TORONTO – A former Guantanamo Bay inmate, free for the first time since he was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15, asked Canadians for a second chance after spending 13 years in prison including a decade at Guantanamo.
A relaxed and smiling Omar Khadr said freedom is way better than he thought and said he wanted a fresh start. Khadr was released on bail Thursday after a judge refused a last-ditch attempt by the Canadian government to keep him imprisoned.
Toronto-born Khadr spent 10 years in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since 2012 he's been held in Canada, serving out an eight-year sentence handed down by a U.S. military commission in 2010. He was convicted of war crimes, including throwing a grenade when he was 15 years old that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer in Afghanistan during a 2002 firefight.
Khadr was once the youngest detainee at Guantanamo, arriving there at age 15. He is now 28.
"Give me a chance to see who I am as a person, not as a name," Khadr said outside his lawyer's home in Edmonton, Alberta. "I'll prove to them that I'm a good person."
Khadr, articulate and showing no bitterness, said he believes in education and he's excited to start his life.
Asked what he had to say to Americans, Khadr said: "I'm sorry for the pain I've caused for the families of the victims. There's nothing I can do about the past but I can do something about the future."
Khadr said he will disappoint Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has long refused to do anything for Khadr while he was at Guantanamo and has tried to keep him in prison in Canada. "I'm better than the person he thinks I am," Khadr said.
Khadr was the last Western detainee at Guantanamo. Asked if he categorically rejects violent jihad, Khadr said "Yes, yes I do."
"It's not something I believe in right now. I want to start fresh. There are too many good things in life that I want to experience."
Khadr said he noticed a lot of people are able to be manipulated if they are not educated. He said he wants to finish his education and work in health care. "I have a lot of basic skills I need to learn," he said.
Defense attorneys said Khadr was a child soldier who was pushed into war by his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, an alleged senior al-Qaida financier whose family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy. His Egyptian-born father was killed in 2003 in a Pakistani military operation. Khadr also pleaded guilty in 2010 to building and planting roadside bombs and receiving weapons training from al-Qaida in a widely criticized trial that made the United States the first Western nation since World War II to prosecute a child offender for alleged war crimes.
Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby rejected the Canadian government's emergency request to stop Khadr release's while he appeals his U.S. war crimes conviction. A lower court judge granted him bail last month. "Mr. Khadr you're free to go," Bielby said before cheers erupted in the courtroom. Khadr smiled.
Khadr's long-time lawyer Dennis Edney and wife have offered to take him into their home. Among the bail conditions imposed were that Khadr wear a tracking bracelet, live with the Edneys, observe a curfew between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and have only supervised access to the Internet. Also, he can communicate with his family in Ontario only while under supervision and only in English.
"He's met very few people outside a jail cell," said Nate Whitling, one of Khadr's lawyers.
"It's going to be a major adjustment for him, but I'm sure he's up for it."
Whitling said Khadr has served his time and he believes this will be the end of his incarceration. Whitling later tweeted a picture of Khadr leaving the courthouse with Edney. "This is Omar's first time out in society since the age of 15," Edney said.
Harper's Conservative government's long refusal to support Omar Khadr reflects ambivalence in Canada over the Khadr family.
"We are disappointed with today's decision, and regret that a convicted terrorist has been allowed back into Canadian society without having served his full sentence," said Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for Canada's public safety minister.
U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke noted the Canadian government has decided to appeal the bail decision and said "we support them."
Rathke said the U.S. didn't request that Canada appeal.