Omar Khadr, free on bail, vows to prove he is 'a good person'
'There is nothing I can do about the past but … I can do something about the future,' he tells media
In his first chance to speak to the Canadian public, Omar Khadr said he has renounced violent extremism and hopes others will not follow the path he took as a 15-year-old.
For more than a decade Khadr has been little more than a name and an aging photograph to millions of Canadians who have followed his story. Today, in a smiling and personable manner, he thanked the courts for releasing him on bail and expressed gratitude to his lawyers for working so hard on his behalf.
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"Freedom is way better than I thought," said Khadr, casually dressed in a black Hugo Boss training jacket. "And the Canadian public, so far, has been way better than I anticipated.
Khadr spoke to the media gathered outside his lawyer's house near downtown Edmonton, just hours after he was released on bail by an Alberta judge.
Asked what he would say to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government worked for years to keep him from being transferred to Canada, then to keep him behind bars, he said: "I'm going to have to disappoint him. I'm better than the person he thinks I am."
Earlier in the day, the 28-year-old convicted war criminal was granted bail in an Edmonton court while he appeals his convictions in the United States. The decision to give him bail was made by Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby, who shot down a bid by the Harper government to have Khadr remain behind bars.
I'm excited to start my life.— Omar Khadr after his release
Khadr apologized for his actions as a teenager and offered advice to young people who might consider joining jihad against the West.
"Don't let emotions control you," he said. "I've noticed that a lot of people are manipulated by not being educated.".
"I can just say that I'm sorry for the pain that I might [have] caused the families of the victims," he said. "There is nothing I can do about the past but ... I can do something about the future."
Khadr said he hopes to one day work in the health-care field.
"I've experienced pain, so I think I can empathize with people who are going through that."
He said he plans to pursue an education to that end. "I have a lot of learning to do," he said. "A lot of basic skills I need to learn. I'm excited to start my life. I can't change the past. All I can do is work on the present and the future."
Before the interview, the media got a stern warning to be respectful from defence lawyer Dennis Edney. "I've had a long day," he said. "And I don't mind going back into that house. Omar is going to say a few words. You can also ask him certain questions. But if the questions become too intrusive, then I'll shut it down. This is Omar's first time out in society since the age of 15."
After answering an array of questions about his past and his plans for the future, Khadr ended his interview by once again thanking Edney for working tirelessly on his behalf.
"I really appreciate him working for that last 11 years. I'm surprised he's not sick of me yet."
"Wait till you get your bill," Edney said, and both client and lawyer laughed.
Khadr has spent the last 13 years in prison, most recently serving time at the Bowden Institution, south of Red Deer, Alta.
He was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old after a firefight with U.S. soldiers. He was accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier.
In a plea deal that would include his repatriation to Canada, Khadr pleaded guilty on Oct. 25, 2010, to murder in violation of the laws of war, attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, and two counts of providing material support for terrorism and spying.
He was returned to Canada on Sept. 29, 2012, to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Born in Toronto, Khadr was the youngest prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, and the last Western citizen to be held at the detention camp.
'I'm proud of who he is,' lawyer says
After his client went back inside the house on Thursday, his lawyer lingered behind to speak about his own quest for justice in this case.
"It's the start of that journey that I decided to do a long time ago, when I walked out of Guantanamo for the first time," Edney said. "I would like to restore him back to whole. And be able to allow him to participate in the Canadian community."
Edney said he'll soon argue aspects of the Khadr case before the Supreme Court of Canada, and in June will be back before a U.S. court for the appeal of the original war crimes convictions.
"In many ways the fights continue," he said. "It's cost millions. And we've spent that. Both in terms of cash, and in terms of lost hours. And every lawyer and every judge, they all pat me on the back and say, good stuff."
Asked again about the young man he has worked so hard for, Edney said: "I think he's worth every effort. I met him in a cold, empty cell. And I saw a broken bird, chained to a floor.
"So, we journeyed together. We have, in some ways, both grown up together. I'm proud of who he is. He's gone through hell."