Omar Khadr has been returned to Canada and is being held at a maximum-security prison in eastern Ontario, after spending a decade at a U.S.-run detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Khadr, 26, left the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo early Saturday and arrived at Canadian Forces Base Trenton before being transferred to the Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ont., to serve the balance of his sentence for war crimes.
"Omar Khadr is a known supporter of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and a convicted terrorist," Toews said.
"I am satisfied the Correctional Service of Canada can administer Omar Khadr’s sentence in a manner which recognizes the serious nature of the crimes that he has committed and ensure the safety of Canadians is protected during incarceration.
"Any decisions related to his future will be determined by the independent Parole Board of Canada in accordance with Canadian law," Toews said.
Khadr received consular 'welfare' visit
Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg told CBC News "it had become clear the repatriation was about to happen."
'It's obviously a huge day for Omar. He has been anxiously awaiting this day for over a decade' —Brydie Bethell, Omar Khadr's Canadian co-counsel
Rosenberg said Khadr recently got a consular "welfare" visit from a Canadian diplomatic official in advance of his return.
Under a plea deal with prosecutors in October 2010, Khadr admitted to being responsible for the death of American Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer.
In exchange for that plea, he was promised he would be transferred to Canada to serve out the rest of his sentence.
He agreed to a sentence of eight years, with no credit for time served, with the first year spent in U.S. custody.
The U.S. defence department issued a statement Saturday referring to the five war crimes to which Khadr pleaded guilty before a military commission:
- murder in violation of the law of war
- attempted murder in violation of the law of war
- providing material support for terrorism
"Today, 166 detainees remain in detention at Guantanamo Bay," the statement said.
Khadr's Canadian co-counsel, Brydie Bethell, told CBC News that he is "very relieved that he's finally back in his home country... It's obviously a huge day for Omar. He has been anxiously awaiting this day for over a decade."
News that Khadr was back in Canada caught his relatives in Toronto off guard.
Family anxious to visit
"Do you know where he is so we can maybe go see him?" one close relative asked a Canadian Press reporter.
Relatives contacted by CBC News declined to comment, but Imam Ali Hindy, a longtime friend of the Khadr family, said they had been waiting anxiously for the 26-year-old's return.
He said just last week, they had a hunch Khadr might be coming back to Canada soon.
'We have to welcome him. He's our son, he's our family.' —Member of Khadr family's mosque
"Some of them said, 'I know Omar will come, but he will come very late on Friday or weekend or something. So not too much publicity.' And they'll find out he's already in Canada," said Ali Hindy. "That's exactly what happened."
A member of the family's mosque told CBC News that their doors will always be open for Khadr.
"We have to welcome him. He's our son, he's our family. He's from the society."
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said an agreement with the Americans to transfer Khadr to a Canadian prison was reached a year ago, but "the Conservatives dragged their feet on it," until now.
"There was a lot of pressure from the Americans for us to actually do our job and take care of our business and have one of our citizens return home.
"We were the only [Western] country who had a citizen, a national, left in Guantanamo Bay and this has been ongoing for years. It was inevitable that he would come home," Dewar said.
Eligible to apply for parole next year
Bethell said she had no idea why it took Minister Toews so long to make the decision to bring Khadr home.
"He mishandled the file and he knows it... the good news for all Canadians is that justice has prevailed over politics today," she told CBC News.
Now that he's at Millhaven, he can apply for parole next year, in the summer of 2013, under Canadian law.
"We will certainly assist him in preparing for that, and we'll see what the Parole Board decides," said his Canadian co-counsel, John Norris.
'He will eventually come out of a Canadian jail, there is no doubt about that. And part of what he draws his strength from is focusing on the future.' —Omar Khadr's co-counsel, John Norris
The very latest Khadr could be released is when his eight-year sentence expires, at the end of October 2018, he added.
"He will eventually come out of a Canadian jail, there is no doubt about that," Norris told CBC News. "And part of what he draws his strength from is focusing on the future."
Khadr was 15 when he was found badly injured in the rubble of a bombed-out compound near Khost, Afghanistan. He was transferred to Guantanamo Bay a few months later, accused of throwing the grenade that killed Speer.
"I am very satisfied, even if [the repatriation] is done in the dead of night and on a weekend to avoid media attention," said Senator Romeo Dallaire, who recently wrote a book about the use of child soldiers.
Khadr was the youngest and last Western detainee to be released from the naval base, which opened in January 2002.Amongst other things, Khadr was held in stress positions, threatened with rape and deprived of sleep during some of his years in custody.
"Because he was a child soldier, Canada would have an obligation to provide rehabilitation and counselling to him under international law," constitutional and human rights lawyer Paul Champ said.
Khadr 'idealizes father', Toews says
Liberal Party leader Bob Rae said the repatration of Khadr was "long overdue."
"It is extremely unfortunate that it took the Conservative government this long to fulfil its responsibility to bring him back to Canada... Now Mr. Khadr will serve the remainder of his sentence under the supervision of the Canadian correctional system, and we can ensure that he receives proper treatment and rehabilitation," he said.
Toews said, however, he has concerns as to whether the parole board can "effectively administer" Khadr's sentence.
The minister said Khadr "idealizes his father" and appears to deny Ahmed Khadr's "lengthy history of terrorist action and association with al-Qaeda.
He also said Omar Khadr's mother and older sister have "openly applauded his crimes and terrorist activities."
But Dr. Steven Xenakis, a U.S. Army psychiatrist who spent more than 200 hours with Khadr since 2008 assessing him for his military defence, said he is no threat to Canadian society.
The prosecution's appointed psychiatrist reached the opposite conclusion, but Dr. Xenakis said his colleague assessed Khadr with a bias.
Based on his own experience with Khadr, and looking at transcripts of the prosecution's psychiatrist's interviews, Dr. Xenakis concludes that the now 26-year-old Canadian is a "very decent" man.
"He's gentle. And very mannered. He is a remarkable individual considering the experiences that he's had and what he has had to endure. … I feel confident in evaluating and stating clearly that Omar Khadr does not have a history of violent and aggressive conduct.
"And that as best as anybody can tell, he is a very minimal risk if a risk at all for being dangerous or somehow imperiling the security of Canada," Dr. Xenakis said.
'A model prisoner'
Khadr's Canadian co-counsel Bethell says that he was "nothing short of a model prisoner while at Guantanamo... he will not be a management problem."
She and her co-counsel Norris, have spent "hundreds of hours" getting to know the real Khadr, Bethell added.
"It is nothing like the scare tactics that this government has tried to use in their portrayal of Omar... He wants to go to school, he wants to become a contributing member of society."
Norris said he doesn't understand why the government continues to "demonize" Khadr and "stoke public opinion against him."
"We know him to be a kind, intelligent, thoughtful young man who has tremendous potential and we know that he will live up to that."
Khadr was born in Toronto but spent much of his childhood in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A year after his capture, his al-Qaeda financier father was killed in a military ambush in Pakistan.