With convicted terrorist Omar Khadr back on Canadian soil, it is time to focus on his rehabilitation and moving forward, says legal expert Nicholas Bala.
Bala, a professor in the faculty of law at Queen’s University, has followed the Khadr case closely. With expertise in child law, juvenile justice and young offenders, the case is one Bala has weighed in on multiple times during the decade-long saga that saw Canadian-born Khadr detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for war crimes.
Khadr landed back on Canadian soil Saturday morning at CFB Trenton, Ont., and transferred to the maximum-security Millhaven Institution after 10 years at the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay.
In 2010, Khadr struck a plea deal in return for an eight-year sentence for five war crimes, including killing U.S. Special Forces medic Christopher Speer 10 years ago in an Afghan firefight.
Bala offered insight as to why Khadr’s repatriation has been met with mixed emotions from Canadians.
“I think from a sort of symbolic, political perspective, his case can be viewed in two different ways,” Bala said.
“One is that here we have someone who was a dedicated terrorist ... it certainly appears he was involved in battle with American soldiers in Afghanistan.”
Although Canadian Forces had yet to arrive in Afghanistan at the time Khadr was involved in the firefight, Bala said he can see why Canadians might view him as an enemy of Canada and a potential threat to national security.
However, there is another way to look at the case, Bala said.
“There’s another analysis and one that I’m more sympathetic to. This was someone who was 15, well, actually 14 when he left the country,” Bala said. “He was indoctrinated as a child soldier and we, Canada — a signatory to the United Nations convention on the rights to a child — have obligations to those who have been child soldiers to try to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society.”
Despite mixed emotions regarding Khadr’s return, Bala said the fact that Canada has a legal and moral obligation to work toward rehabilitating him is not up for debate — that obligation has already been voiced by the Supreme Court of Canada, he said.
“And we’ve definitely been very slow to honour that obligation,” Bala said.
“He was a victim, really, of his father’s indoctrination and then indoctrination through al-Qaida.”
Bala speaks of Khadr as a victim knowing full well the 26-year-old has admitted to killing an American soldier. Khadr was victimized, he said, because he was a child who was simply following orders. Had Khadr killed someone on the streets of Kingston, Ont., Bala said, he would have likely already been released.
“So I can understand why he is a controversial figure and I think that that has to be recognized. But there’s another issue now: Here we have a 26-year-old young man living right now in the Kingston area who, at some point, is going to be released back into Canadian society,” Bala said. “The question is: How can that be done in an effective way?”
Bala pointed to a number of things that need to be done to properly rehabilitate Khadr in Canada.
First, Bala said, this is a landmark case for Canadian correctional services — Canada has never had to rehabilitate a convict detained at Guantanamo Bay. But other countries have, namely Great Britain and a number of Middle Eastern countries, Bala explained. And these countries have done so with success.
“There are people in here in Canada who have contracts, who can work with people in other countries who have done this,” he said.
“What we do know is that it takes structured reintegration.”
That structured reintegration needs to take into account Khadr’s age, life experiences and cultural heritage, Bala said.
Although it is unknown if Khadr had any education after leaving Canada at the age of 15, he does not have a high school diploma from Ontario, where he grew up, Bala explained. This means education is a key component of ensuring proper rehabilitation.
As well, after having been indoctrinated by his father and al-Qaida, it will be crucial that Khadr receive guidance in morals and values, Bala said.
“It’s what we sometimes call cognizant behaviour therapy. People have to sit down with him — people who respect his culture and who respect his religion — and say. ‘Let’s talk about what is appropriate, what’s moral and how you should be living your life',"Bala said, pointing out that similar behavioural therapy is carried out with aboriginal inmates who are used to living in violent communities.
These offenders often benefit from receiving direction from the elders within their communities, he said.
“A respected Imam should be involved, and should be working with him (Khadr).”
To those who feel Khadr should be locked in prison for as long as legally possible, Bala said, that would be counterproductive.
“That’s probably an invitation for more trouble and he’s particularly someone you want to have released in a structured way,” Bala said, noting that the risk of Khadr being a danger to Canadians is slim, given the salience of his case.
“One of the things about homegrown terrorists is that they try to fly under the radar — we don’t know who they are even though they’re Canadian citizens,” Bala said.
“But Omar Khadr is not going to fly under the radar. He’s one of the most famous Canadians in the world. His direct threat is probably going to be a) well monitored and b) pretty manageable. We know who he is, we know his fingerprints, we know his DNA, presumably CSIS will be following him and so on.
“I think the security threat is probably pretty manageable and, I’m just speculating here, but I’m sure if one were inclined to be a homegrown terrorist, the last thing they would want to do is get in touch with Omar Khadr. That would just put CSIS on their trail.”