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Guantanamo detainee having tough time back in Canada: lawyer

A courtroom sketch shows defendant Omar Khadr, a native of Toronto, Canada, listening to testimony during his sentencing hearing at the Guan
A courtroom sketch shows defendant Omar Khadr, a native of Toronto, Canada, listening to testimony during his sentencing hearing at the Guan

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, who was transferred to a prison in his Canadian homeland over the weekend, is having a difficult time adapting to his new circumstances, one of the inmate's lawyers said on Monday.

Khadr, the youngest prisoner and last Westerner held in the U.S. military prison on Cuban soil, returned to Canada on Saturday to finish his sentence. He had spent almost 10 years in Guantanamo.

He was 15 years old when captured in Afghanistan and later confessed to killing a U.S. soldier and conspiring with al Qaeda. As part of deal with prosecutors he pleaded guilty in 2010 and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Khadr, 26, is now in Millhaven top security jail in the central Canadian province of Ontario waiting for authorities to decide how best to handle his case. He will be eligible for parole in mid-2013.

"It's a very, very difficult (transition) right now. It's a horrible place, Guanatanamo is, but it's a place where he had built a life for himself, it was what he was familiar with, it was what he knew," Khadr lawyer John Norris told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

"All of that has now been left behind -- his pictures, his books, his letters from his family ... packed up in boxes and he has no access to them right now. It was a struggle for him just to get a novel to read," he said.

Canada's Conservative government, which bowed to pressure from the United States to take Khadr months earlier than expected, says it fears he has become radicalized.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who like his cabinet colleagues has shown little sympathy for Khadr over the last decade, referred to him as a convicted terrorist on Saturday and said Canadians needed to be protected while he was in jail.

Khadr was born in Toronto in 1986 and spent much of his early life moving between Canada and Pakistan. In 1996 his father, a senior al Qaeda member, took the family to Afghanistan. He was killed in a clash in 2003.

At one point the United States unsuccessfully sought the extradition of Khadr's elder brother Abdullah on charges of gun-running and conspiracy to murder Americans abroad. Khadr's mother lives in Toronto.

Norris - who said his client was "in a state of disbelief" and thrilled by the transfer - disputed the idea Khadr would pose any kinds of trouble and said the remarks by Toews were inappropriate.

"It's time for this government to stop vilifying Omar and let him get on with things," he said, noting there was nothing in Canadian law which said Khadr could be kept in jail forever.

"His sentence ends ... in October 2018 and once that time comes, there is no basis on which he could be held in custody," he said.

Nick Bala, a professor of law at Queen's University in Kingston and an expert in youth crime, said Khadr had no idea what a normal life in Canada was like.

"Guantanamo is one of the most restrictive, controlled brutal environments in any prison in any civilized society and (offered) very little effort I think at rehabilitation," he told Reuters in a phone interview.

To fit back into Canadian society, Khadr needed help with education and job training, and should take courses on values and cultural reintegration, he added.

Bala, who said if Khadr had committed a murder in Canada at the age of 15 he would almost certainly have been released by now, questioned whether he could pose a serious threat.

"I can't imagine that if you are a home-grown terrorist you would contact Omar Khadr for advice. There is nobody who is going to be watched more than him," he said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty)

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