Eleven months after Canada pledged to bring him back from Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr’s fate is in the hands of prison officials as the convicted terrorist tries to learn the rules in a home he can’t remember.
The pre-dawn flight via American military aircraft on Saturday that brought the 26-year-old to Ontario from the U.S. naval base where he was imprisoned for nine years and 11 months came as a surprise to Mr. Khadr, his lawyers – and his family, who learned of it from television news.
“He is as relieved as he is in disbelief. He thinks at some point he’s going to wake up from his dream,” lawyer Brydie Bethell told The Globe shortly after visiting Mr. Khadr at his temporary new home in Millhaven Institution’s assessment centre.
Two years after pleading guilty to murder and more than a decade after being captured by U.S. forces in rural Afghanistan, Mr. Khadr has a cell in the same Kingston-area assessment unit used for any other federal offender in Ontario.
“He wants to do what is required of him,” Ms. Bethell said. “The conditions were harsh where he was, but he at least knew the rules and he knew what to expect.”
Under 23-hour lockdown and with no access yet to pen and paper, Mr. Khadr has started tearing through a new novel. He left the 2002 Canadian novel Crow Lake in Guantanamo, half-finished.
In principle, his fate now lies beyond the reach of any politician or member of the military. Mr. Khadr has six years left on the eight-year sentence he was given as part of his plea bargain. He’s eligible for parole as soon as May, 2013. Corrections officials would not address his case in comments to The Globe, but according to former corrections official John Vandoremalen, Mr. Khadr’s chance for parole will depend on his history, his behaviour as an inmate and the kind of “release plan” he sets up.
Because Mr. Khadr has a fixed-length sentence, a parole board is likely to release him on conditions or supervision before his sentence is up “because otherwise, you come out of the door cold turkey,” Mr. Vandoremalen said.
This homecoming was not one the Harper government ever pretended to want. In statements this weekend, senior ministers indicated they had little choice but to bring Mr. Khadr home.
“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,” said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who said as recently as Thursday he had yet to make a decision on the matter.
In an interview on CTV’s Question Period Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suggested that pressure from the U.S. administration helped force Mr. Khadr’s transfer. “Obviously the Americans are closing down the prison and wanted to send him back. And the law, Canadian law, we’re pretty obliged to take him,” Mr. Baird said. “We didn’t have much of a, much of a choice.”
When Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty in 2010 to killing U.S. Sergeant Christopher Speer, it was with the understanding he would return to Canada a year later to serve the remainder of an eight-year sentence. But in the past several months, both his lawyers and the U.S. administration have accused Ottawa of stalling.
“The failure to return Omar Khadr … has made it very difficult for anyone else [detained at Guantanamo] to enter into a plea bargain, because they don’t consider the terms to be binding,” said David Frakt, a military lawyer who has defended prominent Guantanamo detainees. “One reason the Obama administration was eager to get him off the books, so to speak, was so they could say, ‘We did hold up our end of the bargain.’ ”
Mr. Toews said in his Sept. 28 repatriation decision that many of his reservations about bringing Mr. Khadr back to Canada remain. Among them is the fear that Mr. Khadr’s time in Guantanamo Bay has “radicalized” him.
Mr. Toews said he’s satisfied Corrections Canada and the Parole Board of Canada can safely handle Mr. Khadr’s sentence “through appropriate programming during incarceration and, if parole is granted, through the imposition of robust conditions of supervision.”
Mr. Khadr will stay at Millhaven until his assessment is complete. After that, he could go almost anywhere, depending how much of a risk he’s deemed to be. It wouldn’t be surprising if he were sent to a medium-security institution, Mr. Vandoremalen said: “It would give the institutional authorities a better chance to get an assessment of how he behaves, how he responds, how he interacts with others. … You don’t get that in a maximum-security [prison].”