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'Child soldier' pleads guilty at Guantánamo, averting a trial

A Guantánamo detainee who was 15 when he was captured, pleads guilty to five charges, including murder. The plea allows US prosecutors to avoid a trial, and offers the 'child soldier' an endpoint for his incarceration.

By Staff writer / October 25, 2010

The entrance to Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay is seen on Oct. 24. Canadian Omar Khadr, who has been in US custody since he was a teenager, could see an end to eight years of legal limbo on Monday as his war crimes trial resumes amid talk of a possible last-minute plea deal to spare him a life sentence.

Colin Perke/The Canadian Press/AP

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Washington

Monday’s guilty plea at the Guantánamo trial of Canadian detainee Omar Khadr offers a bargain for both sides in the controversial case of a 15-year-old caught up in a war between the US military and Al-Qaeda.

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For Khadr, the plea deal establishes an endpoint, as yet unspecified, to his open-ended imprisonment at Guantánamo.

For the government, it provides guilty verdicts on each of five charges – from murder to conspiracy to engage in terrorism – without having to face the uncertainty and potential criticism of a military commission process that is yet to be thoroughly tested.

“What the government gets is closure on a case that was not a slam dunk for them,” says Fordham Law Professor James Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who represents two detainees at Guantánamo.

The Khadr plea brings to five the number of Guantánamo detainees who have been convicted or pleaded guilty under the special military commission process.

In addition to obtaining guilty verdicts, the plea deal eliminates any opportunity for Khadr’s lawyers to file an appeal challenging the fairness of commission procedures.

Legal analysts say that two of the charges against Khadr – conspiracy and providing material support – are not recognized as war crimes.

Amnesty urges inquiry

Focusing on Khadr’s age when captured, Amnesty International urged the US government to investigate whether his treatment violated the UN Convention on the Right of the Child.

“While military trial proceedings may be coming to an end in Khadr’s case, the obligation of the US authorities to address serious concerns about human rights violations suffered by him does not end,” said Rob Freer of Amnesty International.

Critics charge that the commissions are unfair, with stripped down protections for defendants and a government option of open-ended detention even for those who are acquitted.

Supporters say military commissions feature generous safeguards for defendants. They say the military courts are essential to prosecute international terrorists without endangering US intelligence sources and methods.

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