For the first time in 10 years and three months, Omar Khadr's fate rests outside the hands of politicians and military personnel.
Toronto-born Mr. Khadr left Guantanamo Bay's detention centre in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning via U.S. military aircraft. He set foot on Canadian soil just over three hours later.
He was transported from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Millhaven Institution's assessment centre near Kingston. There, like hundreds of other federal offenders, corrections staff will determine where he should serve his sentence.
It was a heady and exhausting trip for a Canadian captured in Afghanistan at 15 and charged with murder and committing acts of terrorism, who became the centre of tussles over the definition of "child soldier," what obligations Canada owed citizens arrested abroad and what rules of law applied to detainees in a U.S. naval base in Cuba.
"He's very happy. He is relieved. This is obviously a huge day for him," said Brydie Bethell, one of Mr. Khadr's lawyers, who spoke with him after he arrived Saturday. "There's no question that the wait has been extremely painful for him, but he's dreamt of this moment for a very long time – for over a decade."
For Mr. Khadr's Canadian and U.S. lawyers, the trip was long overdue: When Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty in October, 2010 to murdering U.S. Sergeant Christopher Speer, it was under an agreement that gave him an eight-year sentence, all but a year of which was to be spent in Canada. He was eligible for repatriation last November.
But the transfer also came as somewhat of a surprise: Mr. Khadr's lawyers, preparing for court arguments over his return next week, had no idea he was coming back until very recently. Mr. Khadr didn't find out until Wednesday evening.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, taken to court by Mr. Khadr's lawyers on accusations of stalling, said Saturday he only decided to repatriate Mr. Khadr "earlier this week."
"Omar 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,"Mr. Toews told reporters in Winnipeg Saturday. "This transfer occurs following a process initiated by the United States government and determined in accordance with Canadian law."
The federal Conservatives pledged in November, 2010, to bring Mr. Khadr back as the U.S. desired, but in the months after Mr. Khadr formally applied for repatriation last spring Mr. Toews said there were "concerns" as to whether that would be a wise move.
Mr. Toews' precautionary measures involved reviewing footage from a psychological assessment of Mr. Khadr by U.S. psychiatrists Michael Welner and Alan Hopwell. In his formal decision to repatriate Mr. Khadr, dated Sept. 28, Mr. Toews said Canada "was advised by officials of the U.S. government that CSC [Correctional Services Canada] would be provided with a copy of the videotape" when Mr. Khadr made his formal application to come back to Canada. According to Ottawa's narrative, it was U.S. foot-dragging, not Canada's, that delayed Mr. Khadr's return.
But the delay irked the U.S. administration, which hoped to use Mr. Khadr's plea deal as an example for other inmates to follow. Instead, leery at the lack of movement in Mr. Khadr's case, some were reluctant to agree to plea deals of their own. “Clearly, if the government can’t carry through on their end of the bargain, it has a chilling effect on the willingness of others to plead,” Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell, chief defence counsel for military commissions, told the Miami Herald in July. “Certainly there was an expectation by all parties involved that Khadr was going to be home last fall.”
Those concerns still exist, Mr. Toews said. They include Mr. Khadr's idealization of his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, a close associate of Osama bin Laden who was killed in Pakistan; his mother and sister's approval of terrorist activities; Mr. Khadr's terrorist training; and the likelihood Mr. Khadr will need "substantial management" to aid his reintegration into Canadian society.
But the most notable concern is "Mr. Khadr's experiences in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo Bay and the degree to which they have radicalized him."
Fears around the possibility that spending years in the U.S. naval base detention centre, especially as its youngest detainee, would radicalize Mr. Khadr have been behind calls for him to be brought to Canada earlier.
Despite these concerns, Mr. Toews said he's satisfied Corrections Canada and the Parole Board of Canada can "administer Mr. Khadr's sentence in a manner which recognizes the serious nature of the crimes that he has committed ... through appropriate programming during incarceration and, if parole is granted, through the imposition of robust conditions of supervision."
But that's a strange way of putting it: Mr. Toews, in principle, has no say over what happens to Mr. Khadr now that he's in custody in a federal institution. Corrections Canada is expected to decide independently how best he should serve his sentence, and where; the National Parole Board will decide independently if he should get parole, and what – if any – conditions should be imposed.
"It should be an administrative decision made by people with expertise in corrections about where Omar Khadr, based on his individual characteristics and needs, should be placed. In principle, that is a decision that should not engage political interference," she said. "Governments have ways of communicating to bureaucrats what decisions they want. ... One hopes that won't happen here."
Ms. Bethell slammed Mr. Toews's characterization Saturday of Mr. Khadr as a dangerous felon in need of special consideration or security measures by Corrections Canada. "There's no basis in reality to this idea," she said. "For a politician to try and tell an expert corrections official how to do their job, that would be unusual, to say the least."
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said on Saturday that Canada must help Mr. Khadr reintegrate into society once he is eventually released from prison.
“We felt [Mr. Khadr] should have been dealt with in the Canadian court system,” Mr. Rae told reporters at the Ontario Liberal Party's annual meeting in Ottawa. “Its been a long time that this man has been in custody in very, very difficult conditions. its important that we do everything we can before he gets out to make sure he’s rehabilitated.”
But the Liberals, too, have come under criticism for their reluctance to intercede on Mr. Khadr's behalf when their party was in government.
Mr. Khadr's family got the news of his return watching television Saturday morning. A man answering the phone at a home where several friends and family members had gathered said the news had come as just one more shock to Mr. Khadr's grandparents, who "can't handle this stuff."
Mr. Khadr is in Millhaven's assessment centre and had a cell to himself. He'll be there while Corrections Canada decides where he should serve his sentence. While single-cell accommodation is Corrections Canada's standard, about 86 per cent of the inmates at Millhaven's assessment centre share cells built for one.
The assessment process can take as little as a day or as long as several months.
"For his own security, that would make sense [to put Khadr in a maximum-security facility] but on the other hand there's no need for him to be placed in maximum security. He's been a model inmate in Guantanamo. Ask any guard," Ms. Bethell said. "If Omar's feeling insecure, that's something the Canadian government has created ... by using every opportunity to demonize him and turn the public against him."
Ms. Bethell said she wouldn't speculate on whether he would be granted parole. "All that we've been thinking about and working towards is this very day – and it's the same for Omar: This is just the most momentous day of this kid's life."
With a report from Karen Howlett
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