national security reporter for the Toronto Star and author of Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.
Omar Khadr, once the youngest prisoner held on terror charges at Guantánamo Bay, has been released on bail from a Canadian prison. The Toronto-born Khadr was detained in 2002 by U.S. forces in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay at the age of 16. Khadr became the first person since World War II to be prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal for acts committed as a juvenile. After eight years at Guantánamo, he confessed in 2010 to throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. His lawyers say his statements were illegally obtained through torture and cruelty. As part of a plea deal, the United States later allowed his transfer back to Canada. Khadr will remain free while he appeals his war crimes convictions in the United States. We are joined by Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star and author of "Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Canada, where Omar Khadr, who was once the youngest prisoner held on terror charges at Guantánamo Bay, was released on bail from an Alberta prison Thursday. The Canadian-born Khadr was detained in 2002 by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. At the time, he was just 15 years old. Weeks after turning 16, he was transferred to Guantánamo. Omar Khadr became the first person since World War II to be prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal for acts committed as a juvenile. The United Nations special representative on children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, warned at the time that the military tribunal will set a dangerous precedent for child soldiers worldwide. She said juvenile justice standards are clear: Children should not be tried before military tribunals. After being held at Guantánamo for eight years, Khadr confessed in 2010 to throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. As part of a plea deal, the United States allowed him to be transferred back to Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: Omar Khadr is now appealing his convictions in the United States for war crimes. His lawyers have said his statements were illegally obtained through torture and cruelty. On Thursday, Khadr briefly spoke with the media after he was released on bail.
OMAR KHADR: I would like to thank the court for trusting me and releasing me. I would like to thank my—Dennis and Nate, my lawyers, and their families for all the work. They’ve been working for such a long time. And I would like to thank the Canadian public for trusting me and giving me a chance. It might be some times, but I will prove to them that I am more than what they thought of me. And I’ll prove to them that I’m a good person. Thank you very much.
REPORTER 1: Omar, what do you want Canadians to know most about you? What’s most important for them to know?
OMAR KHADR: Just to give me a chance, see who I am as a person, not as a name, and then they can make their own judgment after that.
REPORTER 2: Who are you as a person?
OMAR KHADR: Well, I’m still learning about myself. I’m still growing. I believe in learning. I didn’t have a lot of experience in life, and I’m excited to start my life.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Omar Khadr speaking in Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada on Thursday. Right now we’re going to go to Edmonton, where we’re joined by Michelle Shephard, who has been closely covering Omar Khadr’s story since 2002. She’s the national security reporter for the Toronto Star and author of Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.
So, Michelle, if you could tell us his story, how he ended up as the youngest person, child, at Guantánamo, and now freed after spending more than half his life in prison?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, it has, as you said, been a long story. It’s been going on since 2002, and it’s been this incredible legal odyssey, really, in Canada, and before that in Guantánamo and the U.S. Omar Khadr is the second-youngest child of an Egyptian-Canadian charity worker who had ties to some of al-Qaeda’s elite, and he brought his family back and forth between Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan. When 9/11 happened, the family was in Afghanistan. They fled. And about a year later, in July 2002, Omar Khadr’s father had lent Omar out to some Libyan fighters as a translator, and the compound that they were in came under attack by U.S. special forces. Near the end of the attack, a grenade was thrown that fatally wounded a U.S. Delta Force fighter. Omar Khadr was shot and captured, and then has spent, as you said, more than half of his life in detention now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the confession that he supposedly gave at a certain point during captivity, could you talk about that and the circumstances around that?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Yeah, he had been interrogated many, many times. Some of the harshest interrogation he had was for the first 90 days when he was held at Bagram, before he was transferred to Guantánamo. At the time, he was severely wounded. We heard in—during his hearing in Guantánamo, that he had been shackled and handcuffed to a stretcher during the interrogations, because he couldn’t sit up. When he was transferred then to Guantánamo, he was given some of the techniques that they used there, including what they call the frequent flyer program, which was the sleep deprivation program, before he was interrogated. He also had an instance where, during an interrogation, he urinated on himself, and he was used as a—a human mop was the way they described it. So he definitely underwent quite a lot during the interrogations and later said, you know, "I have no idea what I said at that time."
Fast-forward to 2010, when he’s before the military commission, and at that time the Pentagon was offering him a plea deal. The U.S. really wanted to get rid of his case for a number of reasons. And so, as we were sort of on the eve of this trial beginning, they offered him a plea deal for a eight-year sentence, a chance to return to Canada, if he confessed to throwing the grenade that fatally wounded U.S. Delta Force soldier Christopher Speer. He did that. He spent another two years in Guantánamo, came back to Canada. And when he came back to Canada, he said, "I just—my lawyers told me to say that. I would have said anything to get out of Guantánamo." He is not sure whether he threw the grenade. I think for many years he believed he did. More recently, he said he’s seen evidence that shows he possibly couldn’t, because he was buried under rubble at that time. But as he said yesterday, when he made his first public statements, whether he did or didn’t, he’s sorry for any pain and wants to put that behind him.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Michelle Shephard, what is the U.S. response to Canada releasing him on bail from jail? He’s living with his lawyer?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: That’s right. It’s kind of a remarkable situation where he’s living now. His longtime Canadian lawyer has really taken him into his home, offered to supervise him. So it was a very—the judge was confident that it was a good bail package for him to be released on. But he—we’re not certain now how long he’ll—right now he is free on bail, and he should not be going back into prison. But Canada, as you may have seen yesterday, reacted harshly to his release and said they’re going to do everything that they can to keep him in prison. And, in fact, that was the latest legal action that they took, that they tried to argue that his release would jeopardize relations with the U.S. But the U.S. has actually said that his release doesn’t have impact on relations, and that’s what the judge said yesterday. She agreed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to go back to Omar Khadr speaking on Thursday after he was released on bail.
REPORTER 3: Omar, what about the modern world shocked you most since you’ve been out?
OMAR KHADR: Nothing so far. What I’m really surprised is, it’s like—freedom is way better than I thought. And the Canadian public, so far, has been way better than I anticipated.
REPORTER 4: What do you want to do with your life?
OMAR KHADR: Finish my education. I have a lot of learning to do, a lot of basic skills I need to learn. So just take it one day at a time, take it slowly.
REPORTER 5: Do you have anything to say to Mr. Harper, Prime Minister Harper?
OMAR KHADR: Well, I’m going to have to disappoint him. I’m better than the person he thinks I am.
REPORTER 5: What do you make of how polarizing a figure you have become in Canada?
OMAR KHADR: Well, I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is work on myself. That’s all I can do.
REPORTER 6: Can you categorically say that you denounce violent jihad, Omar?
OMAR KHADR: Yes. Yes, I do.
REPORTER 6: It’s not something...
OMAR KHADR: No, it’s not something I believe in right now. I want to start a fresh start. There’s too many good things in life that I want to experience.
REPORTER 5: Do you have any career aspirations? Looking down the road, is there anything that you really...?
OMAR KHADR: Something in the healthcare. I believe that you have to be able to empathize with people in pain, and I know I have—I’ve experienced pain, so I think I can empathize with people who are going through that. And I think—I hope I can do something in the healthcare.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Omar Khadr speaking yesterday. I wanted to ask you, Michelle Shephard—there has been several references in these interviews to the public opinion and public reaction to his case. What has been the public reaction in Canada to his case?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: You know, I have never covered a more controversial case. For years, Canadians seemed to be divided. Many saw him as a child soldier and a victim of post-9/11 policies. Others saw him as a symbol of terrorism. For many years, that was the portrayal that the government had put forward. So it’s really divided. I would say, probably in the last—even the last few months, I think many of those who had been critical of Omar Khadr have reached a point that they have said, "Enough time has passed. Let’s," as he had asked for, "give him a chance." That, to me, is my sense of public sentiment shifting slightly. However, that’s not the sentiment of our government. They have remained very black and white on this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Omar Khadr was also asked about his father during Thursday’s news conference.
REPORTER 3: Omar, so many came to know about your father. What do you think of your father now, after all these years and what happened to you?
OMAR KHADR: Well, there’s a lot of questions that I would like to ask my father. I can’t change the past. All I can do is just work on the present and the future.
REPORTER 3: What do you want to ask him? What would you ask him?
OMAR KHADR: Everything, a lot of decisions that he made, the reason he took us back there, just a whole bunch of questions about his reasoning behind, you know, his life decisions. Yeah.
REPORTER 3: And these are not life decisions that you want to make going forward?
OMAR KHADR: No.
REPORTER 7: What would you say to someone kind of contemplating extremism and maybe looking to you? What would you say to them, a young person?
OMAR KHADR: What I would tell anybody is to educate yourself, emotional control. Education is a very important thing. I have noticed that a lot of people are manipulated by not being educated. So education is a very important thing.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Omar Khadr yesterday in Edmonton, Alberta, after he was released from jail on bail. Finally, Michelle Shephard, we just have 30 seconds, but his father died in Pakistan in 2003. Is that right? And a final question: He was charged with a war crime; is it a war crime to kill a soldier on the battlefield?
MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, that’s the case that is now before an appeals court in the U.S. They’re arguing that it’s never been a war crime before 9/11. In fact, when Omar Khadr’s alleged actions happened, it was not a war crime; it was brought in later. So that will be the challenge then. It never has been before, and Omar Khadr is the only detainee who has ever been charged by that—by the Pentagon with those offenses.
AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Shephard, we want to thank you very much for being with us, national security reporter for the Toronto Star, author of Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr. She has been following his case since his arrest in 2002. We’ll also link to your piece, "Omar Khadr Walks Free on Bail After 13 Years in Custody."
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, how much has been spent on charter schools, and what has this country gotten for that money? Stay with us.