TORONTO — The last Western detainee held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay returned to Canada Saturday after a decade in custody following his capture in Afghanistan at age 15 after being wounded in a firefight with U.S. soldiers, officials said.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said that 26-year-old Omar Khadr arrived at a Canadian military base on a U.S. government plane early Saturday and was transferred to the Millhaven maximum security prison in Bath, Ontario.
The son of an alleged al-Qaida financier, Khadr pleaded guilty in 2010 to killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and was eligible to return to Canada from Guantanamo Bay last October under terms of a plea deal.
But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government had long refused to request the return of Khadr, the youngest detainee held at Guantanamo. The reluctance was partly due to suspicions about the Khadr family, which has been called "the first family of terrorism."
The U.S. Defense Department confirmed the transfer in a statement and said 166 detainees remain in detention at Guantanamo Bay.
The Toronto-born Khadr was 15 when he was captured in 2002 in Afghanistan, and has spent a decade at the Guantanamo prison set up on the U.S. naval base in Cuba to hold suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He received an eight-year sentence in 2010 after being convicted of throwing a grenade that killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer during a 2002 firefight.
"His head is spinning a bit and it's going to be a real adjustment for him, but at the same time he is so happy to be home," John Norris, Khadr's Canadian lawyer, said after speaking with his client.
"He can't believe that it is finally true. He simply can't. For very good reason he was quite fearful that the government would not follow through on its word and he's pinching himself right now not believing that this government has finally kept its word," he said.
Norris said Khadr would be eligible for parole as early as the summer of 2013. He said Khadr's return to Canada comes 10 years too late.
Toews said the U.S. government initiated Khadr's transfer and suggested that Canada had little choice but to accept him because he is a Canadian citizen. It will be up to Canada's national parole board to release him, Toews said.
"Omar Khadr is a known supporter of the al-Qaida terrorist network and a convicted terrorist," Toews said.
Toews called for "robust conditions of supervision" if Khadr is granted parole. Toews said in his written decision that he reviewed all the files forwarded by the U.S. government and said the parole board should consider his concerns that Omar "idealizes" his father and "appears to deny "Ahmed Khadr's lengthy history of terrorist action and association with al-Qaida."
Toews also said that Omar Khadr's mother and sister "have openly applauded" his father's "crimes and terrorist activities" and noted that Omar has had "little contact with Canadian society and will require substantial management in order to ensure safe integration in Canada."
"I am satisfied the Correctional Service of Canada can administer Omar Khadr's sentence in a manner which recognizes the serious nature of the crimes that he has committed and ensure the safety of Canadians is protected during incarceration," Toews said.
Norris said it is regrettable that the minister is trying to influence the parole board.
"Most of what he has said there is simply not true. It's part of the stereotype of Omar that this government has been disseminating from the beginning," Norris said.
He added that once the Correctional Service "will get to know Omar" they will "recommend appropriate conditions."
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