GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - A military prosecutor dramatically laid out the U.S. government’s case against so-called "child soldier" Omar Khadr on Thursday, depicting him as a dedicated al-Qaida terrorist who took pride in his efforts to kill American soldiers.
When Khadr was first brought to Guantanamo in the fall of 2002 he told an FBI agent: "I am a terrorist trained by al-Qaida," chief prosecutor Jeff Groharing told the jury of seven military officers. When asked by the agent what in life he was most proud of, Khadr replied: "conducting operations against the Americans," Groharing said.
But defense lawyer Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson offered a sharply different image of Khadr. Jackson depicted him at the time of his alleged crimes as a scared and impressionable 15-year-old who had been brought to Afghanistan by his dominating father, a trusted associated of Osama bin Laden, and was then threatened with rape and even death by a U.S. military interrogator following his capture. "This case is about who we are as Americans," Jackson said.
Khadr has pleaded not guilty to five charges including murder, spying and supporting terrorism. He faces a maximum life sentence at a trial expected to last roughly three or four weeks.
The dueling pictures of Khadr — a Canadian citizen, now 23, who has spent more than a third of his life in detention at Guantanamo — is at the heart of a war crimes trial that has become the first big test of the Obama administration’s revamped military commissions. The Pentagon is hoping a successful outcome will pave the way for them to try 30 to 40 Guantanamo detainees — including possibly alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators — in military commission trials. But the case has provoked an outcry from human rights groups who say "child soldiers" like Khadr should be considered victims, not war criminals.
Although thrown on the defensive by the criticism, Pentagon officials have been suggesting for some time that when members of the public hear the full evidence against Khadr they will understand better why military prosecutors have so aggressively pursued the case for the past five years. Groharing on Thursday sought to do that, explaining how on July 27, 2002, U.S. forces in Afghanistan moved in on an al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan after getting a tip that a terrorist "bombmaker" was holed up there.
But they encountered fierce resistance that led to a four-hour firefight, causing U.S. commanders to call in airstrikes. As soldiers finally moved in on the compound, an al-Qaida fighter hurled a hand grenade that exploded at the feet of Army Special Forces medic Christopher Speer, causing shrapnel to shatter his brain and ultimately killing him.
Groharing said he will present testimony from multiple soldiers who were present at the firefight that day, and "every one of those soldiers will tell you that Omar Khadr was in the exact spot where that grenade came from."
Groharing said that day "was not the first time that Omar Khadr attempted to kill Americans." In the rubble of the compound, U.s. forces found weapons and bomb-making components. During a later search, they uncovered a video they said showed Khadr and other al-Qaida operatives assembling and planting IEDs. Later, the prosecutor said, Khadr told his interrogators that he positioned the IEDs on the side of roads near mountains in order to "maximize the blowback" and "kill as many Americans as they could."
Khadr "decided to conspire" with al-Qaida and is "responsible for his acts" and those of his co-conspirators, the prosecutor told the jury. "This trial is about holding an al-Qaida terrorist accountable for his actions and vindicating the laws of war."
But Jackson aggressively challenged that premise, stating that Khadr was only in Afghanistan in the first place because his father, who was a trusted associate of bin Laden.
Khadr's father "hated his enemies more than he loved his son," Jakcon said. In the Muslim culture, Jackson said, young boys "didn’t say no" to their fathers. Khadr had been dispatched by his father to the compound to be a translator.
As for Khadr's later purported confession, Jackson said the prosecutor had "cherry-picked" statements he made and didn’t tell the jury "the full story." In particular, he said, Groharing had omitted any reference to the military interrogator who first questioned Khadr at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
That interrogator was later court-martialed for mistreating another detainee, Jackson said. The interrogator — who has been identified in media reports as Joseph Claus — will take the stand and describe how he had sought to frighten Khadr by telling him a made-up "story," Jackson added. In that story, the interrogators allegedly told Khadr about another detainee who "got sent to an American prison" and then was raped by "four big black guys."
"We couldn’t help the kid," Jackson said the interrogator told Khadr. "We’re not sure but we think that he died."
Khadr was "scared to death and he’s being threatened with rape and murder," Jackson said, describing his client’s state of mind at the time. It was only after that Khadr confessed to "throwing anything" that day.