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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Omar Khadr: into the unknown

  1. Good piece Mr Friscolanti.

    What most disturbs me is the venom in the comments following any news reports concerning Khadr. Many see him as pure evil, a proxy for the hatred they direct at others.

    The government was complicit in his abuse and, no doubt, they will pay. And this will cause even more outrage.

    • he is a terrorist not a child soldier

      • Think your words over carefully here. There is no doubt under the law that he was a child soldier: http://www.law.utoronto.ca/documents/Mackin/Khadr_ChildSoldier.pdf
        As for being a terrorist, I have yet to see a complete definition of what that means exaclty. If you can point me to one, I will be able to consider whether Omar Khadr could be considered one.

      • It is possible to be both. Learn more about the reality of child soldiers all over the world.

        • as defined by UN a child soldier is UNDER 15 years of age, this terrorist was almost 16 when he killed the US medic . he is a member of al-quadea a TERRORIST group not a ARMY from a country. but hey why let the facts cloud your opinion. EH ? Subject: [macleansca] Re: Omar Khadr goes into the unknown

    • Good piece at ignoring the facts of Omar’s upbringing.
      First- it would not be hard to spend more time ANYWHERE than what Omar spent growing up in Canada – some places reprot he was here for just over a year of his life, others up to three. . . either way – he sure wasn’t playing any hockey or baseball growing up.
      And there are photos of Omar onthe internet, grinning from ear to ear, with severed hands strung on a string, hanging around his neck – at the terrorist training camp he attended to learn how to be a good terrorist. And his parents encouraged them to become martyrs for their cause.
      Also no ention of his parasitic, western hating mother, and siblings- who fled to Canada to get the free healthcare, and welfare , while condemning the people who supply their sustenance, and the country that provides them with a safe place to live.
      This story is a soft-soaped fluff piece, attempting to lessen the atrocities of Omar’s life so far, making him appear more Canadian than he really is.
      Poeple who still believe in fairy tales, and the tooth fairy, will like it.

      • The hatred on this site is incredible. You people need to leave and go to a different country. You are not Canadian.

      • Where does this claim of severed hand come from? I’ve followed his case closely for the last seven years. This is the first I have heard of this claim.

  2. I’m trying to write a paper on Omar Khadr and until now I’ve been reading articles that didn’t really fit with what I want to write about. This is a really good article and it’s really helpful. Thanks :)

  3. Having read the facts of child soldier Omar Khadr’s heroism when although wounded and the sole surviver of a bombing attack on his uncles home, tried to fight back from the rubble against overwhelming US army forces in Afghanistan. After all were the US/Canada to be invaded I am sure many young teenagers as well as adult men men would do likewise.
    I find it hard to believe that a first world nation could behave in such a primitive and barbaric way.
    Even in African nations where child soldiers were captured- often bare footed and without uniform by the way- the emphasis was put on rehabilitation rather than the imprisonment and torture that child, now a young man, has suffered.
    Please show a little humanity, decency and compassion.

    • you are wrong. Canada was not involved when this happen because of the spineless liberal govt. he is not a child soldier but a terrorist. get your facts straight then voice your opinion

    • Where does it say that Omar was at his uncle’s house?
      And “heroic” to fight against OUR allies, AGAINST the country’s government – with a group of TERRORISTS?!
      You have a really, really twisted sense of reality.
      Hopefully- the medic whose wife he widowed, will be able to clean out Omars bank account before much gets to his terrorist buddies.

  4. He should have been executed by the troops he was trying to kill. At least would spare our country needless expense.

    • Gosh yes, let’s save money by killing innocent people

      Next up: Soylent Green.

    • Our soldiers are under strict instructions not to murder anyone who can’t fight anymore, and the good ones carry this out.

    • Actually Prez Obama, Nobel Prize Laureate, is doing that now — sending in a second drone after a first strike, so that any villagers coming to the rescue are also killed. No soldiers involved either. Don’t mess with the Prez dude!

    • Xing Chow, respondent GFMD says our soldiers are under strict instructions not to kill anyone who can`t fight anymore. I am glad to hear it, as summary battlefield executions are recognized as a war crime.

      Unfortunately there is a meme in US culture that their soldiers are entitled to shoot captives, if they suspect they committed a war crime — without recognizing this is a war crime.

      Both International law, and US military regulations, require captors to protect captives — remove them from the danger area; feed them; make sure they get medical care; protect them from humiliation. Unfortunately, the USA routinely violates this obligation.

      When the USA broadcast video of a US medic inspecting a the scalp of a bedraggled Saddam Hussein, to see if he had lice — that was a war crime. Yes, it pales in significance to Saddam`s own war crimes. But we should all have learned in nursery school — two wrong don`t make a right.

      Some reports say GIs had already shot other occupants of Khadr`s compound AFTER they were taken captive — and that one GI was going to give Khadr the coup de grace — when a more senior GI stopped him, because Khadr spoke English, and so clearly had intelligence value.

      • so what if they kill a TERRORIST which is what al-quade is. not SOLDIERS of a country. so get your facts straight before you start stating your opinion.

        • What Mr.HYDROHOMEY is saying is correct.Khadr was a terrorist not a
          child soldier.He was 15.Too old to be considered a
          child soldier, (14 or lower) and no uniform or command structure=1 terrorist you stupid liberal idiots.Good luck next election
          with Justin.Ahahahahahahaha.

          • Flipper where are you getting your information from regarding the age limit of child soldiers? The Unitied Nations age limit is actually 18 and UNICEF has recognized Omar Khadr as a child soldier numerous times. Think critically & research the facts.

        • As above, exactly what is it that makes you call Khadr a “terrorist”?

      • You seem to know an awful lot about what went on when khadr was captured, through “reports”.’
        Funny – these reports weren’t very widely circulated .
        ANything to try to make this guy seem less than what he actually is. A terrorist.
        A useless P.O.S., who was in Canada long enough for his parents to get their passports of convenience., so they had a safe haven to feed, house and take care of their medical expense.

        • It is not “funny”. It is unfortunate.

          Perhaps you could offer your definition of “terrorist”? Are you suggesting that if Khadr was caught up in that firefight this would make him a terrorist?

          I remind you that his plea agreement, and the confession it contains, are meaningless under the Guantanamo system, where the USA has asserted it can continue to hold individuals even if they are acquitted on all charges. Under a system that unfair, even an innocent individual’s wisest choice is to plead guilty. That is the only way they can count on a definite release date.

          So, I suggest it is unwise to take that confession at face value.

    • Yes. Let’s wish death upon every one. Needless expense? Democracy is never free. Rights are never free.

    • Thanks for feeding our hard won democracy to financial self interest, buddy!

  5. Khadr should have been killed.Here’s hoping he gets killed in prison.Problem solved

      • well you are a liberal . this punk is a terrorist and killed a US medic who was coming to help this waste of skin.

        • Speer was not serving as a medic when he was mortally wounded. The USA does not send noncombatant medics into the field anymore.

          The US soldiers on the ground didn’t believe anyone could have survived the four hour aerial bombardment. Speer wasn’t searching for survivors to give them medical treatment. He and his team were going to look for evidence.

          • Your so full of shit I can smell you from here.You get your
            news from Macleans magazine?.A medic is a valued asset
            to a combat unit.Khadr was lucky one of Christopher’s unit
            buddies didn’t kill the terrorist for that.Terrorists
            would have killed Khadr.

          • What exactly are you saying?

            Are you disputing that the USA no longer sends noncombatant medics into the field? Are you disputing that Speer was a soldier first?

            Hydrohomey asserted Speer was on his way to give Khadr medical treatment. Here is a reprint of an early article on Khadr … http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/813501/posts — it says: “When Sgt. Speer and his fellow soldiers entered the bombed-out
            compound, they weren’t expecting to find anyone alive and were caught
            off guard when Omar, who was wounded from the bombing, and hiding
            between two mud-brick buildings, threw a grenade at the passing
            soldiers. ‘We were amazed that anyone could still be alive in
            there,’ said Captain Mike Silver, who walked into the bombed-out
            compound behind Sgt. Speer.

          • I’m saying your full of shit.Your left wing rag called freerepublic must support terrorists like you.Whose side are you on?.

  6. enough about this terrorist hang him already.

  7. Perfect fit for a treason charge, no age mentioned:

    Section 46 [9]
    of the Criminal Code of Canada has two degrees of treason, called “high treason” and
    “treason.” However, both of these belong to the historical category of high treason, as
    opposed to petty treason
    which does not exist in Canadian law. Section 46 reads as follows:

    “High treason
    (1) Every one commits high treason who, in
    Canada,
    (a) kills or attempts to kill Her Majesty, or
    does her any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maims or wounds her,
    or imprisons or restrains her;
    (b) levies war against Canada or does any act
    preparatory thereto; or
    (c) assists an enemy at war with Canada, or any
    armed forces against whom Canadian Forces are engaged in hostilities, whether or
    not a state of war exists between Canada and the country whose forces they
    are.
    Treason
    (2) Every one commits treason who, in Canada,

    (a) uses force or violence for the purpose of
    overthrowing the government of Canada or a province;
    (b) without lawful authority, communicates or
    makes available to an agent of a state other than Canada, military or scientific
    information or any sketch, plan, model, article, note or document of a military
    or scientific character that he knows or ought to know may be used by that state
    for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or defence of Canada;
    (c) conspires with any person to commit high
    treason or to do anything mentioned in paragraph (a);
    (d) forms an intention to do anything that is
    high treason or that is mentioned in paragraph (a) and manifests that intention
    by an overt act; or
    (e) conspires with any person to do anything
    mentioned in paragraph (b) or forms an intention to do anything mentioned in
    paragraph (b) and manifests that intention by an overt
    act.”

    It is also illegal for a
    Canadian citizen to do any of the above outside
    Canada.

    The penalty for high treason is life
    imprisonment. The penalty for treason is imprisonment up to a maximum of life,
    or up to 14 years for conduct under subsection (2)(b) or (e) in
    peacetime.

  8. Sad.Hard to believe you support terrorists
    in Canada.Did you immigrate here?.Me and
    my family go back 4 generations born here.Stocovaz sounds. Polish.Why not go
    back from where you came from?.We never wanted you
    here in the first place.Go Home.

  9. sickining… a killer is seeing a doctor 3 times for dandruff!!! . Excercising one hour each day in his Canadian hotel??? Do I need to kill in order to get all these benefits? I guess not unless I am not a muslim and a person of colour

  10. The author of this article Michael Friscolanti concludes by saying about Omar Khadr:
    “He cannot be both, after all: an exploited child soldier and a jihadist apologist.”
    It seems to me that at the heart of this lies the basic misunderstanding of just what defines the situation of most child soldiers: They do morally reprehensible things & kill within war zones because they are manipulated, constrained and deprived of a normal childhood & youth. The point is that children do not belong fighting in wars. Not anyone’s children – not white people’s, not brown people’s, not rich people’s and not poor people’s children. Whether your family are terrorists or law abiding citizens, as a child & youth you are entitled to the protection of the underaged and you do not belong fighting in a war.
    It is normal for child soldiers to go through a prolonged period of confusion even after they are freed. Anyone too lazy to do real research – go ahead and watch “Blood Diamonds.”
    When the Allied troops freed Europe at the end of WWII, they found the Nazis had been using child soldiers in the last year of the war as young as 13 years old. Nothing like the indoctrinations to of Nazi Germany. In fact this is quite comparable. It took some time for these seduced children to overcome their Hitler Jugend ideological baggage. Some of these Nazi child soldiers actually attempted to keep on fighting even after capitulation. Children should not be judged as adults. And whoever does not understand that Omar Khadr was as much betrayed by his country as he betrayed it – has not read enough about the details of this tragic case.

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