly screwed up” also revealed that his American captors subjected him to the “frequent flyer program”—moving him from cell to cell, every three hours for three weeks, to “make him more amenable and willing to talk” when the Canadian delegation arrived. The Supreme Court has since scolded the feds for breaching Khadr’s Charter rights; questioning a sleep-deprived 17-year-old, the judges ruled, “offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”

Yet despite everything that happened behind those prison walls (real or alleged), Guantánamo was also the place where Khadr discovered literature. Where he began to take correspondence courses and pursue his high school equivalency. Where he came to realize—in his words—that “you’re not going to gain anything with hate” because “love and forgiveness are more constructive.” As John Norris, his latest in a long line of lawyers, told one reporter: “It’s a place where he had built a life for himself. It was what he was familiar with. It was what he knew.”

Then, with little warning and no public announcement, Khadr was suddenly escorted from his cell and placed on a U.S. military plane bound for Ontario. Even as the jet barrelled down the the runway early that Saturday morning, the sky still dark, Khadr’s emotions must have been mixed. He was leaving the familiar for the unknown. At 26, he had been locked inside Guantánamo for far longer than he ever lived in Canada, the country of his birth.

What now? Like all things Khadr, no answer is simple.

Dumped by the Americans at CFB Trenton (the same air force base that has welcomed home the flag-draped caskets of every Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan), Khadr was whisked away to nearby Millhaven Institution, a maximum security facility where all new federal inmates are processed. He will remain in 23-hour lockdown, with one hour of daily exercise time, until corrections officials assess his file, decide where he should serve the rest of his sentence, and what treatment programs might be available. Khadr’s specific crimes, including the murder-by-grenade of a U.S. soldier, will form part of that assessment, as will questions about his own safety. (Although his lawyers insist he is a model inmate who does not deserve maximum security, he may be better off in a cell of his own.)

Some reports have suggested Khadr could end up at the Ste-Anne-des-Plaines maximum security facility near Montreal, where a “special handling unit” houses other convicted Canadian terrorists. If that pans out, Khadr will be introduced to some of his family’s old friends: Zakaria Amara and Fahim Ahmad, the confessed ringleaders of the so-called “Toronto 18.” When the group was first arrested in 2006, Khadr’s siblings were among the supporters who showed up to court. “These people are Muslims,” Zaynab, Omar’s sister, said at the time. “Until they prove them guilty, they are innocent—by law and by religion.”

Khadr pleaded guilty in October 2010 and was sentenced to another eight years. Now in Canada, he will be eligible for parole in May 2013, after serving just one-third of that term. But his freedom is not guaranteed. The Parole Board of Canada’s primary concern is always the protection of society, not the wishes of an offender, and every application triggers a detailed risk assessment. Even if Khadr is released, board members can set strict conditions on where he can go and who he can associate with—including keeping him away from “people involved in criminal activity.”

Would that include his notorious family? Again, only time will tell. Some of his siblings have faced criminal charges (terrorism or otherwise) and Vic Toews, Canada’s public safety minister, certainly made his feelings clear. In the document he signed approving Khadr’s transfer, he expressed “concern” that Khadr continues to “idealize” his dead father, a senior al-Qaeda associate, and that his mom and sister “have openly applauded his crimes and terrorist activities.” But what Toews wants no longer matters. The parole board is an independent tribunal, and if Khadr is allowed to see his family, the Harper government can do nothing about it.

Khadr’s lawyers could also pursue another option long before their client becomes eligible for parole: a habeas corpus application. Simply put, they could ask a judge—at any point—to consider whether Khadr’s ongoing imprisonment is unlawful because his confession and subsequent guilty plea were supposedly the fruits of American torture. If successful, Khadr could walk free immediately, no strings attached. (His lawyers will not say if they are considering such an application.)

One thing is certain, though: Khadr’s $10-million lawsuit against the federal government, filed years ago, appears destined for a hefty out-of-court settlement. The Supreme Court has already ruled (twice, in fact) that Ottawa violated his Charter rights—not because he was stuck in a faraway cage that was beyond the rule of law, but because the feds dispatched officials to that cage to grill him for information. At this point, after repeated rebukes from the country’s highest court, what defence could the feds possibly present?

Years from now, long after he cashes his inevitable settlement cheque, Khadr’s saga will continue to trigger fierce debate among his fellow Canadians. A debate about child soldiers and human rights. About the concept of murder in a combat zone. About a boy, now man, who blames everyone else for his lot in life—except the extremist father who sent him into battle in the first place. At some point soon, we will finally hear from Khadr himself. Not through a lawyer-approved affidavit, or the pointed questions of the Pentagon’s hired psychiatrist. But his own words.

No matter what he says—or more importantly, what he does—somebody will have misjudged him. He cannot be both, after all: an exploited child soldier and a jihadist apologist. To suggest otherwise would be, to use that phrase again, thoroughly screwed up.

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