Finally, Omar Khadr Leaves Guantánamo and Returns to Canada


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Eleven months late, the Canadian government has finally signed the paperwork authorizing the return to Canada from Guantánamo of Omar Khadr. A Canadian citizen, he was just 15 years old when he was seized, in July 2002, after a firefight in Afghanistan, where he had been taken by his father, an alleged associate of Osama bin Laden, and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he was held for the last ten years.

As a juvenile — those under 18 when their alleged crimes take place — Khadr should have been rehabilitated rather than being subjected to various forms of torture and abuse, according to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which both the US and Canada are signatories. Instead, the US put him forward for a war crimes trial, on the unproven basis that he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier at the time of his capture, and the Canadian government abandoned him, even though courts up to and including the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that his rights had been violated when Canadian agents interrogated him at Guantánamo. In 2010, the Court stated, “Interrogation of a youth, to elicit statements about the most serious criminal charges while detained in these conditions and without access to counsel, and while knowing that the fruits of the interrogations would be shared with the US prosecutors, offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”

Khadr was put forward for a trial by military commission at Guantánamo, and, under the terms of a plea deal that he agreed to in October 2010 — solely to be released from Guantánamo, in exchange for an eight-year sentence, with one year to be served at Guantánamo and the remaining seven in Canada — he admitted to being an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent,” and to throwing the grenade, whether he did or not. He was also obliged to concede that, by partaking in combat with US forces during wartime and in an occupied country, he was a war criminal.

This was an absurd and insulting interpretation of the kind of vile activity — massacring civilians, for example — that is supposed to constitute war crimes, and the conviction was only made all the more reprehensible because it was applied to a former child prisoner.

However, while this is a shame that ought to dog the Obama administration forever, the responsibility for Khadr was handed over to the Canadian government once the plea deal was agreed, and it is the Harper government — and specifically Prime Minster Stephen Harper and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews — who are to blame for the fact that, since the first anniversary of the plea deal, on October 31 last year, he spent another eleven months in Guantánamo. Throughout this period, he was waiting to return home, while the Canadian government shamefully and publicly dragged its heels, playing to the racist undercurrents in Canadian society that have been trying, disgracefully, to claim that, despite being born in Canada, Omar could be stripped of his citizenship and abandoned in Guantánamo, a stance for which there is no foundation.

As the Toronto Star reported, Khadr, who turned 26 in Guantánamo just two weeks ago, left Guantánamo at 4.30 am on Saturday morning, arriving in Canada four hours later. He was then taken to the assessment unit at Millhaven Penitentiary in Bath, Ontario, a move that Michelle Shephard of the Star, who has followed his case closely, described as “customary practice for inmates entering Canada’s federal service.”

John Norris, one of his civilian lawyers in Canada, spoke to him by phone, and told the media, “He’s finding it hard to believe that this has finally happened,” adding, “His spirits are good. He is very, very happy to be home. He is also anxious about having to learn a whole new world in a Canadian prison but we know he can do that.”

Speaking of the conditions at Millhaven, and the staff there, Norris said, “We are hopeful they will see he’s not a management problem and that he has tremendous potential. We like the idea of the assessment based on someone who actually sits down and talks to Omar and gets to know him as opposed to an assessment based on the caricature the government has propagated. As the Toronto Star also noted, “It is unclear how long the assessment will take. Norris said traditionally it lasts six weeks although he has had clients who take longer.”

Meanwhile, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews “insisted he needed to satisfy himself” that Khadr “would pose no threat to public safety,” as the Canadian Press put it. Describing Khadr as “a known supporter of the al-Qaida terrorist network and a convicted terrorist,” which is a rather literal reading of the rigged “confession” that Khadr agreed to in October 2010, to secure his release from Guantánamo, he also criticized his family, and noted that he has been away from Canadian society for so long that he will require “substantial management” to re-integrate.

Toews also pointed out to his fellow citizens that “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,” as the Canadian Press described it, and he moved to quell disproportionate fears about Khadr’s presence in Canada, stating, “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.” He also stressed his confidence that, if he is granted parole, which may be as soon as June 2013, the parole authorities will insist on “robust conditions of supervision” to ensure public safety.

This was important, but even more important was Toews’ decision to point out, as the Toronto Star put it, that Khadr “was born in Canada and is a Canadian citizen. As a Canadian citizen, he has a right to enter Canada after the completion of his sentence.”

Referring to the more inflammatory aspects of Vic Toews’ comments, John Norris said “it was finally a time that justice had triumphed over politics,” and 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,” Norris said, adding, “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.”

Although there was an outpouring of racist and Islamophobic opposition to Khadr’s return on the comments pages of various media websites, the Canadian Press pointed out that one reader had correctly identified the issues, writing, “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.”

In response to the news, human rights groups expressed their delight. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights correctly identified Khadr’s case as “one of the ugliest chapters in the decade-long history of Guantánamo.”

Baher Azmy, CCR’s Legal Director, stated:

Khadr never should have been brought to Guantánamo. He was a child of fifteen at the time he was captured, and his subsequent detention and prosecution for purported war crimes was unlawful, as was his torture by US officials. Canada should not perpetuate the abuse he endured in one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Instead, Canada should release him immediately and provide him with appropriate counseling, education, and assistance in transitioning to a normal life.

For the ACLU, Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher with the Human Rights Program, said:

We welcome Khadr’s repatriation and hope the Canadian government will give Omar Khadr a meaningful opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, which Canada is required to provide under the child soldier treaty that Canada itself helped establish. At the same time, we cannot forget his decade-long imprisonment in abusive US custody. Khadr was denied the fundamental rights of former child soldiers such as humane treatment, fair trial and other juvenile justice protections. His abhorrent Guantánamo experience should never have happened.

Human Rights Watch also issued a statement, in which Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel, said:

Omar Khadr’s repatriation provides an opportunity for Canada to begin to right a wrong. International law provides him the right as a former child soldier to be reintegrated into society. Now that Khadr is back in his own country, Canada should assist in his rehabilitation. But Canada should also do all it can to hold accountable those who are responsible for his abuse.

Human Rights Watch also stressed that the Optional Protocol “requires the rehabilitation of former child soldiers within a country’s jurisdiction, mandating that a state provide ‘all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration,'” and added, “Khadr is now within Canada’s jurisdiction, obligating Canada to provide assistance to him.”

Crucially, Human Rights Watch added, “Even absent any action by Canada to fulfill its obligations under the Optional Protocol, Khadr will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, or 32 months, meaning he could be released as early as June 2013.” Andrea Prasow added, “Canada violated international law and its own Charter when it failed to protect its citizen detained in Guantánamo. Khadr should be released as soon as the law allows and provided with all assistance necessary that will help his reintegration.”

Roll on next June — and pray that no one in the Canadian government tries to fight to keep Omar imprisoned. He has already endured ten years in a horrendous experimental prison whose continued existence should shame all decent Americans, where he has been unfairly tarred as a war criminal, and he needs the opportunity to rebuild his life in freedom.

Note: CCR also appealed for the Canadian government to take in other prisoners. Baher Azmy noted, “Canada should also accept other men from Guantanamo who cannot safely return to their home countries. An ideal candidate is Djamel Ameziane, a citizen of Algeria [profiled here in April] who fears persecution if he is returned there. Ameziane lived in Canada as a refugee legally from 1995 to 2000, has family living in Quebec, and is sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Montreal. He has applied for resettlement in Canada under their sponsored refugees program.”

Please also note that the courtroom sketch at the top of this article, by Janet Hamlin, is reproduced courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 70 prisoners released from February 2009 to July 2012, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (herehere and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); December 2009 — 2 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); July 2010 — 1 Algerian1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 – 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese.

20 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, after I posted the link to the “Close Guantanamo” article, Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    hopefully, he gets suitable, compassionate care. but its unlikely. either he’ll be imprisoned, or turned loose -unaided- with a whacked out, inadequate Family, to suffer in a Public microscope atuned to any social misstep he might make after a Life in a torturing military prison

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Jennah Solace wrote:

    Finally! I wish they would just let him go straight home though, hasn’t he suffered enough? I am glad he’s back on Canadian soil and away from that hell-hole!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    where is ‘home’ Jennah? his lunatic Family who sent him from safety to a war zone? then couldnt get their shit together to stop saying stupid ‘you’re not helping’ crap in Public? he could do better, but a few hugs from Family is probably long-overdue healing

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Jennah Solace wrote:

    Home? Good question. It’s not a torture chamber, or a war zone, or a family fighting off invaders — at least none of us would ever want such a fate. God Bless him and help him to find some peace and healing on this earth – or at least a temporary place to call ‘home’. No one should be without one.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Allison and Jennah. Omar has good people who want to help as well – Arlette Zinck, his teacher; his lawyers past and present; others who have cared about him over the years. I imagine that will be important, as it has been to so many of the British ex-prisoners.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Jo Ann Ryan wrote:

    it was way over due

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David J. Clarke wrote:

    There was an absolute tsunami of vile neo-conservative commentary (the vast majority gleefully devoid of compassion or acknowledgment of the extenuating circumstances) on the CBC site. The aspect that is most puzzling is why the army of trolls are there in the first place as they also hate the CBC and whinge in time as the Conservative government (looking at ways to silence dissent) attempts to defund the national broadcaster.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jo Ann. Yes, 10 years, two months and ten days, to be exact. He was a child. If he was going to be imprisoned, he should have been rehabilitated. Four years ago, I wrote about the plans for rehabilitation that were prepared by US doctors, but then torn up by Rumsfeld:

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, David. Way back in the summer of 2008, when I wrote about the scandal of the Canadian interrogation tapes, I was shocked by some of the vitriolic comments I received from Canadians. I’ve got used to it since, but it’s actually no less shocking than it was then. The racists and Islamophobes delight in disregarding the fact that Omar was a child, and delight in disregarding the fact that he is a Canadian citizen, born in Canada.
    That’s a disgrace that genuinely won’t go away until these people shut up, but it seems likely that they won’t. The internet, unfortunately, has allowed these kind of hateful people to thrive, in ways that they couldn’t in any other forum. I think newspapers should be much tougher on what they deem unacceptable commentary. Then the bigots would all have to cluster together in a few right-wing places, and maybe they’d end up attacking each other instead!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jennah Solace wrote:

    Racism and prejudice is not always noticeable in Canadian society… until something like this happens, then these quiet, seemingly reasonable, rational people start spouting out their repressed disgust and prejudice for anyone who is not like them! It’s really disturbing how the truth of their real feelings is revealed! I will never get used to it.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well put, Jennah. The same thing happened here with Binyam Mohamed, although I don’t think the British generally pretend to be as “nice” as Canadians do. We still cling to imperial arrogance, so the racist undercurrents aren’t too surprising, although I always find it unpleasant.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David J. Clarke wrote:

    Here is an article by the Washington correspondent for the CBC. Both the article and the comments are a more positive reflection of Canadian values.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. That’s a great article.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    How wrong to have him suffer all this – he was a war child and should have been rehabilitated instead.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    there is something creepy about this aspect of his release:

    “Khadr’s plea deal prohibits him from making money via a speaking tour or book deal, and he can’t sue the U.S. government. How will he support himself?
    He’s an adult now. I imagine he’ll do what everyone does: work hard in school, get good grades and reap the benefits.” wtf? “we’ll do right by you, but don’t expect us to pay for what we did to you!” I’m sure its standard gringo boilerplate, but its pretty f*cking sick.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Esther and Allison. Very well put, Esther, and yes, Allison, the requirement not to sue the US government is a part of the plea deal system. And why would that be? What do they have to hide? As for the money angle, I’m not sure that’s enforceable. David Hicks, after all, wrote a book and the Australian government backed down eventually after claiming that he wasn’t allowed to profit from having been tortured by the US with the complicity of his own government.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    These plea bargains are in themselves a violation of human rights. I hope Omar Khadr will put his experience in writing, if not for profit then at least to exorcise this demon of torture and unlawful detention. He will need to do something positive to get his life back after all that he had to suffer. Art is always a good form of psychotherapy. Maybe he should just publish a book and put it down as paid rehabilitation!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Esther. Good points!

  19. Eloquent But Unconvincing: President Obama’s Response To Guantánamo Hunger Strike – OpEd | says...

    […] first imposed restrictions 16 months ago — two Uighurs through the court order back in 2008, and two others because of plea deals negotiated in their military commission trials at […]

  20. – Video: Omar Khadr Speaks, Says, “Freedom Is Way Better Than I Thought” says...

    […] took almost two years for the Harper government to get him back, and he was then imprisoned in a maximum-security prison, […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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