Toronto Teen Still Sits in Prison: The Story of Omar Khadr

By Joshua Ainslie

Prior to July 2002, everybody who knew the young Omar Khadr identified him as a Canadian. He liked BMWs, basketball and action movies. He named a visit to the Metro Toronto Zoo among the best memories of his life. His father earned a master's degree from the University of Ottawa, and his grandparents owned a bakery on Toronto's Eglinton Ave. But, like the children of Canadian diplomats, Omar had a father whose work took the family overseas for long stretches of time.

When the gangly 15 year old was found crying in the remains of a bombed-out hideaway in Afghanistan in July 2002, politicians and media outlets refused to recognize Omar as a true Canadian, absolving the country of any responsibility for securing him a fair trial. According to his family, history was rewritten to avoid an uncomfortable truth.

"We were Canadian," said his older sister Zaynab of their time overseas, "it was hard to miss that."

So, did pundits and spin-doctors simply erase a Canadian child's past, to avoid risking comfortable relations with the United States?

Born into a family of two Canadian NGO workers, Omar was widely known as his mother's favorite child. Married to a workaholic and grieving the death of a young son, she latched tightly onto the 16-month-old Omar.

In 1992, 7-year-old Omar was living with his family just beyond the Dundas West subway station and attending first grade at the same Mississauga private school where all his siblings were enrolled. But his single-income family's sole earner was bedridden at Sunnybrook Hospital following an accident in Afghanistan, and so the Khadrs moved into a small apartment in the deteriorating neighborhood at the intersection of Bloor and Lansdowne.

Eventually, Omar and his family followed their father back to an orphanage he had built in the refugee camps surrounding Peshawar. Enrolled at the Ansar Scientific Institute, a private school that taught foreign families in the region, Omar found himself fortunate. As a Canadian from a devout family, courses such as English and Religion proved very simple, and he quickly excelled. "He was one of those students who worked hard, he liked his sciences," his sister Zaynab recalled, "though he didn't like math very much." During summer vacation, the family would often return home to Scarborough.

Like the rest of his family, Omar found that his father's frequent travels left him well-versed in local languages. In addition to English and Arabic, he also learned to speak Pashto while in Peshawar and picked up Dari from the refugees who filled his father's life.

After the Afghan Civil War had largely ended, Ahmed moved his operations from Pakistan into Afghanistan itself. Preferring that his children remain in the accredited Ansar Institute, Ahmed arranged for Omar and his siblings to be home-schooled for the next two years, returning to Peshawar to write their exams each semester.

When Omar's mother and older sister returned to Canada, Ahmed sent them a letter containing a cassette tape, on which he explained how Omar had transformed himself into a domestic caretaker in their absence, proving himself "very handy and very helpful."

The year before he was taken prisoner, Omar was virtually indistinguishable from any other young teenager. A fan of sports cars, Omar attended the February 2001 Auto Show at the Toronto Convention Centre with his cousin and younger brother. After passing over the Nissans and Volkswagens in favor of the Lamborghinis and Ferraris, the group got their photograph taken standing in front of the Batmobile. "We're fans of the Batmobile," Zaynab boasted, pointing to her brother's deadpan expression as she explains that he doesn't smile for cameras.

Even in Guantanamo, Omar speaks openly about some his favorite movies; Hollywood films like "Die Hard," "Harry Potter" and "Braveheart." "Who doesn't like 'Harry Potter'?" laughed his sister, adding that watching "Braveheart" was a "family tradition" in their household. While overseas, Omar and his siblings would amuse themselves by going to the marketplace to purchase pirated DVDs. "We'd get the movie over there the day it came out...very cheap, maybe half a dollar," Zaynab recalled, proud of the purchases.

In November 2001, as the Khadrs joined the caravan of fleeing Afghans heading for the relative safety of Pakistan's mountainous border regions, Omar's brother Abdurahman was captured by the Northern Alliance. Not long afterward, Zaynab took his other two brothers, Abdullah and Abdulkareem, to Islamabad as she sought medical attention for her own daughter. Omar was now alone at home with his mother and his 10-year-old sister.

In the spring of 2002, Omar's father, Ahmed Khadr, listened as his 15-year-old son explained his loneliness -- neither classmates nor siblings surrounding him anymore -- and how he felt humiliated when his mother forced him to dress as a girl to avoid being targeted by Pakistani security forces. The elder Khadr offered his teenage son a compromise: He could move into a group home for young men if he promised to still check in regularly with his mother. The only son who had never been allowed out of his mother's sight, Omar quickly agreed to the deal.

A month later, a family friend approached the Khadrs and explained that he had some Arab colleagues staying at a small farm a few miles outside Khost who needed a translator to interact with the locals. Since Omar spoke both Dari and Pashto, it was agreed that he could serve as their translator and guide. "We had an orphanage in Khost," Zaynab explained, "so my brother knew the area."

It wasn't long before the teenage expatriate found himself in trouble. Although there weren't supposed to be any American soldiers in the area, Special Forces were drawn to the Arabs' homestead after one of them made a phone call that piqued suspicions, and a shootout between Omar's new colleagues and the Americans followed.

After the homestead was reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment and a pair of Apache helicopters, the soldiers entered and picked their way over the dead bodies. A sudden spray of bullets crashed against the walls around them and a grenade appeared, arcing toward the soldiers from a small corridor. Sgt. Christopher Speer fell, fatally wounded by the blast.

Turning the corner, an American soldier shot the lone surviving gunman and then spied the Canadian teenager with his back to the noise, kneeling in pain against a shrub. Raising his rifle, he fired two shots into Omar's back.

Although the Special Forces' report following the firefight stated that the dead man had been the one to throw the grenade, the military overseers stated that, with all the other occupants of the compound now dead, the United States would lay the blame on Omar and seek life imprisonment for the Canadian youth at Guantanamo Bay.

"They want him to suffer for the rest of his life for a crime nobody even believes he committed," Zaynab said angrily. While she admits it's possible he may have thrown the grenade, she points to crimes committed by other Toronto youth. "It's not like he just went into a shop and shot somebody," she said.

When asked, while still in prison, about his plans for the future, Omar replied that he wanted to become a doctor. "It says a lot," his sister whispered, reflecting on the past six years. "Working for charities and helping people" is a future she and her family would love to see for their beloved brother. A Canadian college in Alberta rose to the challenge last year, announcing that they would offset all tuition costs for Omar to attend post-secondary education.

But as Omar's hopes of attending medical school fade, they are replaced by the very likely scenario that he will spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo Bay's detention camps.

As Stephen Harper, then leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, summarized on the day the capture was announced in 2002, Omar represents something "dangerous to the Western alliance." And so he rots in a foreign prison, sacrificed on the altar of Canada-U.S. relations.

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