Omar Khadr transfer request now in Toews’ hands
OTTAWA - Weeks after a blame game erupted between Canadian and U.S. officials over heel dragging on the Omar Khadr file, it appears the young Guantanamo Bay detainee is a big step closer to returning to Canada.
About a year after his lawyers first submitted a request for transfer to a Canadian institution, Public Safety officials confirmed Wednesday that it is now firmly in Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ hands.
“The government of Canada has just received a completed application for the transfer of prisoner Omar Ahmed Khadr,” spokeswoman Julie Carmichael confirmed in an email. “A decision will be made on this file in accordance with Canadian Law.”
Khadr has been detained at the U.S. detention centre in Cuba for nearly a decade. In October 2010, he pleaded guilty to war crimes committed when he was 15 in Afghanistan - namely throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in 2002.
He was sentenced to 40 years in jail but under a plea deal, he only had to serve eight. After spending one additional year at Guantanamo, he became eligible to serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada last fall.
While Canada played no role in the plea deal, a diplomatic note sent to U.S. authorities indicated the Harper government was “inclined to favourably consider” a request for transfer.
That said, the government has vowed to treat the case the same as any other and noted in October that the process could take up to 18 months.
Meanwhile last month, a war of words erupted between Toews and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as each blamed the other for bureaucratic delays.
A Canadian source close to the file now says the U.S. is desperate to get him out of its jurisdiction and is “bending over backwards” to make it happen.
“Should Minister Toews accept, they’re going to fly him here on their dime and they will have to bend their way around a number of their own rules,” the source said, hinting it’s in Canada’s best interest to oblige.
“The fact of the matter is that if we don’t look at bringing Khadr back now, in eight years, he would be able to walk onto Canadian streets a free man, able to continue to associate with radicals and terrorists.”
During a press briefing Wednesday in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed his government had “recently approved the transfer.”
While the U.S. is in regular contact with Canadian officials on the matter, he said he could not give a timeline for when exactly Khadr would be transferred.
“We’re working quickly and deliberately to close this process out,” he said. “As you know, we’re working to close Guantanamo Bay, and as part of that process, we’re trying to find homes, if you will, for the remaining prisoners.”
Khadr’s lawyers welcomed the news Wednesday. John Norris called it an “important step” and believes there’s really “no excuse” for any delays at this point.
“We think this means a decision is imminent and we’re glad to see it’s finally being brought to a conclusion,” he said, noting efforts are underway to notify Khadr of the development.
He argued the transfer process has been longer than anybody expected and that it’s taken its toll on his client.
“He’s been very anxious,” he said. “He’s really wanting to get home, but he’s holding up as well as can be expected given the circumstances.”
It’s not clear exactly what will happen to Khadr if his transfer is approved and he’s returned to Canadian soil, but Norris said Canada was clear in its diplomatic note that he’d have access to parole and other forms of early release as per Canadian law and that he would serve federal time.
Some have suggested he could be incarcerated at the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, dubbed Gitmo North, which once housed four foreign nationals suspected of terrorism and subject to security certificates, but Postmedia News reported this week that that facility was shuttered in December.
There also have been reports the federal government could ask Khadr to agree to drop any legal action in exchange for his repatriation.
Noting the file should be quite familiar to Toews, NDP justice critic Jack Harris agreed there’s no reason for any delays and is urging the government to “do the right thing” and quickly approve his transfer.
He also raised concerns about recently adopted changes to the International Transfer of Offenders Act that give the minister more discretion on cases and noted Khadr’s ought to be reviewed under the old criteria.
The government said last fall that would be the case. Norris said that would be his preference but added it shouldn’t have any bearing on the outcome.