Youngest captive at Guantanamo seeks to defend himself

Attached is a photo of the original statement Omar Khadr wrote out in advance on Guantanamo student notepaper and read aloud at his hearing on Monday, July 12, 2010
Attached is a photo of the original statement Omar Khadr wrote out in advance on Guantanamo student notepaper and read aloud at his hearing on Monday, July 12, 2010 Carol Rosenberg / Miami Herald

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Canadian Omar Khadr was captured eight years ago, nearly dead after a firefight with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He was 15 and grew into manhood here behind the razor wire.

Now, a strapping 23-year-old, he appears before an Army judge Monday to tackle a thorny question: Is Guantanamo's youngest and last Western captive equipped to defend himself on war-crime charges punishable by life in jail?

The Toronto-born Khadr, in an act of disgust and defiance, fired his lawyers last week. Sometimes, he says he'll be his own lawyer; sometimes, he says he'll boycott the tribunal.

``It's absurd to think, having spent a third of his life in confinement, that he would have enough ability to represent himself,'' says veteran Miami criminal defense attorney Neal Sonnett, who has worked with for greater due process at the war court.

``He obviously has missed out on an education and he certainly is not in a position to understand the rules or to know anything about possible strategy.''


A crossroads moment, it is happening because Obama administration reforms to the Military Commissions give a suspect more power to defend himself in a court that does not distinguish between juvenile and adult.

War-court veterans have watched Khadr become what Canadian family lawyer Dennis Edney calls ``a young man in an adult's body'' since he first appeared at the court in January 2006.

In April 2006, he stunned war-court observers by haltingly reading a hand-written statement rife with spelling errors and sought to fire his lawyers. His opening: ``Excuse me mr. jugde.''

The burly, bearded 6-foot-plus Khadr has had a dozen U.S. lawyers, some of whom were fired and others who quit. But the latest firings come at a crucial time -- two months after his defense team called ex-intelligence forces to describe the teen's black-hooded, shackled treatment and stretcher-bound interrogations in Afghanistan. Doctors had saved him and his eyesight from bullet and shrapnel wounds.

Defense attorneys Barry Coburn and Kobie Flowers now fired, sought to show that Khadr as a 15-year-old old captive was coerced into confessing that he threw a grenade that killed an American army medic.

Then, Khadr sat next to his team when an interrogator testified that he frightened the teen with a rape scenario. Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, saw Khadr sometimes engaged in his defense, sometimes weeping.

``Many days,'' Neve said by telephone, ``this is a young man who experiences a great deal of anxiety and distress and physical pain and no doubt the legacy and aftermath of the eight years of detention and the effects of torture. None of that equips him to be someone who is able to look out for his best legal interests.''

But Canadian counsel Nate Whitling, a Khadr legal advisor, said the firings were long in coming.

``He just doesn't want to participate in this charade anymore,'' said Whitling. ``He thinks it's an unfair process and he's just done playing their game, basically.''


Whitling disagreed with Canadian reports that said Khadr fired his team in disgust because they brought him government offers of a plea agreement in exchange for decades in prison. Defense lawyers are obliged to present any prosecution proposal to their client.

But he said Khadr is in no way prepared to handle his own defense. He hasn't even asked for a copy of the Handbook for Military Commissions. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signed the rule book in April, the eve of his last hearings.Unless Canada intervenes, and a federal court there has again ordered the Stephen Harper government to do so, the Pentagon plans to assemble a jury of senior military officers to hear Khadr's terror trial in August.

Khadr, the son of a now-slain al Qaeda financier, is accused of conspiring with the terror group to plant mines to kill U.S. forces during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The boy was captured, shot twice through the chest, in a U.S. commando air and land assault on a suspected al Qaeda safe house in July 2002.

He is also accused of murder in violation of the laws of war, a crime created by Congress. Prosecutors allege he hurled a grenade that fatally wounded U.S. Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, of Albuquerque.

The case is perhaps more controversial than any at Guantánamo. Critics call it the West's first war-crimes trial of a ``child soldier'' and argue the U.S. should have rehabilitated him -- not interrogated him and held him with adults.

UNICEF head Anthony Lake, who was President Bill Clinton's national security advisor, is among the latest in a long list of international law experts to urge the Obama administration to stop the trial.

Khadr has at times simply refused to show up, confronting both the judge and camp commanders with the dilemma of whether to use a tackle-and-shackle technique to force him into court.


But neither the Canadian boycotting his August trial or defending himself would reflect well on Pentagon justice, said Sonnett. Rather, he said he hoped the judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, ``will have a nice conversation with him and talk him into accepting his lawyers and cooperating with his lawyers so that he has competent representation.''

In fact, Sonnett said on reflection he could imagine no scenario in which a Guantanamo defendant was equipped to defend himself. Most of the 181 captives held here today arrived in 2002.

``The military commissions are flawed enough,'' said Sonnett. ``If they now have to proceed with people acting as their own lawyers the flaws are going to be exacerbated and any results are at risk of being accused of being an injustice and a kangaroo court.''

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