Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — Across his eight years in U.S. custody, Americans have seen Canadian Omar Khadr grow from a child found near dead in a war zone in Afghanistan to a brooding, weeping teenager and more recently a defiant young man spurning a guilty plea deal at Guantanamo.
They’ve seen him cast as, alternately, a child of jihad who hurled a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in battle in Afghanistan in 2002 or a 15-year-old captured far from his native Toronto and then tortured into confessing to a crime he now denies.
Prosecutors say Khadr, now 23, was an “unprivileged enemy belligerent” when he joined elders on a night mission in Afghanistan, planting mines. They call it a war crime.
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Defense lawyers see a “child soldier” whose father introduced him to al Qaida at age 11 and deserved the protections of an innocent offered up to war.
While his coming trial must tackle those competing tales, the first full war crimes prosecution of the Obama administration may reveal much more:
Some key questions:
How did the U.S. wage war on al Qaida and the Taliban?
Testimony should take the jurors back to the summer of 2002 and the U.S. military’s major combat operations in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a time when Guantanamo’s prison camps were months old and the Taliban was on the run.
After nearly a decade, many Americans have soured on the Afghanistan mission. Back then, however, before the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces were still exploring their turf after the battles of Tora Bora, hunting Osama bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders.
U.S. Special Forces found Khadr inside a compound while chasing a tip that someone inside was using a satellite phone.
Can the Pentagon mount a transparent trial? In years of pretrial hearings, the Pentagon has had witnesses testify anonymously or with their identities shielded in court — in one instance an Army colonel who ran the prison, had done named interviews with reporters and wore his name on his uniform still testified as Col. B.
Earlier this year, court security officers cleared the tribunal chamber of spectators while those with security clearances watched a Khadr interrogation video already posted on YouTube. Pentagon officials, however, have said they’re eager to keep the proceedings transparent.
Did the U.S. lawfully interrogate captives? Khadr was held at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan from July 2002 until after his 16th birthday, then taken to Guantanamo — two interrogation and detention spots 8,000 miles apart that have seen their share of abuse complaints.
Pre-trial testimony has shown that interrogators scared him with a tale of rape into cooperating with his captors, shackled him hooded and crying inside a Bagram cell and questioned him while he was still chained to a stretcher, probably sedated. So before the trial even begins, the judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, has to decide first which, if any, of Khadr’s incriminating statements can be brought to trial.
Did he do it? Next week’s session opens with mental health experts testimony. Khadr’s lawyers argue he was tortured into confessing to a crime he doesn’t remember after his capture, near dead on July 27, 2002, in a firefight near Khost, Afghanistan. He’d been shot twice in the back, blinded in one eye and was buried in the rubble of two 500-pound bombs.
A former Army psychiatrist, retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, spent time with an adult Khadr and argues he suffered so much shock in the blasts that he only was telling his captors what they wanted to hear. The Pentagon hired Dr. Michael Welner, a high-profile forensic psychiatrist who may be best known for his use of a “Depravity Scale” to evaluate evil. Welner has testified for the government in the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping trial and in the Andrea Yates child drowning case.
Can justice be swift? On the calendar, at least, the Pentagon has carved out until Sept. 15 for the case of the Canadian who’s spent a third of his life in custody of the U.S. military and has been charged in every version of military commissions since President George W. Bush ordered their creation.
Judge Parrish must finish up next week’s pre-trial hearings to decide how much evidence, how many witnesses will be heard at the trial even before he seats a jury of U.S. military officers brought to Guantanamo from bases around the world.
Absent a guilty plea — Khadr said in July that he spurned an offer — it could go on for weeks. It could be worse. As the lone Western captive still at Guantanamo, Khadr is fluent in English (and three other languages) and needs no simultaneous translation.
How much will we hear from his Canadian family? Khadr’s father, Ahmed Said, was allegedly an al Qaida financier until Pakistani security forces shot him to death in 2003. One of his brothers, Abdullah, was just freed last week from five years in Canadian prison while the courts examined then rebuffed a U.S. request for extradition to Boston as a suspected terrorist.
Don’t expect the family at the trial, however. The Pentagon controls travel to and from the remote base and Canada grounded Khadr’s mother, sisters and brothers after the 9/11 attacks, ending years living between Toronto, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Still, his brother Abdulrahman, now 30 and free, may testify by video feed from Canada. Abdulrahman also was held at Guantanamo for a time, he and said he cooperated. If Omar is convicted, his attorneys have him listed as a character witness — to describe their extremist father’s influence in a Sins of the Father plea for leniency.
How much will we hear from the victims? Expect Michigan native Tabitha Speer. Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, died of the grenade wounds he suffered in the firefight that ended with Khadr’s capture, and Pentagon officials have said they’ll bring his 40-year-old widow to watch the trial.
Unclear is whether Speer, who was working in a North Carolina beauty salon when her husband was killed, will bring the couple’s children, an 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy who was 9 months old when his father went to war. Including Speer, five 82nd Airborne and Special Forces soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., received Purple Hearts within two days of the firefight, two at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and three in Germany.
Will Khadr show up? If he refuses to come to court, the judge and prison camps commander will have to decide whether to use a tackle-and-shackle technique to force him out of the prison camps and into the court.
Khadr has called the war court a political sham. Parrish, the judge, never got a clear answer from Khadr on whether he’ll come to his trial voluntarily. Stay tuned.
(Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.)