Ahmed Khadr, the Toronto-born teenager who is the only Canadian held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, has been formally charged with a series of crimes including murder of a U.S. soldier and membership in al-Qaeda.
The Pentagon announced yesterday that Mr. Khadr, who recently turned 19, will be tried by a military commission for throwing the grenade that killed Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer of the U.S. Army during a battle in Afghanistan in July, 2002. Two Afghan militia members were also killed and several U.S. soldiers were injured in the same incident. Mr. Khadr was the only militant to survive.
Muneer Ahmed, Mr. Khadr's New York-based lawyer, lashed out at the military commission, calling it "a kangaroo court" lacking due process and said it is "appalling" that the U.S. government has failed to provide assurances to the Canadian government that his client would not be subject to the death penalty.
"Omar Khadr is a child," Mr. Ahmed said in a statement. "Since he was 15 years old, he has been held in U.S. custody, first in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo, under the worst conditions possible. Through torture, abuse and three years of illegal detention, this government has robbed Omar of his youth."
Canadian government officials, who have frequently been at odds with the Khadr family, said yesterday that they will be closely watching the case and will take steps to make sure the teenager's rights are upheld. "Foreign Affairs Canada is aware of the charges laid against Mr. Khadr and we'll be closely examining this new development," said Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs.
"Foreign Affairs also supports Mr. Khadr's right to due process, and that he be afforded appropriate legal representation," Mr. McTeague added.
Mr. Khadr is charged with conspiracy, murder, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. He was 15 at the time of the alleged incident. Asked whether the fact that he was a minor will change the nature of the trial, a Pentagon spokesman responded, "He's over 18 now."
Since he has been detained in Guantanamo, Mr. Khadr has complained of being tortured by U.S. troops, of being used by soldiers as a human mop to wipe up his own urine after being confined to the same position for hours at a time.
The U.S. military denies mistreating prisoners.
A Pentagon official said that the maximum sentences for the crimes with which Mr. Khadr is charged are to be determined at a later stage in the complex process, but said it could ultimately include the death penalty.
"I would push for the maximum penalty allowed under the tribunal rules," Layne Morris said of a possible death sentence for the Canadian. As a sergeant in the U.S. Special Forces, Mr. Morris lost vision in his right eye in the battle and said he is willing to testify against Mr. Khadr.
The Pentagon also announced yesterday charges against four other Guantanamo detainees -- two from Saudi Arabia and one each from Algeria and Ethiopia.
The charges bring to nine the number of detainees at Guantanamo charged with specific crimes. There are about 500 prisoners at the facility.
The five men charged yesterday, including Mr. Khadr, are all described as "unprivileged belligerents." The Pentagon spokesman said this definition distinguishes them from privileged belligerents under the Geneva Conventions, who are members of conventional armies who wear uniforms, carry arms openly and have an organized hierarchy.
The spokesman said that unprivileged belligerents "don't conduct combat according the laws of war" and so as a result don't have the same protections under the Geneva Conventions.