At Guantanamo, a war crimes trial is postponed indefinitely

Miami HeraldJanuary 20, 2009 

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- A military judge on Tuesday postponed next week's trial of Canadian captive Omar Khadr, easing pressure on the new occupant of the White House to make a swift decision on military commissions.

Army Col. Patrick Parrish announced the delay at a pre-trial hearing Tuesday morning at the war court, which quit for the day before President Barack Obama took office. Hearings at both commissions courtrooms were scheduled to resume Wednesday morning.

In fact, the change of administration passed with little fanfare at this remote U.S. Navy base, which has drawn international condemnation as a key outpost of Bush administration war-on-terror detention policy.

At the main base cafeteria, soldiers, airmen and sailors chattered throughout their meatloaf lunch, even as every television in the galley was tuned to the transfer of power.

In a rare display of emotion, Petty Officer Patrick Thompson applauded after Obama swore the oath, then watched intently while the new president addressed the nation. Thompson, a 43-year-old Jamaican-American health worker from Plantation, Fla., saw the thrust of the new president's message as an appeal to Americans to "realign our thinking patterns, buckle our shoes and move forward.''

Thompson said, for him personally, the meaning of watching a black man become president was "the sky's the limit. And that's why I'm so elated.''

The war court was dark Tuesday afternoon in consideration of the inauguration.

Khadr, captured at 15, is charged with murder as a war crime for allegedly throwing a grenade in July 2002 in a firefight in Afghanistan that killed Sgt 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, of Albuquerque, N.M.

Human rights groups had appealed to Obama even before he took office to halt the Jan. 26 trial.

Khadr, now 22, has grown into burly, bearded 6-foot-2 adulthood behind the razor wire of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the consternation of children's rights advocates, who say he should have been treated as a ''child soldier'' -- not interrogated for years as a terror suspect.

Until Tuesday, the Khadr case was shaping up to be an early test of Obama's pledge to close the prison camps.

But, independently, Parrish announced a delay in the trial while defense and prosecution teams still line up witnesses for pre-trial motions on what evidence Khadr's jury of U.S. officers would hear at trial.

The judge scheduled more hearings for Wednesday morning.

But Parrish's indefinite delay -- he set no new trial date -- also derailed Pentagon plans to airlift a jury panel of U.S. military officers to this remote base this weekend.

In parallel, absent a closure order from the new administration, the judge overseeing the Pentagon's Sept. 11 death-penalty trial had scheduled a 10:30 a.m. hearing on Wednesday.

At the war court, Tuesday's Khadr hearing heard testimony from New York FBI Agent Robert Fuller, who described interrogating the Canadian teen in Bagram, Afghanistan,three months after he was captured unconscious with two gunshot wounds through his chest.

Some 30 military and other intelligence agents had already interrogated the Canadian by the time Fuller saw Khadr, in October 2002, and it was the FBI agent's assignment to show the teen a photo album of al Qaeda suspects.

Khadr, then 16, was cooperative, he said. He picked out Osama bin Laden, deputy Ayman al Zawahiri and about eight other men from dozens of photos of Arab men, some he reportedly recognized from attending a party with his father at age 9.

A defense attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, cast the young Khadr's pre-teen role as a bystander who met al Qaeda insiders as a child because his father raised funds for militant causes and moved his family to Pakistan from Toronto when Omar was a child.

''He didn't admit to any further involvement,'' said Fuller.

Fuller also said in his first interrogation of Khadr he showed him a photo of Canadian Maher Arar, by request of the FBI's Boston field office.

Arar had days before been detained by the FBI in New York, and would be rendered to Syria for brutal interrogation a day after Khadr said he recognized the man.

Fuller said, according to his notes, Khadr believed he saw Arar in Afghanistan around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, a year earlier -- even though Canadian intelligence subsequently confirmed Arar was in Canada during the timeframe.

Arar is back in Canada, which exonerated him of ties to terror and awarded him a $10.5 million unlawful imprisonment settlement. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also apologized for any role Ottawa may have had in his abuse.

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