Was Omar Khadr sexually abused? - Macleans.ca

Was Omar Khadr sexually abused?

Michael Friscolanti reports. Plus, the full text of the newly released Khadr psychiatric reports.

Was Omar Khadr sexually abused?

Michelle Shephard/Toronto Star/Getstock

Sexual abuse is the unspoken topic looming over the Khadr case. Click here to read the full text of newly released psychiatric reports that delve into the question.  

The story of Omar Khadr—or at least some version of it—has been told and retold so many times that even he has trouble keeping track of the details. As Khadr confided to one psychologist, he sometimes gets “mixed up with what I remember and with what other people tell me.” At last count, his young, twisted life has filled three books, half a dozen documentaries and thousands of news reports from across the globe. Even poets have mused about Canada’s most chronicled prisoner.

There are, of course, two competing narratives in the Khadr lexicon: the one he pleaded guilty to, and the one he didn’t. Khadr the aspiring Muslim martyr who proudly killed an American special forces medic. Or Khadr the helpless 15-year-old, thrust into battle by his al-Qaeda father, only to be shot, captured, and shipped to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. By now, most fellow Canadians are firmly convinced, one way or the other. Enemy combatant. Abandoned citizen.

What happens next is up to Vic Toews, Canada’s public safety minister. In exchange for that guilty plea (to five war crimes, including murder) Khadr received an eight-year sentence and the chance to request a transfer to a Canadian prison after serving just 12 more months at Gitmo. But almost two years later, Stephen Harper’s government is still pondering Khadr’s homecoming, and last month the feds prolonged the process yet again by asking the Pentagon to hand over two lengthy videotapes of Khadr being questioned by mental health professionals. As Toews explained, the raw footage will help corrections officials “appropriately administer” the rest of Khadr’s incarceration.

Although the tapes are classified, some snippets were revealed during his sentencing hearing two years ago, including portions of a seven-hour sit-down with Michael Welner, a New York-based forensic psychiatrist. Like all things Khadr, Welner’s June 2010 interview has been trumpeted by both sides. Critics say the video reveals the real Omar Khadr, the one who adamantly denies his father’s terrorist ties and downplays his role in the grenade attack that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer. (“I don’t think it’s fair to blame me for the things I didn’t have a choice in doing.”) To supporters, the footage only reinforces the belief that Khadr is not a national security threat. “It will provide an opportunity for the minister to hear Omar himself speak,” says John Norris, his latest lawyer. “We think he’ll be impressed. This is a very articulate, very insightful young man who is probably not at all what the minister is expecting.”

But Welner’s interview—suddenly back in the spotlight—also explores an extremely sensitive question, an unspoken topic that has loomed over this case since the very beginning: was Omar Khadr sexually abused on the battlefields of Afghanistan? Was he a victim of his fellow jihadists long before the Americans ever shot him in the back?

With the camera rolling, Khadr sidestepped those questions. “I have always felt unsafe,” he told Welner. “Because I was young . . . it’s a detailed subject.” As Welner later testified: “There’s a question of whether, in the past, he had been sexually abused, well before any hostilities. He wouldn’t go there with me. He didn’t go there in any of the notes provided by the defence. Whether it happened or whether it didn’t, it was something that he was adamant about not talking about.”

That brief portion of his testimony did not generate any headlines back in October 2010; not surprisingly, media reports focused on Welner’s blunt conclusions about Khadr’s current state of mind. (In his opinion, Khadr remains “al-Qaeda royalty”—a “highly dangerous” man who has spent the past decade “marinating in a community of hardened and belligerent radical Islamists.”) But in a 63-page report written after his meeting with Khadr (and since submitted to Toews), Welner repeatedly alludes to the possibility that Khadr was sexually assaulted sometime before his capture. “This history drew the most adamant resistance by Omar Khadr to our exploring,” he wrote, referring to his videotaped interview. “According to the defendant, this threat is with him to the present day.”

In August 2002, a month after Khadr was shot and apprehended, U.S. troops returned to the battle scene and retrieved yet another videotape. In it, a smiling Khadr assembles land mines and talks about how many Americans he hopes to kill. At one point, he refers to another man in the room as “Teddy Bear.” Wrote Welner: “The Afghanistan warlord community is notorious for exploitation of the ‘dancing boys,’ and homosexuality is rampant in Islam among the devout who divert their sexuality away from women and privately to younger males who can be exploited.” (Many Canadian soldiers witnessed such disturbing abuse first-hand during their Afghan tours, but felt powerless to stop it.)

According to Welner’s synopsis, it was “defence reports,” not his, that first “introduced the idea” that Khadr might have been sexually abused. But the exact source of that speculation is not clear. Because certain information remains classified, Welner could only confirm those details were “part of at least one person’s notes,” and that he was present when that person was questioned, behind closed doors, about the contents. “If he were sexually abused, it would be useful to understand the degree to which any such activity influenced his choices,” Welner told Maclean’s. “That would impact my thinking and is why I probed it.”

Since 2008, Khadr has spent hundreds of hours talking to two mental health experts working for his defence team: Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired U.S. army brigadier-general; and child psychologist Katherine Porterfield. Both have written glowing assessments (also on Toews’s desk) about Khadr’s prospects as a free man. Xenakis says his patient has “a remarkably positive outlook” and “speaks convincingly and with great feeling about his desire to learn and become a productive member of society.” Porterfield insists Khadr has repeatedly “repudiated” terrorist beliefs and “spoken at great length about his wish to contribute to the world in a way that brings about religious understanding and tolerance.”

When contacted by Maclean’s, neither Xenakis nor Porterfield would comment on the possibility that Khadr was sexually abused. But one person close to the prisoner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says some form of assault likely did occur at the Khost compound where he was staying in Afghanistan. (It was Khadr’s father, Ahmed Said, who famously dispatched him to the region that summer to act as a “translator” for members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.)

“We feel something happened there,” the source says. “He will just not talk about it. It’s very shameful; it’s very embarrassing. This young man has been betrayed by almost every adult in his life.”

Norris, Khadr’s lawyer, says he isn’t sure where the speculation originated. “If that’s true, that is appalling—and it is just another layer, another way, in which he has been victimized,” he says. “But I can’t say anything more than what’s on the record right now.”

If Khadr was assaulted, it certainly alters the accepted narrative—regardless of which version you accept. Military prosecutors portrayed him as a hardened and committed terrorist, anxious to die for Allah. But even if he didn’t want to fight the Americans that morning, could he have fled? “Having been abused, and therefore dominated by these people, the whole idea that he had a choice to leave then becomes moot,” the source says.

Welner, for his part, is still not sure whether Khadr was actually abused. Again, it was a suggestion that someone else broached; he followed it up, to no avail. “My experience is that when sexual abuse has any relationship to violent choices, the perpetrator will have profound regret over his actions years later and unequivocally repudiate those who influenced and affected him,” he says. “Omar Khadr has never done this.”

And he may never do that. Even for Khadr, whose story is so widely known, some verses might be too painful to share.


For more on this story:

Michael Welner’s report

Welner’s testimony

Stephen Xenakis’ report

Katherine Porterfield’s report

Alan Hopewell’s report




Was Omar Khadr sexually abused?

  1. I’m very suspicious of any men who use, abuse or exploit a 15-year-old boy, be it the father, the military, Al Quada, or self-serving Prinme Ministers. Shame on them all.

  2. As the article says, two of the reports sent to Toews are from medical health experts on the Defense team (Xenakis & Porterfield) , but the other two, the ones he requested after waiting over a year, are from mental health experts on the Prosecution team (Welner & Hopewell). The Defense reports were sent in the (faint?) hope that Toews might consider that there were two sides to the legal case, one unfavourable to Khadr and one favourable to him. Of course, the Harper Government has ignored the opinion given twice by the Supreme Court, that the whole trial was illegal.

    The Harper Government made a commitment to “favourably consider” a transfer request in order to help the US government convince Khadr to confess and give up various rights, including the right to appeal the case in the regular US justice system. They did this for reasons so far unexplained, after spending years and millions fighting in the courts to avoid requesting his return.

    If what they are doing is “favourable consideration”, you have to wonder what their idea of “unfavourable consideration” would be, or even “neutral consideration”.

    See the Harper Government’s agreement at the US Military Commission website – Khadr – Diplomatic Notes.

    • Shut up goof, he can come and live with you then. LOSER!

      • I didn’t sign an agreement that he could live at my house. The Harper Government signed an agreement strongly indicating he could be transferred to a prison.

  3. Toews is the one in need of examination.

  4. This comment was deleted.

    • that’s quite enough of that crap, tahnk you.

  5. The article refers to the long-standing tradition that mujahideen leaders maintained male concubines — “dancing boys”. The PBS show Frontline broadcast a one hour documentary, available for download from its website, entitled “dancing boys of Afghanistan”.

    In her infamous 2004 interview for the CBC documentary “Son of al Qaeda”, about Omar’s brother Abdurahman, Omar’s mother said her children were safer from drugs and homosexuality in Afghanistan than in Canada. I found that hard to believe, at the time. I thought it reflected how sheltered her existence was in Afghanistan.

    I read all the transcripts from all the CSR Tribunals. There were two teenage Pakistani boys with similar stories. Both boys said their strict fathers had sent them to strict madrassas, but that they were more interested in Bollywood. Both boys said that, at the Madrassa, they both met older men who convinced them they had connections in Bollywood, and could land them roles in Bollywood films. Both boys said the older men talked them into running away.

    The boys ended up Herat. They were evasive in the CSR Tribunal testimony as to why their Bollywood plans were dashed, how they ended up in Herat, and what they were doing there.

    Four years later both boys were interviewed by a reporter from the McClatchy News Services. This reporter saw himself in the tradition of hard-bitten, cynical reporters — yet it never occurred to him that the boys had been trafficked as sex slaves.

    The youngest Guantanamo captive was a pre-pubescent boy, sold to a bandit leader by an uncle. There was highly colored reporting as to how he was a kitchen slave by night, while at night things happened he couldn’t talk about.

    So, yes, I think the sexual exploitation of boys was common.

    On the other hand Abdul Zahir, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi’s previous translator, had recently been captured. Abdul Zahir was an Afghan man in his thirties who had been al Iraqi’s translator for years. So, al Iraqi really did need a translator.

  6. “My experience is that when sexual abuse has any relationship to
    violent choices, the perpetrator will have profound regret over his
    actions years later and unequivocally repudiate those who influenced and
    affected him,” he says. “Omar Khadr has never done this.”

    I believe most people who are able to expresss regret usually receive therapy and help before they come to those terms. When the abuse of Khadr stops for good, and he receives proper help, maybe he will be able to come to that conclusion.

  7. Homosexual relationships are more common in the middle east dispite all their protests against Gays.Anyone who visited or lived there before they became oil giants can testify it was quit common to see men walking the streets hand in hand.

    • Two points about this comment:

      1) Two men walking in the streets hand in hand has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s about a different set of customs regarding bodily touch in the Middle East. It is acceptable there for two male friends to hold hands. There’s a picture extant of George W. Bush holding hands with someone in the Saudi royal family, because he was going along with their custom.

      2) Homosexual relationships, i.e. between consenting adults, have nothing to do with child sexual abuse. Adult gay relationships are about love and consensual sex. Child sexual abuse is about power, domination and control.

  8. To me, from the transcript, it’s very obvious that he was sexually abused, at every time in his life he was being asked about where he asked for a change of subject. If he hadn’t been, he would just have said no instead of “I don’t want to answer.” In fact it’s a testament to his honesty that he didn’t just say no.

    So why didn’t he just say yes? Because sexual abuse inflicts extreme feelings of shame and self-blame (I know, because my father did it to me all through my teens) that you can’t escape until you learn–generally through therapy–that it really was not your fault and is not to your shame. As well, quite possibly, he’s trying to repress the memories; he repeatedly talks about using the strategy of not thinking about things as a coping mechanism, and that’s a common strategy among untreated sexual-abuse victims. Khadr hasn’t had the opportunity for therapy, but was instead retraumatized more severely than most child-sex-abuse victims can even imagine. He’s still carrying the feeling the sexual abuse was his own fault, and accurately foresaw that Welner’s interview could get into anyone’s hands and thus possibly go public.

    Welner’s indictment of Khadr for being evasive about anything, when Welner said right up front “I’m not here to help you,” seems almost inhuman to me. I guess that’s to be expected in a kangaroo court.

    I see this whole story as a test of Canadians’ empathy. If you have a normal, healthy capacity for empathy, you’ll see that the man deserves mercy and help. If you are spewing things like “Let him rot in Gitmo,” you need to look at the issues that isolate you from your fellow human beings.