The Harper government has given its first signal that it's prepared to allow Omar Khadr to return to Canada in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama's order to suspend military trials and close Guantanamo Bay in the next year.
The crack in Ottawa's long-standing opposition to his return came from Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who said the Conservatives would "reassess'' their position on the Toronto-born Khadr.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office quickly moved to blunt MacKay's statement, saying it had not changed its position on Khadr.
The conflicting signals could be a sign of indecision about what to do with Khadr should Obama formally ask Harper to take him back, when the president visits Ottawa sometime in the coming weeks.
"There is now no excuse, no reason whatsoever for the Prime Minister to do what really, in our view, has always been the right thing and (that is) intervene and get Omar Khadr, this Canadian citizen, back to Canada for the help and support that he needs," Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, Khadr's Pentagon-appointed lawyer said yesterday.
Obama's plans for Guantanamo emerged on his first full day in office as president. In a burst of activity, he also eased into the daunting thicket of Middle East diplomacy by calling Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, unveiled new ethics rules, and summoned advisers to begin dealing with the war and recession.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa after a Conservative caucus meeting, MacKay suggested the government's stance on Khadr might be shifting.
"President Obama has now stated very clearly that they have stopped proceedings against those who are in Guantanamo Bay for a period of 120 days, so clearly Canada and Mr. Khadr's counsel and everyone involved in these cases will be reassessing their positions," he said.
MacKay's statement contradicted the message delivered by a senior aide for Harper, who insisted the position of the government had not changed and refused to say whether the Conservatives were making contingency plans for Khadr's return.
"We are watching with interest developments in the United States, but Mr. Khadr has been charged with serious crimes and the guilt or innocence of those crimes should be determined through a judicial process, not a political one," said Kory Teneycke, Harper's director of communications.
"We are just not going to get into hypothetical (discussions) around different scenarios. We'll simply wait and see what comes forward from the United States around this issue."
In the 6 1/2 years since Khadr was shot and captured in Afghanistan at the age of 15, he has faced three military judges, had three teams of U.S. lawyers represent him, had his charges dropped and then reinstated three times, and undergone hundreds of hours of interrogation in which he claims he was tortured.
Khadr's lawyers think it's unlikely that the Obama administration will transfer Khadr's case to U.S. federal or military court, largely due to his age and evidence tainted by torture in the case. International law protects juveniles under the age of 18 captured in armed conflict and Khadr's trial would have set a precedent for the first war crimes prosecution of a child soldier.
Khadr, now 22, would likely not be tried in Canada either if he were to be sent home, because of his age and the fact he has already been in custody without trial for almost seven years.
If there are conditions imposed on his release it will likely be through a court-ordered peace bond. A rehabilitation program, which was endorsed by Ottawa's foreign affairs parliamentary committee that investigated the Khadr case, suggested that the control order would ensure he undergo psychiatric and religious counselling and have limited access to his family in the first year of his return.
All three federal opposition parties have called for Khadr's repatriation. In Montreal yesterday, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff reconfirmed that position.
"We've said for over a year now that Guantanamo should be closed and Mr. Khadr should come home and he should be reintegrated into Canadian society," Ignatieff said.
"I don't pronounce on his innocence or guilt," he added, "I just think enough is enough."
Khadr's long legal saga in Guantanamo took what might be the final turn yesterday with Obama's request to halt his trial for 120 days. The newly sworn-in president asked prosecutors to request the delay so there is "time to review the process." Military judges presiding over Khadr's case and that of the alleged 9/11 conspirators agreed to the delay.
The Pentagon is currently pursuing 21 prosecutions under the Military Commissions Act, the Congress-endorsed legislation that was signed into law by former president George W. Bush in October 2006. Guantanamo's chief prosecutor said as many as 80 of the remaining 245 prisoners here could be charged with war crimes.
Khadr faced five charges, including "murder in violation of the laws of war" for the death of U.S. soldier Sgt. Christopher Speer.
Scott Newark, a former Crown prosecutor who has also worked for the government of Ontario and former public safety minister Stockwell Day, told the Toronto Star he agreed now is the best time to exert influence over Khadr's fate.
Calling Khadr a "low-level foot soldier with a high-level pedigree," due to his late father's connections to Al Qaeda, Newark said a plan should be in place to slowly reintegrate Khadr back to Canada.
"The Canadian government better realize one way or another, the ball is coming back to our court and this government and Prime Minister Harper should be asked, `Are we prepared?'"
There has not been overwhelming sympathy for Khadr's case, largely due to the notorious reputation of his family. Khadr's father, Ahmed Said Khadr, who was killed by Pakistani forces in October 2003, was close with Osama bin Laden and anti-Western comments made by Khadr's siblings and mother gave them the label of "Canadians of convenience."
Khadr's sister Zaynab said she hoped Canadians would change their minds about her family and encourage the government to bring her brother home.
"He has missed so much of his life," she said yesterday.
Khadr's case is further complicated by the fact that he is charged with killing a soldier and may incur the wrath of the military community if he's released without trial.
Layne Morris, a Special Forces soldier from Utah who was injured during the firefight where Khadr was captured, said he would be disappointed if Khadr was not prosecuted.
"I don't care if they shut down Guantanamo, it's just a place," Morris said. "To me, the issue is what do we do with these people and whether they're held in Guantanamo or some other prison the issue is we don't need to cut them loose and say have a nice life and sorry for all the inconvenience."
Khadr appeared in court Monday and Tuesday looking relaxed and smiling at reporters and court observers. He spent most of the time during the hearings reading National Geographic magazines or drawing.
Khadr's Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, spent yesterday meeting with the Canadian explaining what had happened in his case.
"I'm constantly struck each and every time I visit Omar what a gentle soul he is," Edney said yesterday.
"Everyone I meet at Guantanamo who knows him likes him. He is calm and peaceful and just wants to come home."
- With files from Bruce Campion-Smith in Ottawa and Andrew Chung in Montreal
Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre in the Toronto Star