For so many years, Omar Khadr has remained a phantom. Everyone knows his name, his story, but precious few have actually seen him in the flesh. Although he turned 27 last week, his 12th consecutive birthday behind bars, most Canadians only know him as that fresh-faced teenager staring out from his passport photo.
That is about to change. More than a decade after he was shot and captured by U.S. forces in war-torn Afghanistan—and transferred to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison camp—Omar Khadr is scheduled to make his first public appearance in Canada today: at a courthouse in downtown Edmonton. “He is a bit scared,” says Dennis Edney, Khadr’s longtime lawyer. “But at the same time, he wants to get out of prison, so he’s glad. The one thing he did say to me was he is looking forward to being in a real courtroom as opposed to the ones at Guantanamo.”
By now, Khadr’s journey to this moment needs little introduction. His al-Qaeda family. The firefight. The grenade that killed an American army medic. Just 15 years old when he was taken into U.S. custody in July 2002, Khadr was eventually shipped to Gitmo, where he claims to have endured years of vicious torture. Once, he said, interrogators used him as a “human mop” to clean up his urine.
Ordered to stand trial at a U.S. military commission, Khadr agreed to plead guilty in 2010 to five separate charges, including the battlefield murder of Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. The deal came with an eight-year sentence, and a promise to allow Khadr, after one more year in Cuba, to serve the rest of his term in a Canadian prison. (It actually took two years for the Harper government to approve Khadr’s transfer, and only after a Maclean’s cover story revealed the truth about a crucial jailhouse interview Khadr conducted with an American psychiatrist.)
Since returning home, Khadr has been locked in a maximum security facility, first in Ontario, now in Alberta. That designation is at the heart of today’s habeas corpus hearing. “What I’m arguing, essentially, is that Omar Khadr has been placed in the wrong institution,” Edney says. “There is no documentation whatsoever or any analysis ever done as to where they should place Omar Khadr. They just threw him in maximum security.” Simply put, Edney says Khadr is being illegally detained as an adult for crimes he committed as a youth.
If a judge agrees, Khadr could be transferred to a provincial institution, greatly improving his chances for parole. (As of July, Khadr is eligible to apply for full parole, but he is waiting until after his habeas corpus application to test the waters.) But as even Edney concedes, today’s court hearing is as much about public relations as it is about the law. “Absolutely,” he says. “Absolutely. I want people to see Omar Khadr. We only have a one-sided view of him. No one has seen him, no one has spoken to him, and in the meantime, the government continues to call him all kinds of things. They need to show that he is being justifiably treated as a terrorist, and he is not a terrorist.”
On paper, of course that’s exactly what he is: a convicted terrorist. But Edney, who has known Khadr for years—and has grown to love him like a son—is desperate to prove that his infamous client is a peaceful, harmless Canadian. Edney is so confident Khadr is not a threat that he has agreed to let him live with his family after he is freed from prison, whenever that is. “We will have him go to university, we will try to help him to readjust as a non-notorious individual known to the public, and let him get on with his life,” Edney says. “That is what he wants. He doesn’t want publicity. He just wants to disappear and get on with his life.”
Today’s court hearing, despite its dramatics, is just one more step toward that goal. When it’s over, and the satellite television trucks drive away, Khadr will do what he has done again and again: return to a cell, and wait for news.
“I think we are both desperate,” Edney says. “He is desperate to get out, and I am desperate to get him out, because I can’t continue to spend my life fighting for Omar Khadr. He turned 27 last Saturday. He’s been behind bars since he was 15. I have represented guys who did terrible deeds and they were back on the streets in five, six, or seven years. I don’t know how much more this kid can handle.”