WASHINGTON – The youngest prisoner at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is scheduled to stand trial Tuesday on allegations of killing a U.S. soldier and partially blinding another, and the outcome probably will spark renewed international debate over the practice of incarcerating and prosecuting child soldiers.
Eight years a captive at the prison for terrorist suspects, Omar Ahmed Khadr, 23, released a letter through his lawyers this spring warning that if the Obama administration takes him to trial in a military tribunal, it could reveal “what is going on down here.”
“If the world sees the U.S. sentencing a child to life in prison,” he wrote, “it might show the world how unfair and (a) sham this process is.”
Born in Canada and raised in a family closely associated with terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, Khadr was captured in Afghanistan in 2002. He was 15 at the time, and was taken after a firefight in which he is accused of tossing a grenade that killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, an Army Special Forces soldier, and wounded Staff Sgt. Layne Morris.
Since his capture, Khadr has alleged he was tortured, held in harsh conditions and kept from his family and attorneys, and that he suffered deep emotional distress and borderline mental illness. When he arrived at the prison, he was given children’s books to prepare him for sessions with American interrogators; now, if convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of the rest of his life behind bars.
Khadr’s upcoming trial will mark a defining test of the Obama administration’s decision to go forward with military tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Some constitutional law experts have said he should have been released years ago because of his youth and evidence that his family upbringing forced him to take up arms with bin Laden. Others have argued that he should be returned to Canada and reunited with his mother, perhaps to be tried there in a civilian court.
But the U.S. government contends he must be prosecuted for Speer’s death and Morris’ injury, and military prosecutors have methodically pushed forward over the years for a tribunal in which he would be tried before a U.S. military judge and a jury of U.S. soldiers.
Khadr’s attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to delay the trial until they could obtain a ruling on whether he is being denied due process and should be tried by Canadian authorities because the U.S. military commission system is “second-class justice.”
“This kind of discrimination is something we cannot stand for as a country,” said defense lawyer Army Lt. Col. Jon S. Jackson.
Taking a jab at the Obama White House, Jackson added, “But our politicians want to pass the buck. No one wants to stand up for what is right because no one wants to take the political heat.”