By Natalie Alcoba and Alex MacPherson
Omar Khadr emerged from his new home in Edmonton, Alberta with a cautious smile on Thursday, and asked Canadians to give him a chance.
Hours removed from hearing a judge tell him he is “free to go” for the first time in 13 years, the infamous former prisoner of Guantanamo Bay appeared poised before a crush of reporters as he uttered some of his first public words.
He thanked the court for releasing him, his lawyers for sticking by him, and the Canadian public for “trusting me.” And he vowed to prove that he is a good person, and not the threat others have portrayed him as.“Just to give me a chance,” the 28-year-old Canadian said, after lunch with his lawyer and a walk along Edmonton’s serene River Valley. “See who I am as a person and not as a name and then they can make their own judgment after that.” To Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has fought his release every step of the way, he said: “Well, I’m going to have to disappoint him. I’m better than the person he thinks I am.”
Khadr had been in custody since 2002, when he was captured by American forces in Afghanistan at the age of 15. He confessed in 2010 to throwing a grenade at an army medic in combat — killing him — but has since recanted, and says the confession was obtained through torture. He applied to be released pending his appeal of that conviction in an American military tribunal. A lower Alberta court granted him bail last month, and subsequently set strict conditions on his freedom, but the Canadian government quickly sought to halt his release at the Court of Appeal.
On Thursday, Justice Myra Bielby rejected the Canadian government’s argument that his release would cause Canada irreparable harm and that it would harm relations with the US.
Khadr’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, stood up and shook his client’s hand in celebration, whispering something that could not be heard over the applause.
“I said, ‘we did it,'” Edney said at a press conference that followed. “And I held onto his fingers. I was sending a message, that we did it.”
Edney also took aim at Prime Minister Harper and his motivations. “My view is very clear: Mr. Harper is a bigot. Mr. Harper does not like Muslims. I once said, publicly, to Mr. Harper, ‘when you put your children to bed do you ask yourself, would you like your child to be treated like Omar Khadr?'” he said. “[Harper] wants to show he’s tough on crime and who does he pick on? A fifteen-year-old boy who was picked up and put in a hell hole in Guantanamo.”
Jeremy Laurin, a spokesperson for Canada’s ministry of public safety, told VICE News in an email that they were “disappointed with today’s decision, and regret that a convicted terrorist has been allowed back into Canadian society without having served his full sentence.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Sergeant Christopher Speer during this difficult time,” he said of the dead US soldier.
Steven Blaney, the minister of public safety, later defended the prime minister’s record supporting the rights of victims and reiterated that the Canadian government believes those convicted of a “horrible crime” should serve their sentence behind bars.
Although released on bail, Khadr is not a fully free man. Bail conditions set Tuesday detailed a number of restrictions he must adhere to during the appeal process.
Khadr must live with Edney and continue his court appointed counseling. He must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and abide by a curfew of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Communication with relatives, nicknamed the first family of terrorism in Canada, will only be done by telephone or video conference. Khadr and his family must speak English and be supervised during these sessions.
He cannot apply for a passport or travel freely. He cannot spend more than $1000 without approval from his supervisor. All of Khadr’s electronic devices will be remotely monitored and his internet access will be limited.
Khadr’s bail was set at $5000. He was released directly from the courtroom and transported to an undisclosed location by Edmonton Police Services without speaking to media.
Related: ‘Send Us Back': Former Guantanamo Detainees Are Camping Out at the US Embassy in Uruguay
Debate has raged north and south of the Canada-US border on whether or not Khadr was a child soldier or a terrorist when he fought with al Qaeda and Taliban militants in 2002.
Khadr’s father Ahmed Said Khadr had well known ties to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. On the instruction of his father, in 1996 Omar Khadr began attending Taliban-affiliated training camps. In 2002, 15-year-old Khadr was arrested by American soldiers after a grenade lobbed during a firefight with US soldiers in Afghanistan killed Speer, a Special Forces medic.
After accepting a deal that garnered him eight years in prison, in addition to the eight he spent held at Guantanamo, Khadr said in an affidavit in 2013 that he was “left with a hopeless choice,” and would have endured “continued abuse and torture” if he didn’t take the plea.
“My view is very clear: [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper is a bigot. Mr. Harper does not like Muslims.”
The Speer family has released a statement indicating they will not be commenting on the court decision.
“Chris was a loving husband, father and servant to his country. He is remembered fondly is still a very prominent part of our lives,” his widow Tabitha Speer said.
In a statement, Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, called the court’s conditional release “a start” and called on the Canadian government to “make up for its own failings” in Khadr’s case by helping to rehabilitate him.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Khadr talked about how freedom is “way better” than he thought, how Canadians have been “way better” than he anticipated (the sheriffs at the courthouse bought him a drink as he waited to sign papers) and that he wants to do “everything and nothing in particular” the most.
Asked if he categorically denounces violent jihad, Khadr said he did. “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,” he said.
Minutes later, he retreated inside his lawyer’s double garage house for a home cooked meal of lamb and cupcakes delivered by neighbors. – Vice News
Follow Alex MacPherson on Twitter: @macphersonnews
By Natalie Alcoba and Alex MacPherson