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Psychological assessment gives glimpse into Omar Khadr’s inner life

In this sketch by Amanada McRoberts, Omar Khadr watches the proceedings in court in Edmonton on May 5, 2015.

Amanda McRoberts/The Canadian Press

Omar Khadr says he is opposed to terrorism, and hopes terrorist sympathizers stay away from him when he is released from prison.

"I'm not a crazy, rigid person. I can be moulded into society," said the former Guantanamo detainee, who is on the brink of freedom. "I hope there won't be this terrorism nonsense. I'm not going to get involved in suspicious activities."

The statements from Mr. Khadr, now 28, are contained in an assessment by a prison psychologist that paints an unprecedented portrait of his inner life, often in his own words. A judge is to rule Thursday on whether the Canadian citizen can be set free after 13 years of incarceration in Afghanistan, the United States and Canada.

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The assessment is especially noteworthy for its record of how Mr. Khadr says he came to take responsibility for his actions, and to overcome bitterness and despair at his long imprisonment and rough interrogations.

In it, Mr. Khadr says visitors from Canada's Foreign Affairs Department to the U.S. prison where he was held for a decade in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, helped him understand that people of all faiths are good, and turned him away from bitterness.

He acknowledges throwing a grenade, but still hopes it wasn't the grenade that killed U.S. soldier Christopher Speer.

He says he is lonely for female companionship and writes "sensual" prose – and prays – until the longings pass. (He adds that now is not a good time for a relationship.)

The Canadian government has been harshly criticized by human-rights groups and by the Supreme Court of Canada for interrogating Mr. Khadr in the absence of legal counsel and turning over the fruits of the interrogations to his captors. And the Conservative government has opposed any move that would have brought Mr. Khadr back to this country before a U.S. military commission had tried and sentenced him; it is also trying to block his release on bail (pending an appeal of his U.S. convictions for war crimes, including murder).

Mr. Khadr explains that, in his first two years at Guantanamo Bay, he was a "mental disaster." He behaved and thought like the other terrorist prisoners. And he was not comfortable around people who were not of his Muslim faith.

Although there was no single turning point, "organizations such as the Red Cross and the Department of Foreign Affairs had a tremendous influence on me. Before that, I had no connection to the outside world. I saw that there are other people in the world that were good people. That gave me hope, which is a scary thing in prison. The more communication I had with the outside world … the more hope I had for goodness in my life."

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Visitors came to Guantanamo from King's University, a small Christian college in Edmonton, to see him.

The psychologist, Nhan Lau, asked him if he was bitter about his experiences at Guantanamo. (His lawyer, Dennis Edney, said this week he was subjected to waterboarding – simulated drowning. A Pentagon official denied in an interview with The Globe and Mail that he was ever waterboarded.)

"I can't afford to be bitter," the psychologist records him as saying. "I did something bad and I'm here for a reason. The only way to survive is to have hope. A lot of people in Guantanamo are bitter. They live bitter lives. I don't think people are bad. If I hope for people to give me a second chance, I should afford them the same."

The psychologist said only Mr. Khadr truly knows whether the changes he purports to have made in his belief system are genuine. However, he has not expressed hostility toward Western society, has not been violent, has apparently not associated with terrorist sympathizers, has continued to upgrade his education and works inside the prison system in upholstery, the psychologist said.

Mr. Khadr described a childhood in which he saw Osama bin Laden several times (the late al-Qaeda leader attended his sister's wedding), and in which he performed translation services, spying and the planting of bombs for terrorists.

"If I could do things differently, I probably would have challenged my father more. I don't think I could have said no to him but would have tried."

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Of the battle with U.S. forces in July, 2002, in which he threw a grenade, he said: "Planes started bombing and the adults [militants] put me behind a bush… I heard Americans. I heard shooting. I was scared. I had a hand grenade. I threw it over my back and it exploded. I wanted to scare them away. I wasn't thinking of the consequences… I still take responsibility but hold on to hope that it wasn't me… It was fear… If I did kill [the soldier], it would be a very sad thing. I have apologized to the widow. It is one of the hardest things to talk about … that part of my life. It was very dark. I wish I could change things, but I know I can't."

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Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More


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