US to Make History Trying Alleged Child War Criminal
Wednesday 25 April 2007
A human rights group today attacked a US decision to file murder charges against a Canadian national and alleged Taliban fighter who was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15.
Omar Khadr was wounded by US soldiers during a battle near Khost, Afghanistan, and taken into US custody in July 2002. He has spent most of the past five years in the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay.
During his capture he was shot three times and is nearly blind in one eye as a result of his injuries. The US military says Mr Khadr threw a grenade that killed a US Green Beret sergeant, Christopher Speer, and wounded another sergeant, Layne Morris.
Mr Khadr's Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Marine lieutenant colonel Colby Vokey, said the US 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 if a trial went ahead.
Mr Khadr has been charged with murder, attempted murder, providing support to terrorism, conspiracy and spying under rules for military trials adopted last year. The conspiracy charge is based on acts allegedly committed before Mr Khadr was 10, according to his defence team.
Amnesty International strongly criticised the decision to subject Mr Khadr to a military tribunal.
"To have held a 15-year-old boy in the harsh and lawless conditions of Guantánamo for five years has already been a travesty of justice - and to put him before an unfair 'military commission' trial simply adds to a disgraceful record in his case," said the Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen.
Ms Allen said the US authorities should transfer his case to a civilian federal court on the US mainland.
Toronto-born Mr Khadr faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The Pentagon said Mr Khadr must be held accountable.
"The defence department will continue to uphold the law and bring unlawful enemy combatants to justice through the military commissions process," it said.
Mr Speer's widow and Mr Morris filed a civil lawsuit against Mr Khadr and his father. In February, a judge awarded them $102.6m (£51m).
Dennis Edney, a Canadian lawyer for Mr Khadr's family, said the new tribunal system, which allows coerced and hearsay evidence, "provides Mr Khadr with almost no chance of proving his innocence.
"The aim is to provide a showcase to justify the US administration decision to arrest Mr. Khadr and other men like him in the first place," Mr Edney told the Associated Press.
Mr Khadr's attorneys urged Canada and the US to negotiate a "political resolution" of the case to spare Mr Khadr a guaranteed conviction by "one of the greatest show trials on earth".
Several of Mr Khadr's family members have been accused of ties to Islamist extremists.
His Egyptian-born father, Ahmad Said al-Khadr, was killed in Pakistan in 2003 alongside senior al-Qaida operatives and Canada is holding Mr Khadr's brother Abdullah on a US extradition warrant accusing him of supplying weapons to al-Qaida.
Mr Khadr will be the second prisoner to face terror charges under new military tribunals after the US supreme court in June struck down the previous military tribunal system at Guantánamo as unconstitutional. Congress then passed a law establishing a new system, which is also being challenged.
In March, the military tribunal at Guantánamo sentenced an Australian, David Hicks, to nine months in prison after he pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism - the first conviction at a US war crimes trial since the second world war.
Under an agreement with the court, he will serve his sentence in an Australian prison, but must remain silent about any alleged abuse while in US custody. Prosecutors say they plan to charge as many as 80 of the 370 men held at Guantánamo on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
"We are increasingly concerned that with 80% of Guantánamo detainees now held in solitary confinement, there is mounting evidence that some are dangerously close to full-blown mental and physical breakdown," Amnesty said.