A US military tribunal is scheduled to convene next month to try – on murder charges – a Canadian man who has been held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for almost five years, since he was captured at the age of 15. Human right groups are protesting the move, saying the man should be tried as a civilian.
The Associated Press reports that Omar Khadr, who was captured at an Al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan in July 2002 after allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a US Green Beret, will be tried under the rules adopted last year for military tribunals.
The U.S. military charged him with murder, attempted murder, providing support to terrorism, conspiracy and spying under rules for military trials adopted last year and first used to try David Hicks, the Australian sentenced to nine months in prison after pleading guilty.
The military said the Toronto-born Khadr would be arraigned within 30 days. He faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The AP also writes that Mr. Khadr was sent to Guantánamo just before his 16th birthday, and that one of Khadr's lawyers has criticized the Pentagon for not taking into account Khadr's age at the time of his alleged crimes.
Khadr's Pentagon-appointed defense attorney, Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, said the U.S. would become the first country in modern history to try a war crimes suspect who was a child at the time of the alleged violations. The conspiracy charge is based on acts allegedly committed when Khadr was younger than 10, Vokey said.
The US military defines child detainees as those under 16. International guidelines, such as those outlined by the United Nations in The Convention on the Rights of the Child define a child as under 18.
Human rights groups have also criticized the treatment of Khadr, who says that he was tortured while in custody at the US airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo. Amnesty International, which maintains a page on Khadr's case, issued a press release Wednesday calling for a civilian trial.
"The treatment of Omar Khadr over the past five years exemplifies the USA's disregard for international law in the 'war on terror'. Unless the US authorities bring him to trial in a civilian court, taking full account of his age at the time of any alleged offences, he should be returned to Canada."
Born in 1986 in Toronto to an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother, both with Canadian citizenship, Khadr moved with his family to Peshawar, Pakistan, when he was four, writes the Canadian broadcaster CTV. At the time, Peshawar, an ancient trading city on the edge of the Khyber Pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan, served as the political center for Osama bin Laden's fledgling militant movement. Omar's father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was believed by the US government to be an associate of bin Laden, brought his family back and forth between Pakistan and Canada.
According to the PBS news program, Frontline, Ahmed was arrested in Pakistan following the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. After his release was negotiated by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrátien, he moved his family to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where they lived near bin Laden and his family.
According to the Pentagon's charge sheet (PDF), the 14- or 15-year-old Omar Khadr in June 2002 received training in marksmanship, rocket propelled grenades, and explosives in Afghanistan.
The following month, on July 27, Khadr was in a suspected Al Qaeda compound near Khost, Afhganistan that was bombed in a US airstrike. According to the US government's account, as US Special Forces were combing through the compound, Khadr leapt from hiding and hurled a grenade at the troops. The explosion severely wounded Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer and Sgt. Layne Morris. Khadr was shot three times, his wounds subsequently treated by Army medics. Speer died over a week later from his wounds in a military hospital in Germany, leaving behind his wife, Tabitha, and two young children.
That Khadr had been allegedly recruited by Al Qaeda at such a young age raises the questions of whether he ought to be classified as a child soldier rather than an enemy combatant. ABC News interviewed Jo Becker, the Children's Rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, who sees a double standard in Khadr's treatment.
[T]he U.S. has been very inconsistent in how it deals with this issue," says Becker. "For example, the U.S. has provided millions of dollars for rehabilitation programs for children in Africa and other countries," she says. "But if there's a situation where a child soldier may be engaging with U.S. troops, then all of the sudden the U.S. approach is different, and it starts taking a punitive rather than a rehabilitative approach."
A spokesman for the Department of Defense told ABCNews.com that age is not a factor when determining detention.
"We detain enemy combatants who engaged in armed conflict against our forces or provided support to those fighting against us. The fact that juveniles have been used as enemy combatants is an unfortunate reality in many parts of the world," the spokesman said.
Khadr's attorneys have asked that the young detainee's case be resolved politically, much like that of David Hicks, the "Aussie Taliban" who was released from Guantánamo following negotiaions between Australia and the United States. A statement on The Guantánamo Blog, a site run by a law firm representing Khadr, assails the US military tribunals.
"Now is the time for Canada and the U.S. to negotiate a political resolution because the commissions system is incapable of justice. Otherwise, Omar, just barely twenty years of age and a minor at the time of the alleged crimes, is guaranteed to be convicted in one of the greatest show trials on earth. This should not be the legacy of America or Canada."
Military rules require that Khadr be arraigned within 30 days, and that he be tried within 120 days.