Guantanamo trial set to resume for Omar Khadr

AFP, GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba

Mon, Oct 25, 2010 - Page 7

Trial proceedings were set to resume today for Canadian inmate Omar Khadr, the last Westerner at the US prison at Guantanamo, amid a flurry of activity that could lead to a plea agreement.

The trial for 24-year-old Canadian, appearing before the revamped military tribunal set up by US President Barack Obama, resumes after a suspension in August when military defense lawyer Jon Jackson collapsed.

The proceedings at the detention center on the US naval base located in Cuba were resuming even though another defense lawyer said talks on a plea deal were ongoing.

“There are negotiations for a plea deal, but I am not commenting on any of the details about it,” Nathan Whitling, one of Khadr’s lawyers, said earlier this month.

On Friday, Whitling said it was possible an announcement may come today.

The top diplomats of the US and Canada were also holding discussions, but it was not immediately clear if they were talking about the fate of Khadr.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who is on a trip to Beijing, spoke by telephone, representatives for the two officials said.

Khadr was just 15 when he was arrested for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US sergeant during a 2002 attack in Afghanistan.

He has been charged with murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy and espionage. If he is found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government has steadfastly refused to seek Khadr’s repatriation, saying that US proceedings should run their course, despite criticism from some opposition lawmakers.

Obama has pledged to close down the Guantanamo prison, a symbol for many of excesses under his predecessor George W. Bush. However, he missed his own deadline as he struggles to find an alternative location for the inmates.

If there is a guilty plea, a military jury would be asked to determine the sentence. The jury would not be able to impose a harsher penalty than in the plea deal; but if the plea agreement is secret the sentence may not be made public.

If the trial goes ahead, the presiding military judge, Patrick Parrish, must decide whether to accept in evidence all Khadr’s statements to interrogators after undergoing several operations for his wounds in the Bagram base in Afghanistan.

Khadr’s first US interrogator had told the judge in May that he had threatened the boy with tales of rape and murder in US jails to make him talk. The interrogator was later court-martialed for abusing prisoners in Bagram.

In August, lead prosecutor Jeff Groharing told the seven military officers on the jury that Khadr in his own words had described himself as “a terrorist praying for al-Qaeda,” and that the youth’s intention was “to kill as many Americans” as possible.

However, Khadr has denied throwing the grenade that killed US Sergeant Christopher Speer, with his lawyers portraying him as a frightened boy intimidated by three “bad men” who told him what to do.

Khadr’s trial is the first to be heard since the military tribunals, created by former US president George W. Bush, were revamped last year by the Obama administration and the US Congress to give greater rights to defendants.

A total of 174 prisoners remain in detention at the US base, which has received nearly 800 since being opened in 2002.

Khadr grew up in Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is the son of an al-Qaeda official who was killed in 2003.

The youth was seriously wounded and captured after US special forces laid siege to an al-Qaeda hideout where Khadr allegedly made improvised explosives.