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Trial of Guantanamo 'celebrity' Omar Khadr resumes Monday

Canadian Omar Khadr attends jury selection. (Janet Hamlin, pool sketch artist)
Canadian Omar Khadr attends jury selection. (Janet Hamlin, pool sketch artist)

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — With two days until resumption of his terror trial, Guantanamo's youngest and last Western detainee betrayed no signs Saturday of the drama of coming proceedings.

It was lunch-ime at Camp 4 and Omar Khadr, 24, who is accused of war crimes, ambled around a corner of the prison camp for some of Guantanamo's most cooperative captives.

He neither shouted out to a dozen visiting reporters nor signaled anything as he went about preparing for lunch in his chain-linked, razor-wire topped enclosure.

It almost seemed as if the Canadian-born captive had read recently revised Pentagon ground rules that forbid videotaping "a detainee's attempts to communicate with members of the media."

A Navy guard standing near Khadr apparently hadn't. He shouted across the yard, "Want a photograph?"

It may have been a Hollywood moment. Khadr, blinded in one eye in the U.S. military raid that captured him, was sporting sunglasses and the white prison camp uniform of a well-behaved captive as he ducked in and out of his prison camp bunkhouse.

But none of the journalists' images of his face survived a Pentagon censorship process, under an interpretation of a clause in the Geneva Conventions that forbids the parade of war prisoners. A soldier deleted them.

The Pentagon on Friday airlifted 26 international news media, mostly Canadian, to this remote base for Monday's resumption of the trial amid reports of a looming plea deal that would give him a shortened sentence, much of it served in Canada.

U.S. troops captured Khadr in Afghanistan in July 2002, at age 15, and he has spent a third of his life at Guantanamo as what critics of his confinement call "a child soldier."

Khadr allegedly hurled a grenade that mortally wounded a 28-year-old U.S. Special Forces soldier, Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer of Albuquerque, N.M. Khadr also is accused of helping plant mines meant to kill or maim allied forces in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon's chief prosecutor waived the possibility of seeking the death penalty in the case in consideration of the Canadian's youth at capture so conviction could be punishable by life in prison.

Prison commanders organized the camp visit Saturday to give first-time visitors a glimpse of the eight-year-old detention center, and veteran journalists an update of the facility where the Pentagon now confines 174 foreign men.

Khadr's trial was abruptly recessed on its first day in August after his lone defense attorney, an Army lieutenant colonel, collapsed in court while cross examining the U.S. commando who shot the Toronto-born teen twice in the back to capture him.

Khadr is a bit of a celebrity here, the rare captive whom guards know by name rather than by his internment number, 766, mostly because of his youth but also because of his fluent, Western sounding English.

He's also the only prisoner here to have a book written about him, "Guantanamo's Child," which recounts how guards in his early years someone treated him to a Disney book. The son of a since slain Muslim militant, his father moved the family to South Asia when Khadr was a boy. His lawyers now say he is studying for a high school equivalency degree.

Besides the journalists, the Pentagon airlifted to this base Friday a number of witnesses designated to testify in the event of a conviction, or guilty plea.

They include Speer's widow, Tabitha, mother of their two children; former Utah National Guard soldier, Layne Morris, who was also left blinded in one eye in the gunbattle that captured Khadr; Dr. Michael Welner, a Pentagon paid forensic psychiatrist and for the defense, retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, the Army's former chief psychiatrist.

Pentagon officials will neither confirm nor deny that the top official responsible for the war court, retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, has been negotiating a plea to avert what critics call the first modern prosecution of a child soldier.

Even if he pleads guilty to an offense in exchange for a set sentence, however, his jury of seven senior U.S. officers will deliberate a term of punishment based on the facts of the case. Under the war court's rules, he would serve whichever sentence is shorter.

(Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.)

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