'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.

Colin Perke/The Canadian Press/AP
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.
Canadian Press/AP
This undated file photo shows Guantánamo detainee Omar Khadr.

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.

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.

Khadr’s trial was set to begin on Monday. Instead, he appeared before Military Judge Col. Patrick Parrish and admitted that he killed a US Army Special Forces medic and conspired with Al-Qaeda to carry out terrorist attacks against US service members in Afghanistan.

Khadr, now 24, has already spent nearly nine years at the terror detention camp at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in southeast Cuba. Under his plea agreement, he is to spend one more year at the detention camp and then be transferred to Canada to serve the rest of his term.

Full details of the plea agreement have not been disclosed. Press reports say the plea deal requires Khadr to serve seven additional years in prison in Canada.

Closely followed case

Khadr’s case is being closely followed because at the time of his capture by US forces he was 15 years old. He was detained under harsh conditions and subjected to aggressive interrogation tactics.

Lawyers for Khadr argued that he was a “child soldier” who should not have been put on trial and treated as a war criminal. They suggested he was forced into the conflict by his father, an associate of Osama Bin Laden.

Military prosecutors disagreed. They said he was a willing participant in actions that amounted to war crimes.

Khadr was charged with murder for throwing a hand grenade that killed US Army Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer in a July 2002 firefight near Khost, Afghanistan.

He was also charged with conspiracy to engage in terrorism by preparing and planting improvised explosive devices targeted at US forces. In addition, Khadr was charged with attempted murder, conducting surveillance of US military convoys for Al-Qaeda, and providing material support to Al-Qaeda.

He pleaded guilty to all five charges.

Had he fought the charges at trial and lost, Khadr would have faced life in prison.

With Khadr’s guilty plea, the military commission now turns its attention to the length of his sentence. On Tuesday, a seven-member military jury will begin to hear testimony and evidence related to Khadr’s sentence. The panel may not impose a sentence longer than the term called for in Khadr’s plea agreement, but they are free to suggest a shorter sentence, officials say.

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