Convicted war criminal Omar Khadr 'very happy to be home' in Canada
A sign for 8 Wing CFB Trenton is seen on Saturday, Sept. 29. Omar Khadr is back in Canada after spending nearly a decade in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has confirmed that Khadr landed this morning at 7:40 a.m. ET at the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Lars Hagberg)
Published Saturday, September 29, 2012 9:52AM CST
Last Updated Saturday, September 29, 2012 12:42PM CST
TORONTO -- A decade after 15-year-old Omar Khadr was pulled near death from the rubble of a bombed-out compound in Afghanistan, the Canadian citizen set foot on Canadian soil early Saturday after an American military flight from the notorious prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Khadr was immediately whisked off to a maximum-security facility in eastern Ontario following the five-hour flight to CFB Trenton, Ont.
"He's finding it hard to believe that this has finally happened," John Norris, one of Khadr's lawyers, told The Canadian Press just after speaking to his client by phone.
"His spirits are good. He is very, very happy to be home."
Under a plea agreement, Khadr was eligible to return to Canada a year ago to serve out the remainder of an eight-year sentence for war crimes handed down by a much maligned military commission in October 2010.
But his politically-wrought transfer was delayed amid sniping between Canada and the U.S., while Public Safety Minister Vic Toews insisted he needed to satisfy himself that Khadr, who turned 26 earlier this month, would pose no threat to public safety.
"Omar Khadr is a known supporter of the al-Qaida terrorist network and a convicted terrorist," Toews said, adding it will be up to the parole board to determine how many more of the six years remaining on his eight-year sentence Khadr will have to serve in custody.
"I am satisfied the Correctional Service of Canada can administer Omar Khadr's sentence in a manner which recognizes the serious nature of the crimes that he has committed, and ensure the safety of Canadians is protected during incarceration."
In his three-page decision reached Friday allowing the transfer, Toews identified five areas of concern, including that Khadr has been away from Canadian society for so long and will require "substantial management" to re-integrate.
Toews also said Khadr idealizes his late father -- a purported high-ranking al-Qaida financier -- while his mother and older sister "have openly applauded his crimes and terrorist activities," an apparent reference to interviews they gave in a TV documentary in 2004.
Norris, who said "it was finally a time that justice had triumphed over politics," expressed surprise at Toews' position.
"We're at a loss to understand why the government continues to demonize Omar and to stoke public opinion against him," said Norris.
"We know him to be a kind, intelligent thoughtful young man who has tremendous potential and we know that he will live up to that."
News that their relative was back in Canada caught Khadr's family in Toronto off guard.
"Do we know where he is so we can maybe go see him?" one close relative asked a reporter.
In October 2010, Khadr pleaded guilty to five war crimes committed as a 15 year old in Afghanistan.
The most serious offence was murder in violation of the rules of war -- a crime not recognized outside of the military commissions -- for the death of U.S. special forces soldier Sgt. Christopher Speer, who died from a grenade blast following a massive bombardment of the Afghan compound in July 2002.
Khadr, near death and almost blind, had been pulled from the rubble and taken to Bagram prison in Afghanistan. He was transferred a few months later to Guantanamo Bay.
In exchange for the plea, the 40-year sentence handed him by a military-commission jury was capped at a further eight years, with only one more to be served in Guantanamo, where he remained until Saturday.
Ottawa blamed the Americans for delaying requesting the transfer, while the Americans and Khadr supporters fumed that Canada was dragging its feet.
In Ottawa, Liberal Leader Bob Rae called it "extremely unfortunate" it took the Conservative government so long to allow Khadr back.
Reaction to the transfer via social media and on online sites showed the same kind of split that has long characterized Canadian views on Khadr, with most comments slamming his return.
"The only embarrassment here is that this piece of trash was allowed to return home to our wonderful country," one poster wrote on a news site.
"I am so sorry to see this traitor back in our country -- this is one of the sad prices we pay to live in a democracy but it is another testimony to our greatness," another said.
Supporters were also quick to express their views.
"We treat child soldiers from other countries with compassion but this man, who was also a child soldier brainwashed by his own parents, we treat with a complete lack of understanding and hatred," one said.
The Pentagon had little comment on Saturday's transfer, saying the U.S. "coordinated with the government of Canada regarding appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
Khadr was the last westerner and youngest inmate held at the U.S. prison in Cuba.
Human rights groups applauded the transfer, saying it was long overdue.
The New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights said the move ended "one of the ugliest chapters" in the Guantanamo's history and called for Canada to release him immediately.
In a statement from Washington, Human Rights Watch called on the Canadian government to help the "former child soldier" integrate into society and "remedy abuses he suffered" during his decade in U.S. custody.
"Omar Khadr's repatriation provides an opportunity for Canada to begin to right a wrong," the organization's Andrea Prasow said.
"Canada should also do all it can to hold accountable those who are responsible for his abuse."
Prasow also said Canada violated international law and the Charter when it failed to protect its citizen detained in Guantanamo.
The Supreme Court of Canada twice ruled the government violated his rights but achieved little.
Among other things, Khadr was held in stress positions, threatened with rape and deprived of sleep during some of his years in custody.
His only public words since his capture came at his military commission trial, when he apologized to Speer's widow, said his biggest dream was to get out of Guantanamo and become a doctor.
"Love, forgiveness are more constructive and bring people together."