The Pentagon has dismissed the Guantanamo Bay judge presiding over the case of Omar Khadr, raising questions about political interference and marking another setback in the beleaguered prosecution of the Toronto detainee.
U.S. Army Col. Peter Brownback, 60, a Vietnam veteran who once admitted he was under pressure from Washington concerning Khadr's case, was relieved of his duties yesterday and replaced by another military judge.
There was no comment from the Pentagon or the U.S. Office of Military Commissions last night concerning the short email announcing Brownback's departure.
There had been speculation that Brownback had wanted to return to retirement, but most observers had assumed it would be at the end of Khadr's trial.
Khadr's military lawyer, U.S. navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, said the announcement took him by surprise and suggested that the motive for the military judge's removal was political. Brownback had refused to set a trial date for Khadr, which Kuebler said angered those eager to have his case wrapped up before a change in the U.S. administration.
"The timing is certainly suspicious," Kuebler said yesterday. "They're trying to get to trial as quickly as possible. The one thing you can say in (Brownback's) favour was that he was holding the government's feet to the fire."
In recent months, Brownback has ordered the prosecution to hand over documents to the defence as part of the "discovery" process and ruled on more than 50 motions filed by Khadr's legal team.
Prosecutor Marine Maj. Jeff Groharing had argued that Khadr's lawyers were needlessly delaying the trial and spending more time fighting the case in the media, than preparing a defence.
"I have been badgered, beaten and bruised by Maj. Groharing ... to set a trial date," Brownback said during the last hearing. "To get a trial date, I need to get discovery done."
He threatened to suspend the proceedings altogether if the prosecution didn't hand over a military diary detailing Khadr's confinement by last week - a deadline that prosecutors met.
Brownback, a military judge who had never practised civilian law, was the chief judge over the first round of military commissions that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as illegal in June 2006. After the Military Commissions Act was signed into law that fall, Brownback returned as a judge.
Direct and gruff in court, he often frustrated lawyers on both sides. When presiding over the case of Australian detainee David Hicks, Brownback derogatively referred to the military defence lawyer as "Sunshine." It wasn't uncommon for him to laugh or shake his head during arguments made by Groharing during Khadr's hearings.
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Brownback had retired from the army in 1999, admitting during a Guantanamo hearing where lawyers were able to question his impartiality, that he was restless once he left the military.
"I intended to be retired. However, I soon discovered that I was slightly bored," he told the lawyers during a hearing for the Hicks case. "Consequently, at the urging of my wife, I took several part-time jobs."
Before being called back into active duty to preside over the Guantanamo cases, Brownback worked as a census enumerator and a "safety person for beach renewal operations," as well as an instructor at a local college.
"I enjoyed all of the jobs and I regretted having to quit two of them upon my recall to active duty," he said.
During the hearings for Khadr's case over the last two years, Brownback has been deferential when speaking to the Canadian detainee, often checking to see if Khadr understood the proceedings.
Khadr has been held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002, following his capture in Afghanistan at the age of 15. He is charged with five war crimes including murder in the death of Delta Force soldier Christopher Speer.
Brownback had recently turned down a defence motion to dismiss the case on the grounds international law stipulated Khadr was a child soldier in need of protection, not prosecution. That cleared the way for his trial, which was expected to begin later this year.
Brownback will be replaced by U.S. Col. Patrick Parrish. It is unclear if the new judge will now delay the process further.
Khadr's Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, said he hoped this new development would get some attention in Ottawa.
"It has been six years. This government should wake up and assert its moral authority," Edney said.
Khadr is the sole Western detainee remaining in Guantanamo after other U.S. allies successfully negotiated the repatriation of their citizens.
Canada's Supreme Court ruled last week that Khadr's rights had been violated when Canadian agents interrogated him as a teenager in 2003. While the ruling received much attention in a growing community of supporters calling for action in Khadr's case, government officials repeated their refrain that Canada would not interfere with the U.S. case.
© 2008 The Toronto Star