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Khadr Release Puts New Spotlight on Gitmo

  • Cindy Saine

Omar Khadr (with beard) before a U.S. military commission, Oct. 25, 2010.

Omar Khadr (with beard) before a U.S. military commission, Oct. 25, 2010.

Canada's release of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr has brought the controversial detention center at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba back into the spotlight.

Khadr is the youngest person ever to be held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. He was freed Thursday for the first time since 2002, when he was 15 years old and threw a grenade at U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, killing U.S. Sergeant Christopher Speer.

A Canadian judge freed Khadr, saying that his case is “to say the least, unusual.” The Canadian government had filed an emergency motion to keep the now 28-year-old behind bars in Canada, but it was rejected. He was released with a number of restrictions. Khadr is required to live with his lawyer, must wear a tracking bracelet and will have restricted Internet access.

One of Khadr’s first comments to reporters was “Freedom is way better than I thought.”

Khadr says he was the subject of torture and harsh interrogations during his 10 years at Guantanamo. In 2010, he agreed to a plea deal for five war crimes, including the killing of Sergeant Speer. He was sent to Canada in 2012 as part of the deal.

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke pointed out that the Canadian government had sought to keep Khadr in prison, and said the U.S. cooperates closely with Canada to fight terrorism.

“We would also point out that the arrangement governing Mr. Khadr’s transfer to Canada was clear. After transfer to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence, Mr. Khadr is subject to Canadian law pertaining to detention,” he said.

Possible risk?

Defense attorneys said Khadr was pushed into war by his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, an alleged senior al-Qaida financier whose family stayed with Osama bin Laden for awhile when Omar was a boy. Omar Khadr’s father was killed in 2003 in a Pakistani military operation.

At a driveway news conference at his lawyer’s house, Khadr said he rejects terrorism and plans to attend university and start a new life in Canada.

Some experts say a high percentage of former prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes return to terrorist activity in some form.

“I think that a lot of people, they want to be merciful. They want to believe in this idea that terrorists can be rehabilitated," said Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University political scientist. "But I just don’t see a whole lot of empirical support for that, especially for Islamist terrorists.”

John Bellinger, an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the prospect of risk depends on the individual.

“Well some do and some don’t," he said. "A number have been approved for release ... for some time, [and] those presumably pose a lower threat.”

Guantanamo closure

There are about 75 detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay. Of those, 57 have already been cleared for transfer. Congress has made it more difficult for President Obama to empty the facility by barring him from bringing any of the detainees back to the United States, and by putting restrictions on transferring them to foreign countries.

A large number of Republican lawmakers argue that closing Guantanamo would pose a threat to U.S. national security. This week, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte pledged to push ahead with legislation that would further restrict the president’s ability to transfer detainees.

But the White House says the president is determined to keep one of the first promises he made in office to close the facility.

Earlier this week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “The president has indicated a willingness to use as much of his executive authority as he can to try to take the steps that he believes are consistent with the national-security interests of the United States, and that’s closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.”

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