Omar Khadr, the Canadian accused of murdering a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, was a juvenile -- only 15 years old at the time of the firefight -- and shouldn't face trial by military commission, according to human-rights activists converging yesterday on this U.S. naval base where 500 terrorism suspects have been held in a legal limbo for years.
"He still has the right to be tried as a juvenile," said Jumana Musa, spokeswoman for Amnesty International.
Mr. Khadr, now 19, is to appear tomorrow for his first judicial proceeding -- albeit a controversial one decried as unfair and seriously deficient when measured against international legal norms.
It's been nearly 3½ years since he was shot in the face in a gunfight in Khost, Afghanistan. According to the U.S. military, he was the last fighter left alive in a house riddled with gunfire and he jumped from cover wielding a pistol before tossing a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic.
Today, Mr. Khadr and hundreds of other Muslim detainees (several dozen of whom remain on a hunger strike) will eat a specially cooked meal to mark Eid ul-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice and one of Islam's holiest days. Tomorrow, manacled and handcuffed, he will be marched into the courtroom.
Here, beside the sweeping deepwater harbour where a onetime coaling station turned Cold War flashpoint has a new life as a tropical twilight zone for terrorism suspects, a rising chorus of denunciations will greet the on-again, off-again military commissions.
At least some of the evidence against Mr. Khadr was brutally extracted from him and should be barred, said Avidan Cover, a senior associate with Human Rights First. "Omar Khadr has alleged he has been subject to significant levels of abuse," Mr. Cover said, adding that he was threatened with rape and rendition to countries where he might be tortured.
U.S. officials -- from spokesmen here to the Commander-in-Chief, President George W. Bush -- deny detainees have been tortured and insist the commissions will be fair.
Everyone charged has a "right to a full and fair trial . . . and is entitled to the presumption of innocence," Major Jane Boomer, spokeswoman for the Office of Military Commissions, said yesterday from the high-security courtroom where portable wood railings and a dais have given the old airport terminal a measure of officialdom.
It is the U.S. government's position that Mr. Khadr and other al-Qaeda members were "not entitled to be on the battlefield, not entitled to the [protections afforded] by the law of war," she said. Prosecutors will allege that the killing of the U.S. Special Forces medic was "murder by an unprivileged belligerent."