Omar Khadr’s next home

Desperate to free his notorious client, an Edmonton lawyer offers a key to his house

Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr

Update: May 7: After almost 13 years in jail, former Guantanamo inmate Omar Khadr will be freed on bail later this afternoon. In this piece from March 2015, Michael Friscolanti writes about Khadr’s next home: 

On Feb. 9, 2004, Dennis Edney mailed a letter—his first of many—to the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. A veteran lawyer with Scottish roots and an Edmonton practice, Edney was introducing himself to a new client he had yet to meet in person: Omar Khadr. By that point, the Toronto-born teenager was in the early days of his incarceration, 19 months and counting.

“It is our intention to provide you with expert legal representation,” Edney wrote in that initial note. “Our ultimate objective is to secure your release.”

Eleven years later, Khadr is still behind bars (in Alberta now, not Cuba) and Edney is still battling to set him free. His next attempt is scheduled for March 24: a bail hearing in Edmonton, where Edney, and fellow lawyer Nathan Whitling, will try to convince a judge that Khadr should be sprung from prison while he appeals his much-maligned war-crimes convictions south of the border. (Their key argument is that Khadr’s sentence, set to expire in approximately 3½ years, could be over by the time his U.S. appeal is heard.)

A long list of supporters, from professors to psychiatrists, have rallied behind his application, vowing to help him readjust to the outside world after 4,600 days and nights—nearly half his life—in custody. But it’s Edney and his wife, Patricia, who are offering what Khadr will need most: a place to live. The couple is so determined to see Khadr secure bail (and so convinced that he poses no danger to the public, despite what many fellow Canadians suspect) that they’re willing to welcome him into their home. “Although it is no doubt unusual for a defence lawyer to extend this offer,” states their written brief to the court, “this is an unusual case.”

Unusual doesn’t even begin to describe it. As a child, Khadr shuttled between Pakistan and Afghanistan, at one point living in the same compound as Osama bin Laden. After that, home was the planet’s most notorious prison. And now, if a judge consents, his new address will be the unlikeliest of all: an upscale Edmonton neighbourhood, where he will share suppers with his lawyer’s family and walk their dogs (Jasper and Molly, both labs) around the block. “He can look forward to a loving household and a solid family,” Edney says. “A family that has good values, a family that talks to each other, a family that hugs and kisses each other. I say it with a bit of pride: Our family is not a bad place to start.”

Rarely has a young man’s life been so publicly dissected. To his many supporters, Khadr is the ultimate victim of circumstance, a 15-year-old boy thrust into war by an Islamist father and later abandoned by his Canadian government. To others, he remains a real and looming threat, a now 28-year-old committed jihadist who bragged about his grenade toss that killed a U.S. soldier. The Edneys, more than anyone, have heard it all—and are convinced they know the truth.

“He is a lovely young man: genuine, honest, talented and respectful,” says Patricia Edney, a manager at Alberta Health Services who works in the field of addiction and mental health. “His most remarkable characteristic is how normal he is. He just wants the chance to live a regular life.”

If that chance finally comes, Khadr will walk into a home—and a world, for that matter—he has never seen. Even before he was locked up, he had little connection to the West; though born in Canada, he lived here only a few sporadic years. Khadr’s last visit occurred a few weeks before 9/11, when an uncle took him to a Toronto Blue Jays game.

Now the same age as Sgt. Christopher Speer on the day he died, Khadr has never owned a cellphone or opened a bank account or applied for a job. Never purchased a pair of jeans or caught a bus. Never filed a tax return. “He is a fast learner who really wants to be part of society, but there is a lot of difference between the fantasy and the reality,” Dennis Edney says. “It’s going to be all baby steps.”

Omar Khadr's defence attorney, Dennis Edney. (Jason Franson/CP)

Omar Khadr’s defence attorney, Dennis Edney. (Jason Franson/CP)

The first step will be choosing a bedroom. Khadr’s first option is an upstairs room that belongs to the Edneys’ eldest son, who is now out of the country. With yellow walls and a large window that overlooks the backyard, the bedroom is just down the hall from the couple’s other son, now 19. Choice number two is a downstairs suite secluded from the rest of the house. It has its own bathroom and is steps from a small gym and sauna.

“He can have any room he wants,” Edney says. “But I will encourage him to be on the second floor for a little while, so that he can integrate into our family.” (Khadr’s real family, long linked to al-Qaeda, will be allowed to phone, but Edney is clear: “My home is open for Omar. It’s not for the Khadrs.”)

Though optimistic, Edney is not naive. He has won nearly every court challenge mounted on Khadr’s behalf, yet his client remains behind bars. In other words, the family isn’t planning a celebratory feast, or stocking the freezer with extra food, until they know Khadr is really coming. “He’s quite the meat eater,” Patricia says. “We’ve got a nice halal grocer near us, so we’ll be all ready.”

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