Omar Khadr is back in Canada. Now what?
In terms of Canada's correctional system, precious little is clear at the moment, including where Mr. Khadr, 26, will be locked up and for precisely how long he’ll stay there.
Correctional officials say they hope to map out these issues in the coming weeks. Whatever they decide, Mr. Khadr's case puts into focus a deficit of correctional systems in the 21st Century – namely, that there appears to be no real game plan on how to deal with jihadist prisoners.
In Mr. Khadr’s case, the nature of his crimes has always been clear enough. But the terms of his punishment have been amorphous and ever changing.
During his decade in Guantanamo Bay – a legal system that Canadian courts have likened to "a legal black hole" – he was at the mercy of arbitrary processes. Now that his feet are on Canadian soil, he has the full rights and protections accorded to prisoners under correctional policies and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
That said, federal officials will have considerable latitude in terms of how they’ll deal with his case.
What was he convicted of?
Arrested in Afghanistan as a 15-year-old combatant during a deadly 2002 firefight with U.S. forces, Mr. Khadr was the sole survivor of an al-Qaeda faction that was wiped out. He lobbed a grenade that killed U.S. Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer and was shot three times before being captured. After spending eight years held in "Gitmo" as an alleged illegal enemy combatant, Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder, spying, conspiracy and material support for terrorism. The terms of his plea deal allowed him serve out the majority of his eight-year sentence in the place of his birth and citizenship: Canada.
How much longer is he going to stay in jail?
His sentence will officially expire on Oct. 30, 2018, according to the statement Public Safety Minister Vic Toews circulated this weekend. But like the majority of Canadian prisoners, Mr. Khadr is almost certain to get parole before the end of his sentence. Still, having just arrived over Saturday, Mr, Khadr is something of a blank slate for the Canadian correctional system. Asked about Mr. Khadr’s specific timelines, a correctional official replied Saturday "the requested information is not available at this time as an intake assessment and sentence calculation have not yet taken place." These processes mean it could take weeks to figure out what’s next. But by most accounts, it’s anticipated that Mr. Khadr could apply for parole as early as the summer.
Where is he going to be jailed?
For now, he’s being assessed in Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary just outside of Kingston. But this is not necessarily his ultimate destination.
The Correctional Service of Canada "assesses offenders to assign a security level. Maximum security offenders will be kept in maximum security cells," said a correctional spokeswoman in response to Globe questions, without specifying which institution.
But it’s possible he could be soon sent to the equivalent of a "supermax" prison. In fact, that’s where most Canadians convicted of terrorism offences end up.
Does Canada deal with terrorism convicts differently than it deals with other convicts?
Yes. Terrorism suspects are often locked up among the “worst of the worst” in Canada’s correctional system. According to a corrections directive, terrorism convicts who are assigned a “maximum security rating” can be automatically routed to Special Handling Units ( or SHUs ) facilities otherwise reserved for those prisoners who have proven – usually by stabbings or killings – that they are too dangerous to be allowed in close proximity to other prisoners. Canada’s correctional oversight body has raised questions about SHUs, and the practice of "labeling these offenders as the ‘worst of the worst’ and creating a solidarity within this population." It’s a life of isolation. In the past decade, five alleged al-Qaeda-inspired bomb plotters (whose offences seem analogous to the ones Mr. Khadr has plead guilty to) have been sent to a SHU in Quebec, where their liberties are severely curtailed. These prisoners basically get to interact with few human beings apart from one another.
What’s the argument against SHUs?
They enhance no one’s prospects for rehabilitation, quite the contrary according to experts. Mr. Khadr’s lawyers say he’s been a model inmate in Guantanamo Bay and that, since he has already spent a decade locked up, he ought to get parole sooner than later. If that’s where the Khadr case is heading, it could be seen as contrary to the public interest to warehouse him with the worst of the worst – especially as he needs to develop skills and coping mechanisms for life on the outside.
Where would Canada’s Conservative government like to see Mr. Khadr go?
Conservative Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has made it absolutely clear the Khadr case is no longer a political process – and that he has every confidence his bureaucrats will manage the case in a fair and impartial manner. That said, Mr. Toews felt it prudent to add that he hopes his officials in the Correctional Service of Canada and the National Parole Board will consider evidence that shows that Mr. Khadr is still a dangerous guy. Mr. Toews released a statement this weekend pointing out that the prisoner was a youth who denies his father was a senior al-Qaeda figure. The minister further pointed out the prisoner participated in "meetings involving senior al-Qaeda leadership," and was further "radicalized" by his experiences in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Toews said he further hopes his subordinates will work to ensure "the safety of Canadians" is protected through "appropriate programming" for Mr. Khadr.
What exactly is "appropriate programming" for a young man convicted of terrorism offences?
Good question. De-radicalization prison programs have been embraced by a variety of governments around the world. But if the Correctional Service of Canada has any, it has never highlighted them. There are growing fears about radicals proselytizing in prison, but it’s just not clear how Canadian correctional officials try to manage the problem apart from isolating those who are the most worrisome. In some Canadian cases, correctional officials have refused parole to Islamist prisoners whom they feel to be too radical for release. In the case of one released prisoner, parole officials assigned a sort of "good shepherd" imam to look over him, and ensure that the prisoner in questions didn’t relapse to his extremist ways.
How big a problem are convicted terrorists for Canada’s prison system?
Not that big, compared to our allies. Fewer than 20 Canadians have been convicted or still face charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act that Parliament passed in 2001. In 2010, researcher Alex Wilner told the Senate that our allies could only wish their inmate populations were that low – “by most accounts the U.K., France, Spain, and the U.S. each have between 125 and several hundred Islamist terrorist convicts sitting in their respective prisons.” But the flip side may be that Canada’s prisons are relatively less far along in terms of countering radicalization.
Hundreds of Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been released back into the wider world by now. What’s their recidivism rate?
More than 600 such prisoners have been let go at this point. About one-quarter of have returned to militant activity, according to the U.S. office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Omar Khadr isn’t the only member of his family who was sent to a terrorist training camp. Have any of his siblings relapsed?
His three brothers appear to have lived relatively uneventful lives since returning to Southern Ontario over the years, even after themselves being captured as terrorism suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Will Omar Khadr get to see his family?
That’s not clear at this point. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says that he hopes the officials who make those decisions will duly consider radical remarks made publicly by members of the family over the years.
Editor's note: Omar Khadr was sentenced to eight more years after pleading guilty. Incorrect information in an earlier version of this article has been corrected.