Reporting from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — A military jury deliberated more than five hours Saturday on the fate of former child soldier Omar Khadr, who has pleaded guilty to killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old.
Khadr, now 24, has already been promised a limited sentence as part of a plea deal he agreed to Monday that would require him to spend one more year in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. He would then be eligible to petition his native Canada for repatriation and the right to serve the rest of his reported eight-year sentence there.
But rules for the controversial military commission that is trying Khadr require a jury to decide the sentence, even when there is a plea deal that could render it meaningless. The seven senior officers assembled to consider Khadr's sentence haven't been told that a term has already been decided. After adjourning Saturday, they were to resume deliberations midday Sunday. Their decision would be applied only if it was shorter than the one agreed to in the plea deal.
In closing arguments, government lawyers urged the military commission jury to give Khadr at least 25 more years in prison to send a message that the United States takes seriously attacks on its citizens. A harsh term, argued prosecutor Marine Maj. Jeffrey Groharing, would tell enemy captives that "if you are found guilty, you will not be allowed to reenter the fight. Your jihad is over."
Khadr's lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, cited Khadr's age at the time of his involvement with Al Qaeda and his upbringing by a radical Islamic ally of Osama bin Laden in arguing that "there is going to be no good in keeping him here."
Even the government's chief witness in the weeklong sentencing hearing, forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, told the court that Khadr has been "marinating in a radical jihadist community" while imprisoned at Guantanamo, Jackson said.
Welner, a New York psychiatrist hired by the prosecution, argued that Khadr's prognosis for rehabilitation was poor because of his devout Islamic faith, his upbringing by late Al Qaeda financier Ahmed Said Khadr and his having been deprived of formal education in the years he has been detained here.
Khadr pleaded guilty to five war crimes charges, including the murder of U.S. Army special forces Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, in the plea deal that will be unveiled after the jury decision.
The defense called only two witnesses, Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, who served more than two years as the top legal advisor at Guantanamo, and a Canadian college professor, Arlette Zinck, who has been exchanging letters with Khadr. Both said Khadr was redeemable and "a good kid."
Khadr made a statement apologizing for the pain he caused Speer's family. He also had Jackson read a written request that the jurors consider that he had been threatened with gang rape during his interrogation at Bagram air base in Afghanistan after his capture.
Speer's widow, Tabitha, testified to the hardship of raising two children on her own and angrily told Khadr from the witness stand: "You will always be a murderer."