Not about 'profiting:' Khadr opens up on settlement of his fight with Ottawa
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, July 7, 2017 12:21PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, July 8, 2017 2:15PM EDT
TORONTO -- Sitting in the eye of a hurricane of fury rarely seen in Canada, former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr quietly speaks of a day when the dust has finally settled and he becomes, as he puts it, someone on the street you don't look twice at.
For Khadr, settlement of his long-running dispute with Ottawa over breach of his rights is not about denying a bleak past.
"Listen, I want to be in a place where I don't have any more legal cases, I don't have any prison time, I just want to be a normal person who doesn't have to worry about going to court," he told The Canadian Press. "Hopefully, eventually, it will come."
Still, Khadr harbours few illusions about the anger sparked by word that Ottawa paid him millions of dollars to settle his lawsuit, or about how Canadians see him.
"I'm not a hardened terrorist bent on doing anything, but they don't have to believe what I say. Look at my actions," Khadr said Thursday, a day before the government announced settlement of his $20-million lawsuit and publicly apologized to him.
"It's been a struggle to find jobs. The good thing about this apology for me is that it's going to restore a little bit of my reputation here in Canada."
Speaking on Parliament Hill, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale minced no words about Canada's role in Khadr's mistreatment following his capture as a badly wounded 15-year-old in Afghanistan in July 2002.
"The settlement that was announced today has to do with the wrongdoing of Canadian officials with respect to a Canadian citizen," Goodale said. "You simply need to read two very comprehensive judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada."
Khadr wants 'to relieve people from pain' as nurse
Those judgments relate to Canadian intelligence officers travelling to Guantanamo Bay to interrogate Khadr, whom the Americans had subjected to weeks of sleep deprivation to soften him up, then sharing the information with U.S. agents and prosecutors who would later charge him with war crimes. Video released by court order showed a desolate teen weeping for his mother after realizing the Canadians were not there to help him.
Khadr, 30, was adamant he's not trying to deny or excuse his past but stressed his most fervent wish was to be a solid productive citizen out of the public eye. The settlement, he said, is part of that journey.
"I just want to be the next person on the road that you don't look twice at," he said. "I want to work as a nurse somewhere...to relieve people from pain. I have a lot of experience with pain."
While neither Goodale nor Khadr would talk about details of the settlement, sources confirmed the government has already paid him $10.5 million to end the protracted proceedings -- stoking anger among those who believe the money should have gone to relatives of Sgt. Chris Speer, the American special forces soldier Khadr was accused of killing in Afghanistan.
The settlement is no undeserved windfall -- despite what many Canadians are saying, Khadr said.
"I don't look at this as profiting. This is not a time for profit or for gaining or for thinking, 'I hit the jackpot'," Khadr said softly, his brow furrowed. "I'm sorry if this is causing people pain. I'm trying to turn a page. Not to forget that page, but just trying to turn a page and move along."
Word of the money transfer came on the eve of a hearing Friday in Ontario Superior Court aimed at enforcing a US$134.1-million default Utah judgment against Khadr from two years ago.
The suit was filed on behalf of Speer's widow, Tabitha, and another American ex-soldier, Layne Morris. Khadr is alleged to have thrown a grenade that killed Speer after a fierce firefight and bombardment by U.S. troops at a compound in Afghanistan in July 2002. Morris was blinded in one eye in the same battle.
Canada 'repeatedly failed Omar Khadr'
Asked whether money should be going to Speer's family, Goodale expressed sorrow for their loss but said the government had nothing to do with that legal fight.
Canadians have in the past opened their wallets for Tabitha Speer and her two children. For example, the South Alberta Light Horse Regiment Foundation, whose members served in Afghanistan, sent her US$50,000 in October 2012 -- a month after Khadr's return to Canada from Guantanamo, where had he spent 10 years.
Khadr did not defend against the Utah suit -- he was in prison in Canada at the time. Justice Thomas McEwan adjourned Friday's hearing until July 13 to allow service of materials on Khadr's lawyer, Nate Whitling, who drafted Khadr's initial claim against Ottawa in 2004.
The American civil judgment was based almost entirely on the fact that Khadr pleaded guilty to five war crimes -- including killing Speer -- before a widely condemned military commission in October 2010.
Khadr has long claimed to have been tortured after American forces captured him in the rubble of the compound. He said he confessed only to be allowed to leave Guantanamo and return to Canada, because even an acquittal would not have guaranteed him his freedom.
"The Canadian government has repeatedly failed Omar Khadr," one of Khadr's lawyers, Dennis Edney, said Friday. "Omar Khadr was abandoned in a hellish place called Guantanamo Bay, for 10 years, a place internationally condemned as a torture chamber."
Supporters have also long pointed to the fact that he was just 15 years old when he committed the acts to which he confessed -- and therefore he should have been treated as a child soldier in need of protection, not prosecution.
Khadr is on bail living in Edmonton while he appeals his underlying conviction in the United States on the basis that he was convicted for acts that were not crimes at the time he committed them. An end to that case still appears to be years away.
Read the edited interview transcript below:
Q: What do you say to those Canadians who view you as an unrepentant terrorist who deserves no mercy, let alone an apology and compensation?
A: I'm not a hardened terrorist bent on doing anything. But they don't have to believe what I say. Look at my actions. My past: I'm not excusing it, I'm not denying it. We all do things that we wish we could change. All I can do right now is focus on the present and do my best to become a productive member of society, a good person, a good human being. Look at my actions and judge me on that.
Q: How do you react to those who say you're now profiting from a criminal past?
A: I can't discuss any details of the settlement but I don't look at this as profiting. This is not a time for profit or for gaining or for thinking, 'I hit the jackpot.' This is a time for remembering. It's a time of reconciliation. This is a time for healing and it's not about forgetting. I'm sorry if this is causing people pain. I'm trying to turn a page. Not to forget that page, but just trying to turn a page and move along.
Q: Do you think you deserve an apology from the Canadian government on behalf of Canadians?
A:I don't look at it in a way that I deserve it. It's not a matter of deserving. It's a matter of trying to find the best way where we can reconciliate what happened and move forward in a way that is going to be healthy for everybody.
Q: What does the government's apology mean to you?
A: The good thing about this apology for me is that it's going to restore a little bit of my reputation here in Canada. It's been a struggle to find jobs. People see you with that past reputation. An apology helps people say, 'We acknowledge the past.' Maybe that will give people an opportunity to give me a chance and think there might be more than what is said in the media.
Q: You're close to your family, some of whom have angered Canadians by expressing in years past pro-al-Qaida sentiments. How do you reconcile that?
A: It would have been easy for me to be very upset and frustrated with my family with what they said. But my frustration and anger is not going to change what they said. I'm not excusing what they said. I'm not justifying what they said. All I'm trying to do right now is explain that they were going through a hard time. This is not an excuse but it's an explanation. They said things out of anger or frustration.
Q: Some might say you're trying to sweep the past under the carpet?
A: How are we going to see what's ahead of us and move forward, if all we can see is the past? Not forget. This is how I survived: I tried to focus on the things I can change. All I can do right now is try to become the best person I can.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I want to finish my nursing program. I want to work as a nurse somewhere it's needed. I want to be able to use my languages and my ability as a nurse to relieve people from pain. I have a lot of experience with pain and I have an appreciation of pain. With my past, I don't know who's going to be comfortable with hiring me.
Q: Would you like now just to fade into the background?
A: Definitely. I just want to be the next person on the road that you don't look twice at. Listen, I want to be in a place where I don't have any more legal cases, I don't have any prison time. I just want to be a normal person who doesn't have to worry about going to court. Hopefully, eventually, it will come.
NOTE: The interview is edited and condensed.