Ex-Guard Speaks out in Support of Khadr
Former American soldier wants Harper to seek justice for Canadian held at Guantanamo Bay
In the aftermath of 9/11, when another attack on the United States was feared and war consumed Afghanistan and Iraq, the soldiers deployed to the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay were told they were a vital part in the fight against terrorism in their role of guarding the "worst of the worst."
Terry Holdbrook was one of those soldiers, and one of the detainees he met soon after arriving in 2003 was Canadian Omar Khadr. Both teens – the American guard, 19, and the Canadian captive, 16 – talked easily about life.
"He was young, you could still feel that teenaged angst in him," Holdbrook told the Toronto Star from Phoenix, Ariz., where he works as a university enrolment counsellor.
"I kind of look at him as I look at a lot of the other detainees that were down there. He was kind of caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Since U.S. President Barack Obama announced in January that the Guantanamo prison would close by next year, there has been little indication of what fate awaits Khadr.
Now 22, Toronto-born Khadr was 15 when shot and captured in Afghanistan following a battle with U.S. troops in 2002.
He was charged under the Bush administration with five war crimes, including murder – for allegedly killing Sgt. Christopher Speer, who was fatally wounded in the battle.
About 245 detainees remain at Guantanamo, held now without trial for seven years. Some were tortured during interrogations, and their cases pose varying legal and political problems.
In an interview with The New York Times on Friday, Obama said a "cleanup operation" is underway but decisions aren't being made quickly.
While Canada's three federal opposition parties are pushing for Khadr's repatriation, the U.S. soldiers injured in the battle where he was captured are hoping he will be tried in the United States.
"I think it's a grave error to just release that man," Layne Morris, now retired from the U.S. military, said in a recent interview with the Star.
"I think the security implications are huge and I don't think that's the thing to do.
"I also don't think it's the thing to do from a criminal justice standpoint."
Holdbrook is the latest of a number of critics who are coming forward, hoping to influence the Obama administration or persuade Prime Minister Stephen Harper to advocate on Khadr's behalf.
Former Pentagon prosecutor Lt.-Col. Darrel Vandeveld spoke to Toronto law students last month, slamming the military trials.
In an email interview with the Star yesterday, former Moroccan detainee Ahmed Errachidi, who once worked as a chef in Britain, said he knew Khadr at Guantanamo and recalled how fellow inmates felt especially sorry for him because of his age.
"I felt so desperate every time I saw him. I wanted to say, `Sorry I can't help you.'" Errachidi wrote from Tangier.
"It was well known if some detainee is going through torture courses and I remember there was a time when everyone was talking about Omar having his turn."
The Pentagon accused Errachidi of leading an Al Qaeda training camp two months before the 9/11 attacks.
He was released in 2007 when his lawyers proved he was not in Afghanistan in July 2001, but working in the kitchen of a central London hotel.
Holdbrook's decision to break his silence is both personal and political.
Although he said he went to Guantanamo with an open mind (he says others regarded him as callous because he was not surprised when the U.S. was attacked and did not feel it was calamitous when compared to other atrocities worldwide), he has returned a changed man. He converted to Islam and got out of the army as quickly as he could.
"I spent a good amount of time trying to hide Guantanamo, not deal with it, not think of it. I haven't really talked about it with family, loved ones, whatever," he said.
But by now talking about it, he hopes to make sense of it and perhaps get justice for the remaining prisoners.
"It's time to talk about this," he said, "to make changes."