Omar Ahmed Khadr, the youngest and last remaining Western prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorism suspects, was sent home to his native Canada on Saturday after a decade at the U.S. military prison in southern Cuba.
Human rights organizations that had fought for his release for years applauded the transfer, and renewed calls on the Obama administration to make good on the president’s pledge to close the interrogation and detention facilities that have provoked international condemnation since they opened in January 2002.
Khadr was one of only four prisoners at Guantanamo serving a sentence for terrorist offenses. He entered a guilty plea at the end of his October 2010 trial on charges of “murder in violation of the law of war,” attempted murder, conspiracy, spying and material support for terrorism.
Under the plea deal, he was to serve one year of his eight-year sentence at Guantanamo, then be repatriated to Canada to serve out the rest “according to Canadian law.”
That proviso could result in his being reclassified as a child soldier rather than a war criminal and treated as a victim of the circumstances that led to his capture and detention at the scene of a firefight with U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan in July 2002.
Whether his status will be revised or the remaining six years on his prison term invoked remained to be determined.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in a statement that Khadr “is a known supporter of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and a convicted terrorist,” suggesting the Canadian government will continue to take a hard line against a son of the late Ahmed Said Khadr, an Al Qaeda financier who was killed by Pakistani security forces in 2003.
Khadr, whose radical Egyptian-born father had taken him to Al Qaeda compounds from early childhood, was 15 when he was pulled, near death, from the rubble of a bombed Taliban hideout near Khost. He was accused of lobbing a grenade that killed Army special forces Sgt. Christopher Speer in a clash that followed the aerial bombing when the U.S. troops stormed the compound.
Khadr, gravely wounded in the bombardment and still partially blind, was interrogated at Bagram air base near Kabul for weeks before being flown to Guantanamo.
“Given the Obama administration’s glacial pace towards closing the U.S.-controlled detention center, little and late though it is, today’s news represents progress,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said of Khadr’s transfer to Canadian military custody in Ontario.
Amnesty and other rights groups accused the Pentagon of mistreating Khadr, who turned 26 on Wednesday, during his decade in custody and denying him a fair trial and recognition as a child soldier who should be rehabilitated, not punished.
“Canada now has the chance to right some of these wrongs. There should be a full and impartial investigation into Khadr’s allegations of torture, and remedy for the human rights violations he suffered,” Nossel said.
John Norris, one of Khadr’s attorneys, told Canadian Press that his client was in good spirits and “very, very happy to be home.”