OTTAWA — The Harper government appeared largely unmoved Friday by Omar Khadr’s apologetic remarks and vow to become a peaceful law-abiding citizen — cementing the longstanding divide between the two camps.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay showed signs of giving Khadr a benefit of the doubt, which set him apart from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other Conservatives — all of whom held firm to their long-held view that Khadr remains a convicted war criminal.
MacKay said Khadr’s public declaration that he had renounced violence was a good first step after his release from prison, but cautioned people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Khadr was involved in terrorism.
“What I hope will happen is that Mr. Khadr will abide by Canadian laws, respect people’s safety, and he is now in a position where he is going to be given that opportunity to prove that,” said MacKay, speaking at an event in Halifax.
“Let’s look ahead with optimism, but with caution, when it comes to individuals who have past proven tendencies that have resulted in the loss of human life.”
But Khadr’s remarks didn’t seem to sway Harper much Friday as he defended his Conservative government’s efforts to keep the former Guantanamo Bay prisoner behind bars.
“Mr. Khadr, as we all know, pled guilty to very grave crimes, including murder,” Harper told a news conference as he offered his thoughts and prayers to the family members of U.S. Sgt. Christopher Speer.
“Our government’s priority in these matters is always to make sure, first and foremost, we keep in mind the protection and security of the Canadian population.”
Harper said little else, citing the fact the matter remains before the courts.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said Friday said he had been in contact with Speer’s family in the last week, and that he sides with them.
Asked at an event in Montreal whether he thought Khadr might have reformed, he replied: “Well, I hope so.”
Khadr, now 28, pleaded guilty in October 2010 before a widely discredited military commission to five war crimes — including murder in the death of Speer, a U.S. special forces soldier.
On Thursday, he walked free on bail after an Alberta judge rejected the government’s final attempt to block his release, saying the government had failed to prove Khadr posed a risk to the public or could do harm to Canadian interests. Khadr’s release came with a list of restrictions, including wearing a tracking bracelet and a curfew.
During a remarkable news conference on his lawyer’s Edmonton driveway, Khadr apologized for the pain he has caused and urged Canadians to give him a chance to demonstrate his worth.
“I will prove to them that I’m more than what they thought of me, I’ll prove to them that I’m a good person,” Khadr said.
“Give me a chance — see who I am as a person, not as a name — and then they can make their own judgment after that.”
Khadr spent almost 13 years behind bars — four of them as a convicted war criminal.
He was captured, badly wounded, by American forces in Afghanistan in July 2002, when he was 15 years old. At one time, he was the youngest prisoner at the American prison compound in Guantanamo Bay.
After his release on bail, Khadr offered a comment on Harper’s hard-line stance: “I’m going to have to disappoint him, I’m better than the person he thinks I am.”
A pair of Conservative MPs was left cold by Khadr’s comments as they arrived Friday morning on Parliament Hill.
“Words are just words,” said Saskatchewan Conservative Tom Lukiwski. “I reject the notion he was a child soldier. I think it was a very deliberate, premeditated act, and he should pay the price for that.”
Added Ontario Conservative Costas Menegakis: “He killed a soldier; he admitted to it; he’s guilty; he knows he’s guilty. I think he should be in prison.”
In Halifax, MacKay also said that legislative changes were being contemplated that might make it harder for the accused in terror cases to be granted bail.
But the minister did not elaborate, and his office did not provide further clarification.
MacKay, a former criminal prosecutor, also displayed some deference to the discretion of judges — a stance many of his fellows Conservatives don’t always share.
“I think most judges are well-versed in the importance of their decision when it comes to releasing somebody, whether it’s while serving a sentence on appeal or awaiting trial,” said MacKay.
“I’ve seen for the most part very thoughtful and appropriate decisions taken on bail, but judges are not infallible — just like politicians.”