Omar Khadr, once the youngest inmate of Guantanamo who spent a decade in the detention camp, made an unexpected public appearance at a Calgary International Film Festival showing of a new documentary about his life on Friday night.
The 80-minute film, Guantanamo's Child, was screened to an almost sold-out crowd at Calgary's downtown Globe Cinema.
Khadr, 29, emerged at the front-left of the stage after the showing concluded, accompanied by lawyer Dennis Edney and Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star who directed the film with Patrick Reed.
Save for court dates, it was the first public appearance Khadr has made since he spoke to the media in May following his release from an Alberta prison, pending appeal of his heavily condemned conviction of war crimes by an American military tribunal.
In 2002, when Khadr was 15, he was captured in Afghanistan by the US military and transferred to Guantanamo where he confessed, in 2010, to throwing a grenade that killed a combat medic and injured another soldier. He has since recanted, saying the confession was obtained under torture.
On Friday, Khadr appeared relaxed, standing with his thumbs hooked through his belt loops and displaying a broad smile as he and his companions answered questions from the audience.
"The most surprising thing I think I've found was the kindness I've seen in people," Khadr said during the 15 minute Q&A. "I was scared when I came from Toronto to Alberta, with Alberta being a conservative province. But everybody was so warm."
The Q&A period, which was punctuated with lengthy applause, featured a notable amount of levity, with Edney joking that "I could spend hours crying in your arms" to the person who asked about how the lawyer made it through 12 years of petitioning for Khadr's release. Edney and his wife, Patricia, who was also in attendance, have been housing Khadr at their home in Edmonton, Alberta since his release.
Last Friday, an Alberta judge loosened his bail restrictions, allowing Khadr to travel to Toronto accompanied by Edney for up to two weeks to visit with his family. He's also allowed to speak with anyone except his mother and sister — who are currently not in Canada — in a language other than English. His electronic monitoring bracelet has been removed, his curfew extended, and he will no longer be monitored on the computer.
Khadr's lawyer emphasized that the Canadian government is appealing the bail conditions and implored listeners to speak to local politicians about the issue and decide how they vote in the upcoming federal election accordingly.
"[Prime Minister Stephen Harper] didn't need to know the facts. Because he'd already made his mind up [about Khadr]," said Edney. "You now get to see him, you now see how he's portrayed, and that's the story the government doesn't want you to learn. And that's why they want to put it back in a bottle."
In May, upon Khadr's release, Harper said: "Mr. Khadr, as we all know, plead guilty to very grave crimes, including murder. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Sgt. Christopher Speer [the US combat medic]."
Despite his aversion to the spotlight, Khadr spoke in thoughtful measures about his gratitude to the Edneys and his ability to explore a life outside prison.
"To forgive or to pass something, you have to be hurt by it," he said. "I didn't allow pain to resonate with me. I tried to deal with it instantaneously and not let it stay with me. I stopped putting faith in specific things, I just looked at general things and one of those things is the goodness of people."
Edney mentioned that Khadr spent most of his first day of freedom swimming in the lake near the house.
"Prison is a place where you're really kind of held down," said Khadr. "You almost feel the gravity. Everything's weighing you down. For me, water is very symbolic because it gives you this sense of weightlessness. I just enjoy it."