TORONTO -- A Canadian man who returned home after spending 10 years at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay is desperate to be a normal, contributing member of society, his lawyer said Sunday.
Brydie Bethell said her client, 26-year-old Omar Khadr, could barely believe he was finally back in Canada. The last Western detainee at Guantánamo, Khadr was transferred from the U.S. military prison in Cuba to a maximum security facility in Ontario on Saturday, where Bethell visited him over the weekend.
The son of an alleged al-Qaida financier, Khadr pleaded guilty in 2010 to killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and was eligible to return to Canada from Guantánamo Bay last October under terms of a plea deal.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had long refused to request the return of Khadr, the youngest detainee held at Guantánamo. The reluctance was partly due to suspicions about the Khadr family, which has been called “the first family of terrorism.”
Amid intense secrecy, the Toronto-born Khadr was flown to Canada and was taken to Millhaven Institution in Ontario for a period of assessment – normal procedure for new inmates – before authorities decide where he will serve out the remaining six years of his eight-year sentence for war crimes.
John Norris, another lawyer for Khadr, said he will be eligible for parole as early as the summer of 2013.
Bethell said when she visited him over the weekend, he was “just sparkling.”
“He’s been dreaming about this moment for 10 years, so it’s profoundly momentous for him,” she said.
Bethell said during his time in prison, he has been studying various subjects with the long-distance help of a tutor in Edmonton, Alberta, and the first thing he wanted upon his return to Canada was a pen and paper so he could get his homework done.
“He’s so committed to his education,” she said.
The Toronto-born Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured in 2002 in Afghanistan, and was detained at the Guantánamo prison set up on the U.S. naval base in Cuba to hold suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He received an eight-year sentence in 2010 after being convicted of throwing a grenade that killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the U.S. government initiated Khadr’s transfer and suggested that Canada had little choice but to accept him because he is a Canadian citizen. It will be up to Canada’s national parole board whether to release him, Toews said.
Toews, who has said Khadr is a known supporter of the al-Qaida terrorist network and a convicted terrorist, called for “robust conditions of supervision” if Khadr is granted parole. Toews said in his written decision that he reviewed all the files forwarded by the U.S. government and said the parole board should consider his concerns that Omar “idealizes” his father and “appears to deny Ahmed Khadr’s lengthy history of terrorist action and association with al-Qaida.”
Toews also said that Omar Khadr’s mother and sister “have openly applauded” his father’s “crimes and terrorist activities” and noted that Omar has had “little contact with Canadian society and will require substantial management in order to ensure safe integration in Canada.”
Defense attorneys have said Khadr was pushed into fighting the Americans in Afghanistan by his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, whose family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy.
The Egyptian-born father was killed in 2003 when a Pakistani military helicopter shelled the house where he was staying with senior al-Qaida operatives. Omar’s youngest brother lives in Toronto and is paralyzed after being shot in the attack that killed his father.
Another brother was released from a Canadian jail last year after successfully fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges he supplied al-Qaida with weapons in Pakistan.
The father was arrested in Pakistan in 1995 after a bomb attack targeting the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, but was released after former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien appealed to Pakistan to give him due process. Canada was embarrassed when he later emerged as a senior al-Qaida figure. Canadian governments have since refused to speak out on behalf of the Khadr family.
Omar Khadr was found in the rubble of a bombed-out compound badly wounded and near death in Afghanistan in 2002. His case received international attention after some dubbed him a child soldier.
Khadr’s family has not yet spoken out about his return. Bethell said prison authorities will decide when family can visit. She said Khadr is eager to see his relatives after such a long separation was perfectly natural. “They are his family, and she is his mother.”
Khadr has claimed in the past that he was abused at Guantánamo, but Canadian Foreign Affairs officials said they accept U.S. assurances that Khadr was treated humanely. Human rights groups have long criticized Harper’s Conservative government for not doing enough for Khadr, and the Supreme Court of Canada twice ruled that the Canadian government had violated his rights.
Canada’s three opposition parties demanded that Harper’s government bring Khadr home. He has received some sympathy from Canadians, largely due to his age and the torture allegations, but his family has been widely criticized.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed off on Khadr’s transfer in April. Panetta said in Ottawa earlier this year that sending Khadr back to Canada would be an important step because it would serve as an example to other detainees who are looking to return to their home countries or other places. Some Guantánamo detainees have been reluctant to agree to plea deals after noting that Khadr had remained in Guantánamo despite being eligible to leave since last October.