Groomed from childhood to be a terrorist, and institutionalized from age 15 to 28, Omar Khadr is on the verge of his first freedom to decide what life he wishes to lead.
Ordered released on bail by an Alberta judge while he awaits his appeal of war-crimes convictions in the United States, he kept his emotions to himself when his lawyers contacted him at Bowden Institution, north of Calgary, with the news Friday morning.
“I don’t know if stoic is the right word but he is very even-keeled. He’s not getting his hopes up in the least,” said Nathan Whitling, one of his lawyers. “He’s been through these things before.”
Justice June Ross of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench accepted Mr. Khadr’s argument that he is a low risk. The Canadian government did not challenge evidence that Mr. Khadr has been a model prisoner for the 12 1/2 years of his incarceration, she said. And while the government argued that releasing Mr. Khadr on bail would show disrespect for the U.S. justice system, she said respect is also owed to Canada for its strong belief in bail. She even went so far as to say that, if the Canada-U.S. treaty governing prisoner transfers forbids bail to Mr. Khadr, it is probably unconstitutional.
The federal government said it will appeal the ruling. To keep Mr. Khadr behind bars, it would also need to seek a stay of the release order – and prove the release would cause “irreparable harm.” Earlier this week, Correctional Service of Canada reclassified him as a minimum-security prisoner, suggesting he is not seen as a risk to public safety. A hearing to set his release conditions is to be held on May 5 in Edmonton.
U.S. State Department officials had no comment on the ruling when contacted by The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Khadr’s relatives in Toronto were happy with the decision, said Aly Hindy, a controversial Scarborough imam who has remained in contact with them. “They just want him to be out,” the imam said.
Mr. Khadr is a potent symbol. The Canadian government argued that Mr. Khadr’s release not only would endanger society but harm Canada’s relationship with the U.S. It is not new for him to be treated as a person of national and international importance. The Supreme Court of Canada has already made two rulings on other aspects of his case. Next month, the Supreme Court will hear a third case about him. And the bail case, if it reaches the court, would be an unheard-of fourth hearing about one individual.
But he is now close to being free. If he does not receive bail in May, he has a parole hearing in June. If he is denied parole, he is virtually certain to receive “statutory release” at the two-thirds point of the eight-year sentence – on Oct. 20, 2016.
Under Mr. Khadr’s release plan, he would live with his long-time lawyer, Dennis Edney, and his family in their six-bedroom house near an Edmonton country club. He would enroll in part-time studies at the King’s University, a small, Christian school that has already accepted him. He would be supported by a host of academics who have visited him in jail, plus a psychologist and spiritual leaders in the local Islamic community. Through Skype, he would talk to his family in Toronto, some of whom sympathize with terrorism. Eventually, he would like to do volunteer work, he told the court.
“He’s coming to a community,” Mr. Edney said. “ …It will be a go-slow process. I have a nice house. I have a peaceful house. And there’s lots of room, so he will have space. At some point, he will have to get a part-time job, like anybody else does. I imagine my wife will probably teach him things like how to cook.”
Some of Mr. Edney’s neighbours were not aware that the lawyer had offered to house Mr. Khadr and were uneasy with the situation. Others, however, felt that their quiet corner of Edmonton was the right place for Mr. Khadr to begin rebuilding his life.
“I’m sure Dennis has had trouble with some opinions of people around here,” said Rebecca Muntean, who once was the babysitter for Mr. Edney’s children. “Some people are concerned, but if he thinks it’s safe for his kids that’s good for me.” Added neighbour Dirk Klaver: “He’s not a rapist or a big-time criminal, he’s trying to turn his life around.”
Mr. Khadr was 11 when his family brought him to Afghanistan; his father was a senior member of al-Qaeda. At 15, he was captured after a firefight in which U.S. soldier Christopher Speer was killed by a grenade. Mr. Khadr was incarcerated at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When other Western governments pressed the U.S. to send their nationals home, the Conservative government balked. Canadian and international legal groups called him a child soldier and said he should be rehabilitated. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to the war crime of murder and other charges, in return for an additional eight years in prison, on top of the decade he had spent incarcerated, and transfer back to Canada.
But he is appealing his convictions, as the U.S. military justice system allows him to do, and he applied for bail while the case is under appeal.
Layne Morris, 53, a former Green Beret who lost an eye to a grenade that Mr. Khadr admitted to having thrown, denounced the bail order. “It’s so foolish to give someone the benefit of the doubt at the expense of your country and that is what the judge is doing,” he said in an interview from Salt Lake City.
Stephen Toope, director of the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre of Global Affairs, said that, for some people, Mr. Khadr is “a representative of the bad guys,” but that a deeper look shows “he’s an emblem of what’s wrong with our response [to terrorism], that we overreach, we produce unfairness.”
With reports from Paul Koring, Ameya Charnalia and Justin GiovannettiReport Typo/Error