The Department of Defense (DoD) announced on Monday that Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, 24, pleaded guilty to all war crime charges against him, including murder, attempted murder, providing material support to terrorism, conspiracy and spying, in a long-negotiated plea agreement.
The deal allows Khadr to avoid a controversial military trial in favor of a shorter prison sentence and spares the United States further embarrassment in prosecuting a child soldier for the first time since World War II. Khadr’s sentencing hearing will begin today.
That this has happened under the Obama administration is “an enormous disappointment,” said Dixon Osburn, director of Human Rights First Law and Security Program. “Obama was very clear when running that he wanted to see Guantanamo closed. He wanted to ensure that the US followed the rule of law and that clearly has not happened in this case … the military commission system is defective.”
Khadr admitted to throwing a grenade that killed Sfc. Christopher Speers during a firefight between US and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan – an act which was not considered a war crime by the Military Commissions Act (MCA) at the time of conduct.
After being captured at 15, Khadr has spent the last eight years in US custody at Guantanamo awaiting trial. His time in detention has been fraught with allegations of mental and physical torture at the hands of US soldiers and interrogators.
Khadr’s defense lawyers may have the opportunity to present evidence of his mistreatment during his sentencing hearing, Osburn said.
“That could be something that is presented and is possible the military jury will come back with a lesser sentence.” Osburn added that the US government is also capable of addressing the allegations. “If torture is being committed, there is a statute of limitations. There is still an opportunity for us to redress that law. We’ve certainly seen no movement, but there is still a possibility.”
In a news release, DoD said, “In a military commission, a panel of military officers known as ‘members’ determines the sentence, regardless of whether the plea was guilty or not guilty.”
Today’s hearing will be significant if the jury delivers a shorter sentence than the one currently negotiated, which would sentence Khadr to one more year of prison at Guantanamo and an additional seven in his home country of Canada. Had he gone to trial, Khadr faced the possibility of being sentenced to life in prison.
“There’s not much choice,” said Khadr’s Canadian attorney Dennis Edney. “He either pleads guilty to avoid trial, or he goes to trial, and the trial is an unfair process.”
Many national and international nonprofit groups working to promote civil rights have long spoken out against military commissions. In the time that the MCA system has convicted five alleged terrorists, including three plea agreements, the US federal courts have conducted more than 400 successful terrorism trials since 9/11.
American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said, “Khadr’s plea deal means that the United States will be spared the embarrassment of trying a child soldier in a tribunal that most of the world sees as illegitimate … these tribunals are simply incapable of providing fair trails, and they ought to be shut down altogether. Individuals accused of terrorism-related crimes should be prosecuted in federal courts.”
Currently, 36 Guantanamo detainees are awaiting trial or commission, while 90 individuals have been cleared for release or repatriation and more than 40 are being held indefinitely without charge.