Reporting from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — A former child soldier from Canada was convicted of war crimes Monday, the fifth prisoner brought to justice by military commissions since the controversial tribunal was created nearly nine years ago — the others being a cook, a propagandist, a driver and a onetime kangaroo skinner.
Omar Khadr, now a tall and burly 24-year-old, pleaded guilty to five charges, including the murder of U.S. special forces soldier Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer while fighting at age 15 with hardened Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan with whom his father had apprenticed him in 2002.
The conviction, for which Khadr is expected to serve little additional time, "puts a lie to the long-standing argument by some that Omar Khadr is a victim. He's not. He's a murderer," the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Navy Capt. John Murphy, said.
Human rights lawyers countered that the plea deal, under which Khadr would probably return to Canada in a year, does little to improve the tarnished image of the Guantanamo Bay war crimes tribunal.
Neither has the Obama administration succeeded in distancing itself from the controversial tribunal with what it hoped would "look like it gave a break to a child soldier who should never have been brought here at all," said Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First.
Despite an agreed-upon sentence, which was not publicly disclosed Monday but was rumored to be eight years, seven senior military officers will assemble Tuesday for a sentencing hearing. The jurors, or commissioners as they are known in this process, don't know the terms of Khadr's plea deal and will come to their own decision on the time he should serve. Khadr will be sentenced to the shorter of the two terms.
Army Col. Patrick Parrish, the military judge, observed that Khadr would be eligible in one year to return to Canada and serve whatever remains of his sentence. His Canadian attorney, Dennis Edney, said the government had provided assurances that Canada would take back Khadr, despite resisting for years because of the radical behavior of his late father and older siblings.
As Parrish questioned Khadr about his understanding of the plea agreement, Speer's widow sat in the courtroom gallery, wiping away tears at the mention of the murder charge. Tabitha Speer is expected to testify for the prosecution and urge a more severe sentence.
Khadr, in an ill-fitting charcoal suit, was asked to affirm that he had committed all of the crimes detailed in a 50-point "stipulation." He muttered "yes" to each, with his head hung and a hand nervously flitting between his forehead and the microphone.
Three of the five convictions here — from among nearly 800 prisoners incarcerated since January 2002 — have been achieved through plea bargains. Australian David Hicks, the former kangaroo skinner and ninth-grade dropout, was freed in his homeland in less than nine months under a 2007 plea deal in which he admitted providing material support to Al Qaeda. Sudanese captive Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud Qosi, an Al Qaeda cook, is serving a reported two-year sentence.
Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was the first Guantanamo prisoner placed on trial in 2008. He was sentenced to just six months more than the time he had served.
The only trial resulting in lengthy punishment was that of Yemeni militant Ali Hamza Bahlul, a committed warrior who made propaganda videos for Al Qaeda. He declined to defend himself in his 2008 trial and is serving a life sentence.
Critics of the Guantanamo operations, which President Obama had vowed to close within a year of taking office, said the Khadr case demonstrated anew the failure of the military commissions process.
"We've waited two years for the president to make good on his promises," said Jennifer Turner, an attorney and researcher for the American Civil Liberties Union. Noting that U.S. federal courts have tried more than 400 terrorism suspects compared with the commissions' handful, Turner said the tribunal is "an unmitigated disaster and it's time to end it."
Some, though, saw Khadr's conviction as an important victory for the war crimes court, as he was the first captured in the act of anti-U.S. hostilities.
"Omar Khadr has finally stood up and admitted the truth," said Layne Morris, a sergeant with a Delta Force team who was wounded in the firefight that led to Khadr's capture.