First Guantanamo Trial Under Obama Opens

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Agence France-Presse

First Guantanamo Trial Under Obama Opens


Camp Delta area at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. US President Barack Obama's revamped military commissions start work Monday at the US naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, focusing on the cases of two men facing terrorism charges. (AFP/Paul J. Richards)

US NAVAL BASE AT GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - The first Guantanamo trial of Barack Obama's presidency opened Tuesday as Canadian detainee Omar Khadr, who was captured by US troops in Afghanistan at age 15, went before a military tribunal to face murder charges.

Khadr appeared in the courtroom dressed in western clothing and a tie, as deliberations began in choosing a jury of military officers to hear the case of the 23-year-old who has spent more than a third of his life under US detention.

His US military lawyer Jon Jackson and military prosecutors will interview 15 officers before selecting at least five for the jury in the trial, which is expected to last at least three weeks at the US naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba.

Khadr, accused of throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier during a July 2002 battle in Afghanistan, kept up the suspense about his court appearance until the last minute. In July, he threatened to boycott the process, which he criticized as a "sham."

He is the last remaining Westerner at Guantanamo and the only detainee charged with murder. He is alleged to have been trained by Al-Qaeda and joined a bomb-making network organized by Osama bin Laden.

Canada has not requested the young man's return, preferring to allow the US trial to run its course.

"It's very clear that the government of the US and the government of Canada have decided not to intervene in this case and therefore we are going to see the first case of a child soldier in modern history," Jackson said prior to the trial.

Khadr, who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan and lost vision in his left eye, has so far refused Washington's offer of 30 years in prison -- including 25 in Canada -- in exchange for a guilty plea.

On Monday, Jackson sought the withdrawal of statements that Khadr made at Bagram air base and at Guantanamo, insisting they were made under duress.

But military judge Patrick Parrish ruled in a pre-trial hearing that Khadr's alleged confessions can be heard, angering Khadr's defense team which labeled the decision "disgraceful."

At the start of Tuesday's court proceedings, an official read out five charges against Khadr, including murder, espionage and material support for terrorism.

The judge instructed the 15 officers that as jury members they would be instructed to reach their conclusions "beyond a reasonable doubt" but that they would not need to rely on "mathematical certainty."

Prosecutor Jeff Groharing then posed questions to the potential jurors highlighting the legal controversies at the center of the Khadr case: "Does anyone consider it unfair to use statements the accused made?" he asked them.

"Does anyone find it inappropriate to try somebody eight years after the facts?" he went on. "Do you think it's inappropriate to try a juvenile for a serious crime?"

Khadr's attorney, a lieutenant colonel, stressed that he would "zealously" question officers during the trial and immediately sought to introduce doubt into the case against the defendant.

"Has anyone heard of an incident where somebody makes a statement to a law enforcement officer that turns out to be false?" Jackson asked.

"It is a scientific fact that memory gets worse over time. Everybody agree with that?"

Khadr's case was one of two underway Tuesday. A hearing to determine sentencing for Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, 50, a former bin Laden bodyguard who pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to provide material support to terrorism, begins later in the day in a separate courtroom.

The cases are the first to be heard since the tribunals, created by former president George W. Bush, were revamped last year by the Obama administration and Congress to give greater rights to defendants.

Since 2001, four men have been convicted of terrorism-related charges in Guantanamo trials, two of whom pleaded guilty, while US federal courts have sentenced some 200 extremists over the same period.

There are now about 180 detainees left at Guantanamo, but the administration has yet to lay out a definitive timetable for closing the controversial facility.

Obama came into office pledging to shutter the prison within a year, but was unable to meet that deadline amid difficulty repatriating some detainees and determining how and where to detain and prosecute others.

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