TORONTO — The federal government was sticking to its lines about the delayed transfer of convicted war criminal Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay on the eve of a Thursday news conference by his normally taciturn legal team.
Two months after an official request by the Americans to take Khadr off their hands, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said there was nothing new to say about the case.
“The U.S. no longer wants him and has asked us to take him,” Julie Carmichael said from Ottawa.
“A decision must be made on his application in accordance with Canadian law.”
That’s been Ottawa’s line ever since it became clear that the Americans were seeking to have the Toronto-born Khadr transferred to Canada to serve out the rest of his sentence.
Khadr, 25, pleaded guilty in October 2010 to war crimes committed in Afghanistan in 2002 as a 15-year-old — including murder in violation of the rules of war.
In return for his plea before a widely maligned military commission, he was sentenced to eight years, with one year to be served in Guantanamo Bay. He was eligible for transfer last October.
Amid diplomatic wrangling, Ottawa has made it clear it is in no rush to take back the Canadian citizen, who has spent almost 10 years incarcerated at the U.S. naval prison in Cuba.
Earlier this year, sources said the transfer — in accordance with promises Ottawa made at the time of Khadr’s plea bargain — was on track to happen by the end of May. That hasn’t happened.
On Wednesday, Khadr’s legal team — Canadian lawyers, John Norris and Brydie Bethell, and his Pentagon appointed lawyers, Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson and Maj. Matthew Schwartz — announced they would hold a news conference in Ottawa to update the public on the delayed transfer.
They are to be joined by Sen. Romeo Dallaire, a longtime advocate for child soldiers.
The lawyers would not comment before the news conference. Unlike Khadr’s previous Canadian lawyers, who advocated loudly and publicly for their client, Norris and Bethell have generally kept a far lower and quieter profile.
Khadr’s pending return has sparked controversy, with some vocal critics putting up posters in the Toronto neighbourhood where his family lives and starting an online petition to bar his re-entry.
Others, notably human rights activists, have decried what they call the federal government’s shabby treatment of Khadr and violation of his rights and international law.
Ottawa has complained the U.S. was strong-arming Canada into taking Khadr back, while American sources said his continued detention was making it harder to enter into plea deals with other Guantanamo prisoners.
Khadr was badly wounded after a four-hour firefight when he was captured in the rubble of a compound in Afghanistan in July 2002.