An inmate at the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba is set to be the first child soldier to go on trial for war crimes since Nuremberg, after a military judge ruled that there were no legal obstacles preventing the camp's special military commissions from prosecuting him.
Omar Khadr, a Canadian national, was 15 at the time of his alleged crimes. His defence team said his age should see him treated as a victim and rehabilitated, rather than prosecuted as a war criminal. He has had no access to education while at Guantanamo, where he has spent more than a quarter of his life.
But in a brief ruling which has now been made public, the military judge Peter Brownback rejected the plea, paving the way for trial and a new chapter in Guantanamo's history. He said international laws dealing with the treatment of child soldiers were "interesting as a matter of policy", but they did not prevent the military commission set up to try the Guantanamo inmates prosecuting Mr Khadr, who is now 21.
After the publication of the ruling, the head of Mr Khadr's defence team, Lt-Cdr William Kuebler, said the decision to go ahead with the trial was "disappointing, but not surprising".
"The judges here are under a lot of pressure," he said. "This prosecution is an embarrassment to the United States. The US has been a leader in international efforts to protect child soldiers, but we're flouting them in Omar's case."
Human rights organisations have voiced concerns over Mr Khadr's treatment since his arrival at Guantanamo nearly six years ago. Despite his age at the time, Mr Khadr was never treated as a juvenile inmate. He went into the adult camp, rather than Camp Iguana, a camp for minors. His case has also prompted an official protest from the UN's Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy.
Lt-Cdr Kuebler now believes Mr Khadr's only hope of receiving a fair trial is through the Canadian courts, but the Canadian government has refused to intervene in the case, despite growing international pressure. The UK's five leading legal associations have raised concerns with the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, urging him to repatriate Mr Khadr home. The former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who masterminded the return of the British nationals from Guantanamo, is also calling for Mr Khadr to be tried in his home country.
"It's the principle that matters as far as I'm concerned," said Lord Goldsmith. "For a long time I have felt Guantanamo Bay was not right in principle or practice. But I think that is accentuated in the case of someone who was a child at the time, and different considerations therefore apply in how they are dealt with. I would support Omar's return to Canada, and for Canada to deal with him within their law."
Mr Khadr was detained by US soldiers after a firefight at a compound in a small village near Khost, eastern Afghanistan, in July 2002. He is accused of throwing a grenade that killed US Delta Force soldier, Christopher Speer.
After being shot at least twice through the chest and all but blinded in his left eye, Mr Khadr was taken to a US prison at Bagram, air base, where he was interrogated. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay in October 2002 and faces charges of murder, attempted murder, spying, conspiracy and providing material aid for terrorism.
Mr Khadr suffers from a number of ailments, mostly stemming from the injuries he suffered during the battle before his capture. His defence team, the only people with regular access to Mr Khadr, says spending his adolescent years in Guantanamo without access to education has also taken a toll on his educational development and mental health. Access to his family has been irregular.
Mr Khadr will appear before the judge tomorrow for a pre-trial hearing. It is expected that lawyers for the prosecution will ask for the date of his trial to be set.
© 2008 The Independent