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U.S. charges Canadian detainee with murder

The Pentagon on Tuesday formally charged a Canadian citizen being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with murder for allegedly killing a U.S. Army medic during fighting in Afghanistan. The charge sets the stage for his trial by a military commission.

Omar Khadr, now 20, was just 15 on July 27, 2002, when he allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. soldiers who'd attacked a suspected al-Qaida compound near Khost, Afghanistan. The explosion killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, of Albuquerque, N.M., and partially blinded both Khadr and another American soldier.

Khadr also has been charged with attempted murder, conspiracy, providing material support to terrorism and spying. The United States has accused him of helping al-Qaida convert land mines into roadside bombs, plotting with al-Qaida to kill U.S. troops, undergoing al-Qaida weapons training and surveilling American military convoys in preparation for al-Qaida attacks.

Lawyers for Khadr have argued that he never should have been held or charged and instead should have been treated under international law as a "child soldier" in a conflict zone.

The Pentagon said prosecutors won't seek the death penalty in the case, the second to be brought under legislation passed last year authorizing military commissions for prisoners held at Guantanamo. The first case ended when the defendant, Australian David Hicks, 31, pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism in exchange for a nine-month prison sentence, most of it to be served in his homeland.

Khadr's fate is less certain. While Hicks' five-year imprisonment at Guantanamo without trial became a cause celebre in Australia, Khadr's detention has elicited little sympathy in his native Canada.

The Khadr family, which settled in Toronto in 1977, has been cast as radical Muslims who've moved among Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and who've at times socialized with Osama bin Laden's family. Khadr's father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was killed in a shootout with Pakistani authorities in 2003. His younger brother, Karim, was paralyzed in that shootout. Another brother, Abdullah, 25, is under indictment in Boston for allegedly supplying weapons to al-Qaida.

In Ottawa, a Canadian government spokesman declined to criticize the decision to try Khadr, the only Canadian being held at Guantanamo.

"The choice of mechanisms put in place to try Guantanamo detainees is a matter for U.S. authorities," said Foreign Office spokesman Alain Cacchione.

Canada has "sought and received assurances" of Khadr's humane treatment, he added, and Canadian officials have carried out "several welfare visits with Mr. Khadr and will continue to do so."

Khadr's five-member defense team, including three law professors from American University in Washington, D.C., and two military lawyers, expressed outrage at the charges.

"Omar Khadr was taken into U.S. custody at the age of 15 and has been detained at Guantanamo since he was 16, in conditions equal to or worse than those given to convicted adult criminals, such as prolonged solitary confinement and repeated instances of torture," they said in a statement.

"After nearly five years in such conditions, the government is now demanding his appearance before what can only amount to a kangaroo court. The fact that this administration has seen fit to designate this youth for trial by military commission is abhorrent."

The statement called for Canada and the United States to reach a plea deal in the case. "Otherwise, Omar, just barely twenty years of age and a minor at the time of the alleged crimes, is guaranteed to be convicted in one of the greatest show trials on earth," the statement said. "This should not be the legacy of America or Canada."

The Pentagon defended the process. "Military commissions are regularly constituted courts, affording all the necessary judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples," a Pentagon statement said.

The statement cautioned that "Khadr is presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Under the military commission law, which Congress passed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration couldn't try any of the Guantanamo detainees without congressional authorization, Khadr must be arraigned within 30 days and tried within 60 days after that, meaning his trial is likely to begin before September.

The charges against Khadr describe him as the scion of a terrorist family. He was born in Toronto on Sept. 19, 1986, and moved with his family to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1990, where his father ran a charity that U.S. officials allege was a front for al-Qaida funding.

In 1994, Pakistani authorities arrested Khadr's father in connection with the bombing of the Egyptian Embassy, and Khadr moved back to Canada to live with his grandparents. The next year, he returned to live with his father in Pakistan, and in 1996 the family moved to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

The family regularly spent the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the bin Laden compound, the U.S. charges allege, and Khadr, through his father, met bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, Khadr was given "one-on-one" training in the use of "rocket-propelled grenades, rifles, pistols, grenades and explosives," the charges claim. He then joined an al-Qaida that "converted land mines into remotely-detonated improvised explosive devices to target U.S. and coalition forces."

The climax of Khadr's alleged al-Qaida involvement came when U.S. forces surrounded a compound near the village of Ayub Kheil in Afghanistan. A firefight ensued in which two Afghan militiamen were killed, the charges claim. According to the charges, the gunfight had ended when U.S. soldiers entered the compound. It was then that the U.S. said Khadr threw the grenade that wounded Speer, who died 11 days later in a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

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(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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