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.