Reporting from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — A military jury on Sunday sentenced former child soldier Omar Khadr of Canada to 40 years more imprisonment for war crimes, including the battlefield death of a U.S. soldier.
The sentence was the harshest to come out of a contested military commissions trial. It was 15 years longer than even the prosecution had sought.
But the sentence was essentially meaningless because a pretrial agreement, kept secret from the jury, limited Khadr's term to eight years, meaning he would have to serve only one more year in U.S. custody.
Khadr was 15 in June 2002 when his radical father and ally of Osama bin Laden left him in the company of Al Qaeda fighters in southern Afghanistan. A month later, the Canadian youth was gravely wounded in a firefight with U.S. Special Forces and captured.
As the only surviving member of the militant cell that built bombs and observed coalition patrols near the city of Khost, Khadr was brought to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and charged with murder, attempted murder, spying, conspiracy and material support for terrorism.
The chief prosecutor at the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal, Navy Capt. John Murphy, said he was pleased with the military jury's severe sentence, saying it sent a message to other terrorists.
The more lenient plea deal served the interests of justice given that the defendant was underage and subjected to radical influences from his late father and older siblings, Murphy said.
Khadr, now 24, gave up his right to appeal his sentence as part of the plea agreement, which should allow the family of Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, who was killed in the firefight with the militant cell, to get on with their lives, the prosecution chief said.
Speer's widow, Tabitha, clenched her fist in victory and uttered, "Yes!" after the jury foreman, a Navy captain, read the decision reached after nine hours of deliberation. She later said the lighter sentence granted her husband's killer was something she and her two children "would have to live with."
Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Groharing, a retired Marine major, had urged the panel to issue a 25-year sentence. Khadr's military lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, told the jurors in closing arguments Saturday that Khadr should be sent home to Canada and offered rehabilitation because "there is going to be no good in keeping him here."
The military commissions' chief defense counsel, Marine Col. Jeff Colwell, said the plea agreement was a success in securing Khadr's release from Guantanamo.
In a week of testimony to the jury, forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner said Khadr was a committed jihadist with little prospect for rehabilitation.
A Navy lawyer serving in Afghanistan, Capt. Patrick McCarthy, testified by video linkup that Khadr, with whom he frequently met during more than two years as chief legal advisor to the Guantanamo detention operations, was redeemable and "a good kid."