Yesterday, 24-year-old Canadian citizen Omar Khadr pleaded guilty to terrorism related charges during his military tribunal hearing at Guantanamo Bay. Khadr admitted to throwing a grenade on an Afghanistan battlefield that killed an American soldier in 2002 and planting numerous roadside bombs. Khadr had been reluctant to admit guilt, but his Canadian lawyer, speaking with the CBC’s As It Happens last night, explained the situation Khadr faced:
DENNIS EDNY: He’s agreed to accept this deal because when he looks at the alternatives and the alternatives are that he’s in a military process…that has been condemned by military prosecutors themselves who say that it is designed to make findings of guilt. He faced the potential of life in prison under this system here because the jury is hand picked, the judge is hand picked, the prosecution is hand picked and the military defense is hand picked. And then what I think really capped it all off was, much of the evidence against Omar are statements that he made while being abused and tortured and under duress. So the cards were stacked.
Indeed, Khadr was both mentally and physically abused at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, where he was first interrogated, and at Gitmo. Those statements he made under duress were deemed admissible in court. Moreover, the New York Times notes that Khadr’s prosecution was “unusual” not only because child soldiers are normally not prosecuted (Khadr was 15 years old when the U.S. military apprehended him), but also because the main charge against him was killing a soldier on the battlefield, an action, again, that is not traditionally prosecuted. Thus, the U.S. military took great pains (see the “Jurisdiction” section of Khadr’s Stipulation of Fact) to make the case that Khadr lacked military immunity. One reason the military cited was the fact that Khadr wore no national military uniform. The Times reports the Obama administration’s shocking reaction to this conundrum:
The uniform issue also led to a scramble by the Obama legal team to rewrite commission rules on the eve of a hearing for Mr. Khadr. Because Central Intelligence Agency drone operators also kill while not wearing uniforms, the team rewrote the rules to downgrade “murder in violation of the laws of war” to a domestic law offense from a war crime to avoid seeming to implicitly concede that the C.I.A. is committing war crimes.
During his CBC interview, Edny further explained the bizarre circumstances surrounding Khadr’s plea:
EDNY: In court today, they added two more charges that we’d never heard of and it seems to be that he is responsible for everybody that got injured or killed in that fight in the compound with the Taliban. [...] These charges that Omar faces are unknown under the laws of war. The Americans made them up in order to justify detaining people who didn’t wear a uniform in the battlefields of Afghanistan and I’ve often said over the years, can someone tell me what uniform the Northern Alliance was wearing when it joined the Americans in attacking the Taliban? So it’s all smoke and mirrors here.
Listen to Edny’s interview with the CBC:
Under the terms of the agreement, Khadr will serve one more year in detention in Guantanamo Bay and then be repatriated to Canada to serve the remaining seven years.
A number of legal scholars questioned the legitimacy of Khadr’s proceedings. “The conviction of this child soldier for non-existent war crimes is a disgraceful travesty and a stain on America’s reputation,” said former Gitmo defense lawyer David Frakt, who added that the plea “saved the administration from the unseemly spectacle of a trial” and that the U.S. will “still go down in history as the first civilised nation to prosecute a child soldier as a war criminal.” Stanford Law lecturer Chip Pitts said, “This plea bargain shouldn’t be taken as indication of the legitimacy of the irredeemably tainted military commissions.”
“I don’t know how anyone who cares about the integrity and moral standing of the United States can absorb the full details of this case and not be profoundly ashamed,” writes the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan. “To prosecute a child soldier, already nearly killed in battle, tortured and abused in custody, and to imprison him for this length of time and even now, convict him of charges for which there is next to no proof but his own coerced confessions…well, words fail.”