Over the years, so many have spoken on behalf of Omar Khadr. And against. On Thursday night, fellow Canadians finally heard his own words, coming out of his own mouth.
Standing on the front lawn of his lawyer’s house in Edmonton—his new home after nearly 13 years in custody, including 10 at the notorious U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—the newly freed prisoner sounded like a man genuinely grateful for his second chance. A man anxious to show that even he, as polarizing as they come, can prove his doubters wrong.
“I would like to thank the Canadian public for trusting me and giving me a chance,” said the 28-year-old, flanked by a crush of reporters at his first-ever press conference. “I will prove to them that I’m more than what they’ve thought of me. I will prove to them that I am a good person.”
By now, Khadr’s epic saga is a familiar, divisive story. The Toronto-born son of a senior al-Qaeda associate who was seconded, at age 15, to a group of armed Islamists in post-9/11 Afghanistan. The firefight that killed a decorated Delta Force commando, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. The allegations of torture. The confession. The guilty plea at a U.S. military commission, a deal that allowed him to transfer to a Canadian prison.
But in a case file so thick, so thoroughly debated, Khadr’s own voice has been a rarity. To many, he remained that boy in the ubiquitous photo, unseen and unheard.
Free at last—sprung on bail by Alberta’s highest court on Thursday morning, despite the federal government’s last-ditch attempt to keep him behind bars—Khadr did not hide from the cameras. He chose the opposite, seizing the opportunity to assure the country he poses absolutely no threat to anyone. “Give me a chance,” he said again. “See who I am as a person, not as a name, and then [people] can make their own judgment.”
Dressed in a black sweater and blue jeans, a trimmed beard on his face, Khadr barely scratched the surface of his life story or lengthy case history. A seven-minute scrum isn’t nearly enough time. But neither did he shy away from any question asked, clearly aware that many watching his live-to-air comments remain skeptical about the man doing the talking.
Do you categorically renounce armed jihad? “Yes I do. It’s not something I believe in right now. I want a fresh start. There are too many good things in life that I want to experience.”
What would you say to young people who may be veering down the path of radicalization? “What I would tell anybody is to educate yourself. Don’t let emotions control you. Education is very important. I’ve noticed that a lot of people are manipulated by not being educated, so education is a very important thing.”
What would you say to your father today, if he hadn’t been killed in a shootout with Pakistani police in 2003? “There’s a lot of questions that I would like to ask my father. I can’t change the past. All I can do is work on the present and the future.” What specific questions would you ask him? “Everything. A lot of decisions that he made, the reason he took us back there, just a whole bunch of questions about his reasoning behind his life decisions.”
Do you grasp just how polarizing a figure you are? “I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is work on myself, and that’s all I can do.”
What would you say to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has consistently portrayed you as a hardened, unrepentant terrorist? “I’m going to have to disappoint him. I’m better than the person he thinks I am.”
Neighbours who had gathered behind the reporters, listening to Khadr speak, broke into applause. “Welcome!” one shouted.
“Thank you very much for having me here,” he replied. “I look forward to knowing you guys better.”
Khadr said he is still “in a bit of shock” because “freedom is way better than I thought.” While waiting to sign his final release papers at the Edmonton courthouse, sheriffs wished him well. One bought him a drink. And he seemed awestruck by his new surroundings, an upscale suburb in the city’s west end, a short walk from a country club. “It’s pretty nice, I have to say,” he said. “It’s very nice.”
Khadr has never opened a bank account or applied for a library card or hopped on a city bus. Though Canadian, he’s barely lived here, spending most of his life shuttling with his family between Pakistan and Afghanistan before his capture. “I’m still learning about myself, I’m still growing,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of experience in life.” His plan is to go slow, to readjust to the free world week by week, day by day. If all goes well, he aspires to work in the health care field. “You have to be able to empathize with people in pain,” he said. “And I know I’ve experienced pain so I think I can empathize with people who are going through that.”
A question about Dennis Edney, one of his two longtime lawyers (along with Nate Whitling), triggered the biggest smile. Edney has not only fought on Khadr’s behalf for 11 years, but he and his wife, Patricia, have offered him a key to their home. (Patricia was busy cooking lamb for dinner, a celebratory supper.)
“He is an amazing man,” Khadr said, looking at Edney. “I’m surprised he’s not sick of me yet.”
“What till you get your bill,” Edney joked.
In February, Khadr spoke to a psychologist at Bowden Institution, the medium-security facility where he was living up until now. He told the examiner, Nhan Lau, much of what he said on Thursday—and more. That he accepts responsibility for the grenade attack that killed Sgt. Speer, even though he’s still not certain he threw it. That he disavows the fanatical views of his father, the same views that allowed him to drop his 15-year-old son on the front lines of a war. That he knows he “screwed up,” and worries his past actions will “haunt” him for years to come.
In his report, the psychologist wrote what may be the definitive summary of Omar Khadr, circa 2015: “Only Mr. Khadr can truly know if the changes he purports to have made in his religious belief system and world view are genuine. On one side, there is the argument that Mr. Khadr is an extremely dangerous individual who will say what is necessary to secure his freedom. On the other side, there is the argument that he is the victim of circumstances and has taken significant steps in reintegrating back into society.”
At the very least, Khadr deserves what he’s asking for: an opportunity to prove that the latter, not the former, is accurate. Whatever the truth about his actions in Afghanistan, he spent nearly half his life locked away for decisions he made at 15. It’s time.
Before walking back into the house for Patricia’s lamb dinner, a reporter asked Khadr if he had one more message for Canadians. “I would ask them to give me a chance,” he said, yet again. “They will be surprised.”
Some will be. Some won’t. It all depends on him now.