From the moment in 2002 when he was dragged – blind and near death – from the rubble of an Afghan compound bombed by U.S. warplanes and under fierce assault by American special forces, successive Canadian governments have tried hard to disown Omar Khadr.
That decade-long effort ran out Saturday, when the onetime child soldier bearing the name of one of al-Qaeda’s leading families flew home to the country of his birth – a place he hasn’t seen since he was 12.
“Your country doesn’t want him back,” was the offhand and slightly perplexed comment of a senior American officer at one point this year, as the Harper government dragged its feet on repatriating Mr. Khadr, now 26, from Guantanamo.
The gun-toting, mine-laying, fresh-faced teen, known from faded pictures and grainy videos from 2002, became a poster boy for the raging debate over the legitimacy of U.S. military tribunals, indefinite detention, torture, the rights of child soldiers and the obligations of nations – like Canada – to protect their citizens.
“Omar’s only real crime is that his last name is Khadr,” said Dennis Edney, one of more than a dozen lawyers who have come and gone in the years of wrangling that ended, dramatically, two years ago when the Canadian pleaded guilty to murder, spying and terrorism as part of a deal that required him to spend one more year in Guantanamo before repatriation to Canada.
Mr. Khadr is one of several sons of Ahmed Khadr, an Egyptian-Canadian who raised the family in Peshawar, Pakistan, and was close to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The elder Mr. Khadr was high on America’s most-wanted list and, in the post 9/11 fervour, capturing a Khadr was paydirt. In Canada, especially among conservatives, the Khadrs are portrayed as “Canada’s first family of terrorism” and former prime minister Jean Chretien is vilified for intervening with Pakistan on their behalf in the 1990s.
For Omar, eight years and two false trial starts after his capture, the plea deal ended indefinite detention and stunned the military panel at Guantanamo that wanted to give him 40 years. But it shocked human-rights groups who said he should never have been charged. And it undermined Mr. Khadr’s own long-held claim that he was unconscious and far too wounded by the air strikes to have ever thrown the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer.
For Ottawa, the October, 2010, plea deal meant Mr. Khadr was coming home. In an exchange of diplomatic notes, the Harper government told the Obama administration it would be “inclined to favourably consider” Mr. Khadr’s repatriation request after he served – as was required by the deal – one more year in Guantanamo. In diplomatic-speak, that’s as close to a binding promise as can be made between friends and allies and many expected the Harper government to live up to its word as soon as the year passed.
But when October, 2011, rolled around, it quickly became evident that Ottawa was stalling. Mr. Khadr’s new lawyers – John Norris and Brydie Bethell – said they had started the process for transfer, under a longstanding treaty that allows citizens of both countries to serve their sentences at home long before the year was up.
But Washington officials familiar with the back-and-forth say Ottawa was making clear it was in no hurry.
One key sticking point was optics. Every other nation that had brought its citizens from Guantanamo – including Britain, Australia and Saudi Arabia – had sent aircraft to the U.S. naval base in Cuba where the former George W. Bush administration had created an offshore Caribbean gulag in an effort to keep detainees outside of the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
“Your side balked [and said] no military jet with a Maple Leaf on its tail was taking Omar home,” is how one U.S. official described Canada’s position. It was an issue that – according to a Canadian official – eventually wound up on the agenda for high-level talks, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agreed. In the end, it was a U.S. Air Force jet that flew Mr. Khadr to Canada early Saturday.
For the Tories, portraying the repatriation of Mr. Khadr as an unavoidable evil, rather than a sovereign obligation to a citizen, continued even after he returned. “The Americans are closing down the prison and wanted to send him back,” was Foreign Minister John Baird’s characterization of the return.
In fact, President Barack Obama has shelved his 2008 election promise to shutter Guantanamo. More than 160 other detainees remain there, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.
“I mean, listen, he’s a Canadian citizen. He has a right to come back, we didn’t have much of a choice,” Mr. Baird said Sunday, apparently forgetting the diplomatic notes delivered by his own department two years ago. But the Canadians used every possible delay to postpone that return.
Three months ago, after both the U.S. State and Defence departments believed all of the hurdles had been cleared, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews asked for the transcript and hours of video interviews of Mr. Khadr by prosecution psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner.
Dr. Welner had testified that Mr. Khadr had “marinated in the radical jihadism” at Guantanamo and posed a danger to Canada. Mr. Toews’ demand for transcripts was seen as the last-gasp delaying tactic.
Still, Omar Khadr’s ongoing legal saga has made history. He was the first adolescent charged with war crimes before a U.S. military tribunal since the Second World War. Of the 2,000 Americans and (150-plus Canadians) killed in Afghanistan, Mr. Khadr is the only captured enemy to have been charged with murder for a combat death.