Controversial Teenage Guantanamo Detainee Transferred to Canada

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On Saturday, Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr was transferred back to his home country Canada to serve out the remainder of an eight-year prison sentence he received after pleading guilty to killing a U.S. soldier in a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan.

Only 15 when he was arrested, Khadr has been a lightning rod in the debate over post-9/11 detention policies. His treatment in detention and his family’s connections to Al Qaeda have only added to the controversy surrounding his case.

FRONTLINE turned to Michelle Shephard, the national security correspondent for The Toronto Star and author of Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr (2008) to understand who the 26-year-old is today and what his repatriation signifies.

Why has Omar Khadr’s case been so controversial?

Omar Khadr was a unique Guantanamo Bay detainee for a number of reasons. He was one of the youngest captives, just 15 when he was shot and captured in a battlefield of Afghanistan. During that July 2002 firefight, U.S. Delta Force Sgt. Christopher Speer was fatally wounded, and Khadr was later charged with “murder in the violation of war” for Speer’s death. Following three months of interrogations at the U.S. base in Bagram, Khadr was transferred to Guantanamo in October 2002, after his 16th birthday.

Khadr is the only “enemy combatant” whom the Pentagon charged with murder. In October 2010, he pleaded guilty before a military tribunal in return for an eight-year sentence and a diplomatic promise that after one more year in Guantanamo, he could serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada.

The U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and Canadian Senator Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire (Ret.) were among those who condemned the U.S. and Canada for their treatment of a juvenile and said Khadr’s case sets a dangerous precedent for the treatment of child soldiers worldwide.

In April, the U.S. signed off on Khadr’s transfer, and Canada was criticized for delaying his move, jeopardizing relations with the Pentagon, which was eager to have Khadr sent home.

Khadr arrived back in Canada and was transferred to a maximum-security penitentiary for assessment on Sept. 29 — the last Western detainee to leave Guantanamo and the youngest.

Omar has been in Guantanamo from the age of 16 to 26. What do we know about his time there? What’s he like today?

Although there are many assessments and opinions – often conflicting – it is difficult to know his state of mind today.

He was subjected to harsh interrogations both in Bagram and during his early years in Guantanamo. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that his rights had been violated in Guantanamo, where he was subjected to the sleep deprivation regime known as the “frequent flyer program.”

However, many of the lawyers, psychiatrists, guards and others whom I’ve interviewed over the last decade say Khadr is remarkably well-adjusted and eager to move on.

Retired Brig. Gen. and forensic psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, who has spent more than 200 hours with Khadr, says he does not believe he poses any risk and is impressed by his intelligence and serenity. But a separate assessment by Dr. Michael Welner, who spent eight hours interviewing him and testified at his sentencing hearing, said Khadr is likely to pose a risk and does not renounce his actions.

Although I have spent a decade tracking his story and literally watching him change from a teenager to burly 26-year-old in his Guantanamo court appearances, I have not been able to speak to Khadr. One of the Pentagon’s “ground rules” journalists are forced to sign before being given access to the base stipulates that we may not communicate with detainees.  It’s not clear now that he’s back if he’ll be given access to journalists — or want to tell his story.

Now that he’s been repatriated to Canada, what’s next for Khadr?

He is being assessed in a maximum-security facility, in Bath, Ontario, where corrections officials are determining where best to send him. Part of the consideration will be finding the best facility where he can undergo rehabilitation before being released.

I imagine there are also serious security concerns since he is such a notorious inmate. A few months ago, I spoke with a Canadian official who said Corrections Canada had been considering a maximum-security facility in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec, near Montreal. The prison’s Special Handling Unit, nicknamed “the SHU,” houses the majority of Canada’s prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses.

Under Canada’s system he will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, which would be next spring. It’s not certain however if he will apply or be granted parole. There may be other legal challenges launched.

Khadr comes from a controversial family, one that’s generated a great deal of attention over the years and has been called “the first family of terrorism.” In the FRONTLINE film Son of Al Qaeda, his mother Maha Elsamnah and his sister Zaynab expressed sympathy for Al Qaeda’s cause. Where are they today?

The Khadr family is largely despised in Canada – once dubbed “Canadians of convenience” – but despite investigations by the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] they have never been charged of any crimes. Khadr’s mother and sister have kept a low profile in recent years and are living in Scarborough, just east of Toronto.

[Editor's Note: "If he’s treated as a criminal, a convicted war criminal, I’m not happy," Khadr's mother Maha Elsamnah told The Toronto Star on Monday. "I want him to come back as a person who has been abused and misunderstood. I want Canada to give him his right."]

Khadr’s family has always overshadowed his case, as rarely is his story debated without mention of his sister and mother, whose comments infuriated Canadians. Khadr’s father, [Ahmed Said], has also loomed large. In 1995, when the family lived mainly Pakistan and Afghanistan, Khadr’s father was held by Pakistani forces in connection with the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, which killed 16. He went on a hunger strike and professed his innocence. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was on a trade mission to Pakistan at the time, in January 1996, where he raised the case with then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Months later the charges were dropped.

Fast forward to post-9/11, when Ahmed Said Khadr’s connections to Al Qaeda’s elite were revealed and the federal government was criticized for its prior advocacy. Ottawa’s reluctance to get involved in advocating for Canadians abroad later became known as the “Khadr effect,” which has impacted the government’s handling of various cases involving Canadians held abroad, including the cases of Maher Arar and Omar Khadr.

[Editor's Note: Ahmed Said Khadr was killed in October 2003, after the Pakistani military received a tip that senior Al Qaeda figures were holed up in a house in Waziristan. His body was later identified through DNA testing.]

The oldest son, Abdullah Khadr, successfully fought an extradition request by the U.S. to face terrorism charges [on accusations of supplying weapons to Al Qaeda]. Extradition orders to the U.S. are rarely denied, but a Canadian Superior Court justice ruled that Khadr had faced “illegal and arbitrary” detention in Pakistan. The case revealed that the U.S. had paid Pakistan $500,000 to detain Abdullah Khadr, who is still in Canada today. All of the Khadrs have been denied passport replacements to leave the country.

His brother Abdurahman took a very different path than Omar, and has claimed he was an informant for the CIA. Where is he today?

Abdurahman, who called himself the “black sheep” of the family has also been very low profile. He is back in Scarborough, working and trying to stay out of the media’s spotlight.

In this file handout image taken from a 2003 U.S. Department of Defense surveillance video and provided Tuesday, July 15, 2008 by Omar Khadr's defense lawyers, Khadr is shown in an interrogation room at the Guatanamo U.S. Naval Base prison while being questioned by members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. (AP Photo/U.S. Department of Defense via The Canadian Press, File)
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