Friday September 11, 2015

"Guantanamo's Child": Michelle Shephard on Omar Khadr's case

Omar Khadr is seen in an undated photo taken before his arrest in Afghanistan in 2002 at age 15, left, and in a recent undated photo released by Bowden Institution in Innisfail, Alta., where he is serving the remainder of his eight-year sentence.

Omar Khadr is seen in an undated photo taken before his arrest in Afghanistan in 2002 at age 15, left, and in a recent undated photo released by Bowden Institution in Innisfail, Alta., where he is serving the remainder of his eight-year sentence. (Bowden Institution/Canadian Press)

Listen 8:31

Omar Khadr was in an Edmonton courtroom on Friday morning. He's currently out on bail pending an appeal in the U.S. of his conviction for war crimes, including the murder of an American soldier when he was 15 years old. He's pushing for some of his bail conditions to be loosened and the judge agreed to some of what he's asking for. Next week, the judge will rule on his request to visit his family in Toronto.

Michelle Shephard spoke to Brent Bambury this week about her new documentary "Guantanamo's Child", which gives us unprecedented access to Khadr through interviews recorded in the first days of his release into the custody of his lawyer, Dennis Edney. Shephard has covered the Khadr story since its beginnings as the national security reporter for the Toronto Star.

Brent Bambury: By this time next week, the judge will make a decision on whether or not Omar Khadr can visit his family in Toronto. You've interviewed his mother and sister and others in his family. Do you think there's a legitimate reason to keep Omar Khadr away from them?

Michelle Shephard: Well, I think there's a legitimate reason actually for the opposite. He should be able to have access to them. I think by keeping them separate, it doesn't allow him to fully integrate into life and that's what he wants to do. He has the best chance of succeeding the more "normal" he becomes. He said something really interesting to us in the documentary. I said, "Your family is notorious in Canada. I don't know if you appreciate how much so. What do you think about them? What do you think about their continued attitudes?" He said, "Listen, I am my own man. I've spent the last decade in Guantanamo. If there's anywhere that I was going to be influenced one way or another...  There were some bad people in Guantanamo, and it would have been there. I don't think if they have views that I disagree with I'm going to be influenced by them. I hope to have a positive impact on them, in fact." 

BB: But it is interesting, especially his mother and sister. They are incredibly toxic people to the majority of the Canadian public, I think it's safe to say. Do you think it was a relief for Omar Khadr when, as a condition of his bail, this distance from his family was imposed on him?

MS: That's a good question. I didn't ask that of him, so I don't want to speak for him. I think if there was a relief, it would be in the public's eye because the public, as you say, thinks of them as toxic characters. So to know that he's not going to be with them, or the visits are going to be supervised in those sort of first few precious months, probably reduced the pressure on him, I guess.

BB: Your interviews were recorded in the very first days of relative freedom in Edmonton for Omar Khadr. What surprised you the most about him in those interviews?

MS: I was surprised by how serene and articulate he was. We didn't edit that much really. What you see is what you get. He was really sure-footed, sort of confident in what he was saying and serene. I'll be curious to see what people think after the documentary, because I think some people will walk away and say, "Wow, that's remarkable! What a well-adjusted guy for what he's been through."  And I think other people will think, "Oh, isn't he smooth? He's a bit of a charlatan. How could he not be bitter? He's trying to pull the wool over our eyes."
BB: Can you give me an example of that? Something that he said that someone might be able to say, "I think that this is an act. It's too good to be true."

MS: Well, there is... I find it a touching scene, where where he talks about a specific guard in Guantanamo. This guard, he felt that he had it in for him. Every day he would taunt him, and he would do these things. And [Khadr] just got madder and madder as as he went along. Then one day, he just thought, "No. The only thing I can control is or how I feel." And not only did he say, "I'm not going to let that guard get to me," he also said, "I I actually kind of feel for him, because if he's able to inflict that harm on me, he must be going through a lot." Now, I don't I don't think the majority of people would would feel that way. If it's true and he really did feel that way, it's remarkable. That was his coping mechanism. 

BB: What do you think? Do you think it's possible that's not a true story. 

MS: I think that that was how he dealt with it. I think that was the way he survived. But I think there will be a lot of people that won't believe that.

BB: When you were filming in Edmonton, there's a fascinating moment and it's in the film. A police officer comes knocking at the door of the Edney home. Tell us what happened. 

MS: It's such a Canadian moment. We couldn't have scripted that.  We were doing the interview and before there was even a knock at the door, Omar looks out the window and sees a police car. If you look at his expression, it's the first time that you see a  sort of panic, and he says, " The cops are here!" and the lawyer goes to the door and Omar follows and the cop welcomes him to the neighbourhood. The cop happened to have a  really interesting Canadian accent too so we were laughing afterwards because he thought, "Oh boy, when the Americans look at this, it's going to feel so preciously Canadian." They were there basically checking in, but also [saying], "If any harm comes, if there are any threats, we're here for you to protect you." 

BB: Did you see something though? Did you observe a difference in the version of Omar Khadr that was being presented while he was doing these interviews? Was there a difference when he thought that the police were there to talk to him?

MS: He definitely looked scared, and that's the reaction of someone who's been institutionalized. This is someone who has who's been at the mercy of guards and interrogators and police officers for half his life.  He said later, "Oh no, I didn't panic," but I look at it and I think, yeah, he was.

BB: You spend a lot of time talking about what Omar Khadr has done, and you speak to people who are very critical of Khadr. You showed video of him as a fifteen-year-old in Afghanistan making explosive devices and burying them in a road. What do you make of the military men in this film who say that this proves that Omar Khadr is a terrorist?

MS:  I was really pleased that they participated  with us. Myself and the director Patrick really did not want to go into this film as activists or coming from a specific point of view. We didn't know what we are going to get when we saw Omar Khadr. We wanted these soldiers to tell their side of the story. There's others who have a different perspective. I think it's very difficult to judge what any of them went through. I think there's a lot of victims in this story. I think Omar Khadr is one of them. Obviously the wife of the soldier who was killed is one of them, and the soldier who was injured. They all have a different perspective on what happened that day and that was important for us to show in the film. We want people to walk away from this and, if nothing else, to have questions.

BB: As far as I can tell none of the leaders in the federal election campaign right now none of them is brought up Omar Khadr. Why do you think that is?
MS: That's interesting. I mean, I didn't expect them to. It's always been a hot potato issue, and mainly, in part, because of his family for years. Now I think there has been a bit of more condemnation of the Harper government's treatment of him with some of  the legal challenges. I think there's more sympathy now for his case than there
ever was before, but it's not overwhelming. Even opposition leaders who quietly criticize, maybe, over the over the years, they don't want this to be an election issue.

BB: In the film, Omar Khadr says he wants to be an ordinary Canadian. Will that ever be possible?

MS: I hope so. I believe him when he says that he's not seeking the limelight. He didn't want to do these interviews. We really had to talk him into it. He just wants to disappear in public. I think the best thing for for him and, frankly, for society is if we allow him to do that.

BB: I get the sense that you would like this film to be your last word on the Omar Khadr story you covered for a long time. Would you like this to be it for you?

MS: Yes! (laughs) I think so. I feel really privileged that I've covered it for so long. It's been a fascinating story and I'm really ready to move on to something else. 

BB: Michelle Shephard, thank you for being with us. 

MS: Thanks for having me.