TORONTO — Former Guantánamo Bay inmate Omar Khadr, free for the first time since the age of 15, said Thursday he wants a fresh start after spending a decade at the U.S. military prison and three more years in Canadian prisons.
A smiling Khadr said freedom is way better than he thought and he apologized for the pain he’s caused. Khadr was released on bail Thursday after a judge refused a last-ditch attempt by the Canadian government to keep him imprisoned.
Toronto-born Khadr spent a decade in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He pleaded guilty to war crimes at a military commission in 2010 and was returned to Canada in 2012 to serve out the remainder of an eight-year sentence for throwing a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer in Afghanistan during a 2002 firefight
Khadr was for a time the youngest detainee at Guantánamo. He was captured in Afghanistan at 15, brought to the Pentagon prison in Cuba at 16 and is is now 28.
“Give me a chance,” Khadr said outside his lawyer’s home in Edmonton, Alberta. “I will prove to them that I am more than what they thought of me and I'll prove to them that I’m a good person.”
Khadr said he believes in education and he’s excited to start his life.
“I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused for the families of the victims,” Khadr said. “There’s nothing I can do about the past but I can do something about the future.”
Khadr said he will disappoint Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has long refused to do anything for Khadr while he was at Guantánamo and has tried to keep him in prison in Canada. “I’m better than the person he thinks I am,” Khadr said.
Asked if he categorically rejects violent jihad, Khadr said “Yes, yes I do.”
“It’s not something I believe in right now. I want to start fresh. There are too many good things in life that I want to experience.”
Khadr said he noticed a lot of people are able to be manipulated if they are not educated. He said he wants to finish his education and work in health care. “I have a lot of basic skills I need to learn,” he said.
Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby earlier rejected the government’s emergency request to stop Khadr release’s while he appeals his U.S. war crimes conviction. A lower court judge granted him bail last month. “Mr. Khadr you’re free to go,” Bielby said before cheers erupted in the courtroom. Khadr smiled.
Khadr’s long-time lawyer Dennis Edney and wife have offered to take him into their home. Among the bail conditions imposed were that Khadr wear a tracking bracelet, live with the Edneys, observe a curfew between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and have only supervised access to the Internet. Also, he can communicate with his family in Ontario only while under supervision and only in English.
“He’s met very few people outside a jail cell,” said Nate Whitling, one of Khadr’s lawyers.
“It’s going to be a major adjustment for him, but I’m sure he’s up for it.”
Whitling said Khadr has served his time and he believes this will be the end of his incarceration. Whitling later tweeted a picture of a Khadr leaving the courthouse with Edney.
“This is Omar’s first time out in society since the age of 15,” Edney said.
“I’m delighted. It’s taken too many years to get to this point. We were the only Western country that didn’t request one of its detainees come home. We left a Canadian child in Guantánamo Bay to suffer torture.”
Defense attorneys said Khadr was a child soldier who was pushed into war by his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, an alleged senior al-Qaida financier whose family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy. His Egyptian-born father was killed in 2003 in a Pakistani military operation.
Edney asked why Canada is spending money helping to rehabilitate child soldiers in Sierra Leone “while we had one here.”
Harper’s Conservative government’s long refusal to support Omar Khadr reflects ambivalence in Canada over the Khadr family.
The government had argued that releasing Khadr from an Alberta prison would undermine the treaty under which the U.S. returned him to Canada to serve out his eight-year sentence in 2012.
“We are disappointed with today’s decision, and regret that a convicted terrorist has been allowed back into Canadian society without having served his full sentence,” said Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for Canada’s public safety minister.
U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke declined to immediately comment on the judge’s decision.
Khadr’s lawyers said he’s been a model prisoner. They produced documents including a recent interview Khadr did with a prison psychologist in which he denounces terrorism and says he wants to win people’s trust and respect.
“I’ve screwed up in the past, and I’m worried it will haunt me,” Khadr told the psychologist. “People will think I’m the same person as I was 12 or 13 years ago.”