"I would bet my boots that when the American public thinks of Guantánamo, they think of these pumped-up Taliban warriors," says Khadr's lawyer, Dennis Edney. "In reality, in the first few years Omar was there, it was a house of horrors. It was a place where Omar was taken from death and back."
Omar Khadr's arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002 coincided with a fundamental shift in the War on Terror. In the 10 months the camp had been open to "unlawful enemy combatants," the military had learned little about Al-Qaeda's inner workings. So officers began employing techniques that included sensory deprivation, waterboarding, and degrading humiliation.
Shortly after his arrival, Khadr was taken to an interrogation room, where his arms were pulled behind his back and cuffed to his legs, straining his sockets until he was near delirium, according to the boy's sworn affidavit. He claims he was then forced onto his knees with his wrists cuffed to his ankles. This lasted so long that the 16-year-old urinated on himself. When the military police returned, he contends, they doused him with Pine-Sol and used him as a human mop to clean up the mess. He was then carried back to his cell, where he was left for two days.
Despite these tactics, little intelligence came from the prison camp, CIA sources told author Jane Mayer for her 2008 book, The Dark Side. So the CIA sent an intelligence analyst to Guantánamo. He interviewed about two dozen detainees and concluded about a third of the camp's population had no connection to terrorism.
Mahvish Khan, then a University of Miami law student, found something similar when she began visiting the camp as a translator. The child of Afghan immigrant parents who had gone on to become doctors, she had grown up in a conservative Muslim home in Michigan.
Khan says she expected to find members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Instead, the first detainee she met was a pediatrician who had worked to establish democracy in Afghanistan and then fled to Syria when the Taliban took over. The second man was an 80-year-old paraplegic who had been bedridden for 15 years. Bounty hunters had delivered both of them. "Most of the people were there because they were turned in for money, or because there was some sort of tribal feud," she says. "I saw U.N. workers, people who had built girls' schools, who had been prosecuted by the Taliban . . . as well as businessmen who debtors [turned in]."
In summer 2004, two years after Khadr's arrival, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Bush administration could not hold prisoners indefinitely without charges. Detainees had the right to try their cases in federal court. In response, camp authorities quietly released 114 detainees by the end of the year. Virtually none had seen the evidence against them. In June 2006, the Supreme Court suspended the tribunals for three months until Congress officially authorized them.
For Khadr, nothing changed. He continually wrote letters home, promising his mother that Allah would protect them. In an interview with the CBC, his mother, dressed in a black burqa that covered everything but her eyes, said she would be happy to see her son die a martyr. She also admitted that when the planes hit the World Trade Center, her first thought was, "Let them have it." As for the American medic Khadr reportedly killed with a grenade in 2002, his sister Zaynab was unapologetic. "Big deal," she said with a shrug.
It's an early January morning at Guantánamo. Young soldiers with cropped hair jog along the streets in the gray light of dawn, their T-shirts drenched in sweat from the thick tropical air. As they run single file, a car passes on the winding street, headed to the mess hall up the road. Classic rock broadcast from one of two military-controlled radio stations drifts from the window.
A few miles away, down on the waterfront, prisoners rise for morning prayer. They kneel and recite Koranic verses. Later, they wash their white uniforms and hang them on chainlink fences to dry.
Across the camp, Omar Khadr sits slumped over a defense table in a convincing replica of a U.S. courtroom. He is no longer the frail, clean-shaven teenager who begged Army soldiers to kill him. He scratches a thick beard and rubs his left eye, blinded all of those years ago by American shrapnel. His lanky, 6-foot-1-inch frame stretches a white prison uniform, and his face is slack with boredom.
For 61/2 years, through torture and isolation, he has awaited his day in court. Next door to the multimillion-dollar courthouse hosting Khadr's hearing, inside a double-wide trailer tucked into the corner of a cavernous, dusty hangar, a reporter watches the proceedings on a flat-screen television mounted on the wall. It's as close as the Pentagon allows the media.