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A courtroom sketch of Omar Khadr, who is in the sentencing phase of his military trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Janet Hamlin/Pool/The Associated Press/Janet Hamlin/Pool/The Associated Press)
A courtroom sketch of Omar Khadr, who is in the sentencing phase of his military trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Janet Hamlin/Pool/The Associated Press/Janet Hamlin/Pool/The Associated Press)

Verdict's in: Khadr is Ottawa's problem now Add to ...

Confessed al-Qaeda terrorist and convicted murder Omar Khadr could be free in Canada soon after he returns home in a year. In short, "Guantanamo Child" has now become Ottawa's problem.

After obstructing his return for years, the Harper government has agreed to look favourably on Mr. Khadr's application to serve his prison time in Canada, once he serves one more year in Guantanamo.

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The 40-year sentence imposed by a military panel Sunday, ending an on-again, off-again, war crimes trial that stretches back five years, was essentially tossed out - replaced by the plea deal that saw Mr. Khadr admit to murder, terrorism and spying in exchange for a nominal eight-year sentence of which only one more year is to be served in the notorious prisons for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.

"It's a huge victory for me and my family," said Tabitha Speer, who cheered and fist-pumped in the air of the heavily-guarded courtroom when the seven senior U.S. officers on the panel - equivalent to a jury - imposed a 40-year-sentence, 15 more than military prosecutors had asked for.

As for taking her children to Toronto, where Mr. Khadr's family lives, knowing that Mr. Khadr's Canadian lawyers believe he will be free almost as soon as he is repatriated, Mrs. Speer said: ``I can't say that's a place I will want to go."

After spending years in Camp 4 - a communal prison for the most compliant and least dangerous detainees - Mr. Khadr, now a convicted war criminal, was taken after sentencing to Camp 5, a fortress-like copy of a U.S. maximum security prison where he will spend most all but a few hours a day in solitary for the next year.

Dennis Edney, Mr. Khadr's Canadian lawyer, called the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals - created by the Bush administration but retained by President Barack Obama despite his pledge to shutter the prisons - a charade.

"Over 1,200 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and they picked on a 15-year-old," he said. ``He's not a radical jihadist, he's a victim" adding that Mr. Khadr is an intelligent and gentle person who ``will be a worthy citizen."

Mr. Khadr didn't ``expect justice from this system," Mr. Edney said.

Observers ``may choose to believe that through his plea Omar finally came clean and accepted his involvement in a firefight when he was 15 years of age or that this was one final coerced confession from a victimized young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time because his father placed him there," Mr. Edney added.

Political meddling by the Harper and Obama governments undercut the 40-year sentence, said Layne Morris, wounded in the same July, 2002, firefight in Afghanistan in which U.S. special forces medic Sergeant Christopher Speer was killed and Mr. Khadr, then a 15-year-old was shot twice in the back, and blinded.

"It's an outrage to put Omar Khadr on the fast track to freedom in Canada," Mr. Morris said, accusing both governments of undermining the war crimes tribunals sentence of 40 years.

In Ottawa, the government continued to attempt to distance itself from Mr. Khadr's early return.

"The matter remains between Omar Khadr and the U.S. government," Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon's spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman said.

But senior U.S. government officials, prosecutors and defence attorneys all say that Mr. Cannon has approved the deal and an exchange of diplomatic notes has confirmed the Canadian government will favourably consider Mr. Khadr's repatriation bid in a year.

The diplomatic notes make it explicitly clear that Ottawa has been involved.

"The Government of Canada therefore wishes to convey that, as requested by the United States, the Government of Canada is inclined to favourably consider Mr. Khadr's application to be transferred to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence, or such portion of the remainder of his sentence as the National Parole Board determines."

Given that Mr. Khadr will have been in prison for more than nine years, he will be eligible for immediate release. The deal also assigns any profits from any book or film deals to the government. Canada, in sharp contrast to Britain and Australia, was the only Western country not to demand the immediate repatriation of its citizens from Guantanamo.

"This case is over," said Navy Captain John Murphy, the chief prosecutor at the war crimes tribunals. ``I hope it sends a message to terrorists."

During the week-long sentencing phase of the trial, prosecutors painted Mr. Khadr as a violent, remorseless Islamic extremist with a high probability of emerging from prison as an al-Qaeda leader committed to waging holy war, or jihad, in Canada.

"The Canadian government agreed to a process where Omar Khadr can apply [to go home]after a year," Capt. Murphy added, although he denied there had been political pressure to cut a plea deal from the Obama administration which was putting the first child soldier on trial for war crimes since the Second World War.

"He's no risk at all," said U.S. Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell.

Mr. Khadr, who for years vowed never to admit to killing Sgt. Speer, pleaded guilty to all charges of murder, terrorism and spying and swore to a long list of facts including that he wanted to kill Jews, Americans and civilians as part of his plea deal.

"Perhaps it was a decent deal for Omar Khadr but it's not really justice," said Daphne Eviator, an observer at the war crimes trial for Human Rights First.

Alex Neve, secretary-general for Amnesty International Canada and a human rights observer at Mr. Khadr's trial, said the 40-year sentence was no surprise.

"Everything about Omar Khadr's ordeal at Guantanamo Bay over the past eight years has been a fiasco," Mr. Neve said. "It comes as no surprise that the sentencing phase and this stunningly punitive jury decision has so starkly highlighted the injustices of this process."

The Khadr family, led by Ahmed Khadr, a senior al-Qaeda figure, moved back and forth between Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. The elder Khadr, apprenticed Omar to a cell of roadside bomb makers in the spring of 2002 and he was filmed making detonators and giggling about killing Americans.

"He is not a radical jihadist, he is a victim of his family, his father, …. and he is a victim of this system," Mr. Edney said.

Mrs. Speer heaped scorn on the notion that the burly, 24-year-old who wouldn't look her in the eye when he said - in court - that he was ``really, really sorry" was a victim.

"He's a murderer in my eyes and always will be," she said. "My children are the victims."

The military panel knew that Mr. Khadr had pleaded guilty to murder, terrorism and spying but they were unaware of the plea-bargain deal that will send him back to Canada a year from now and caps his sentence at eight more years.

The seven-member panel of senior U.S. officers - whose names cannot be disclosed - includes a Navy captain, the most senior ranked panelist who serves as its president or foreman, a Marine colonel who was wounded in 2003 in a firefight in Iraq, an Army lieutenant-colonel who served more than a year at an unnamed detainee prison, a Navy commander, an Army lieutenant-colonel who is an ex-military policeman, a Navy lieutenant-commander who is a submarine officer and an Army major in military intelligence. Four of the panelists are men; three are women.

In his last statement to the panel, Mr. Khadr, now a confessed war criminal and terrorist, said he hoped they would consider that a U.S. military interrogator threatened to have him gang-raped to death.

"This story scared me very much and made me cry," the burly Mr. Khadr, now 24, said in an unsworn statement read by his lawyer to the panel on Friday.

Joshua Claus, a former U.S. army interrogator, convicted of assault in connection with the beating death of an Afghan detainee at the U.S. detention centre in Bagram, Afghanistan, boasted under oath that he told young detainees a horrific tale of an Afghan boy gang-raped to death by "four big black guys" to persuade them to confess.

Mr. Khadr's military lawyer, Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson, had urged the military panel to ``send him back to Canada, there is no good in him staying here, send him home."

Maha Elsamnah, Omar Khadr's mother, was reluctant to say anything publicly because she had not yet heard from her son's legal team following the verdict.

"We don't know anything yet from the lawyers. All we hear is from the media. We cannot comment on anything until we hear from the lawyers," Ms. Elsamnah said in Toronto Sunday.

"We're praying for [a call from the lawyers]because this is our lifeline," she added.

"I hope whatever he gets he is comfortable [with]it," Ms. Elsamnah said.

With a report from Joe Friesen



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