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Khadr's lawyers blast prosecutors

Canadian Press

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — Omar Khadr was a tall, subdued and polite presence in a Roots shirt Wednesday at a U.S. military tribunal where his lawyers berated prosecutors for saying the Canadian teenager is a dangerous terrorist who murdered a U.S. medic.

Mr. Khadr, 19, who wore a typical teen's outfit — a red, white and blue shirt from the Canadian clothing company, tan pants and brand-new sneakers — is seeking a shakeup in his legal team to add a more experienced U.S. trial lawyer.

But presiding officer Col. Robert Chester refused to delay proceedings until the addition could be made and said he'll consider as well whether a Canadian lawyer can become a consultant.

Col. Chester also demanded Mr. Khadr exchange his long-sleeved top for something more appropriate before the hearing resumed Thursday.

At his first public appearance since he was captured in Afghanistan in July 2002 at the age of 15, Mr. Khadr looked much different from his youthful, often-published black and white picture.

He was led into the plush tribunal room flanked by two soldiers holding each arm. He stood about six feet tall, with a medium build, a shaved head and bushy sideburns narrowing into a scraggly beard.

There were no obvious signs of alleged torture at the Guantanamo prison camp or permanent damage suffered in the July 2002 firefight in Afghanistan, where he was shot three times and captured by U.S. soldiers, although he is near blind in one eye.

He spoke only a few times in a quiet tone to answer “Yes, sir,” to Col. Chester's questions, sitting with his hands folded on the table in front of him and his chair pulled close to his U.S. lawyer Muneer Ahmad, who whispered explanations of the process in his ear.

Mr. Ahmad, a Washington law professor, blasted the chief prosecutor of the military commission process, Col. Moe Davis, for calling Mr. Khadr a murderer who learned the tools of terrorism at al-Qaeda training camps and doesn't deserve anyone's sympathy.

The remarks constitute an ethical violation and should be retracted, said Mr. Ahmad, who also wanted Col. Chester to instruct prosecutors to stop talking about his client that way.

“I think it would be in everyone's best interest if the rhetoric was toned down,” said the presiding officer, who delayed a decision on the request.

Army Capt. John Merriam argued strenuously that the pre-trial hearing on a charge of murder and other counts shouldn't proceed until it's decided whether California litigator Colby Vokey can be freed up from the U.S. Marine Corps to lead the defence.

Mr. Khadr, who has entered no plea on the charges, asked for the change about three weeks ago.

“He doesn't want me, sir. He wants Lt.-Col. Vokey,” said Merriam, who has no trial experience but may stay on as well.

“He's entitled to the advocate he's selected.”

“If these are critical, important steps, we are depriving him of his rights” by proceeding, he said.

“It should not be a hard decision to come to.”

But the prosecutor, whose identity is protected by the military for security reasons, said Mr. Khadr's right to a fair trial wouldn't be compromised.

Col. Chester agreed and extended what was to be a one-day hearing. He also set the week of March 27 for legal motions and said evidentiary hearings would begin May 22. There was no trial date set.

Col. Chester told the hearing he knew little about the Khadr case except the family's association with accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and the death of Mr. Khadr's father in Pakistan.

He insisted he could be impartial and remain uninfluenced by anyone, especially since he is close to retirement.

The tribunal took place in a building that used to be the U.S. naval base's airport control tower, just a few kilometres from the notorious Camp Delta prison camp that's held Mr. Khadr for the last 39 months.

The courtroom space is outfitted with elaborate camera and sound systems, burgundy leather chairs, rich dark furniture and a velvet blue curtain in a setup nicer than many court rooms.

There were about 25 people observing, including journalists, military officers and members of human rights organizations.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department sent Sabine Nolke, a humanitarian law officer, to observe.

The hearing went ahead, despite motions filed by defence lawyers and the U.S. Supreme Court's plan to examine in March whether the special system for foreign terror suspects is constitutional.

Critics are calling the tribunal a kangaroo court with evidence rules that favour prosecutors, no recourse to a proper appeal and admission of confessions extracted by torture.

U.S. prosecutors maintain the system provides for full and fair hearings.

U.S. authorities said Mr. Khadr was the only enemy fighter left alive after a long gun battle at an alleged al-Qaeda compound and he threw the grenade that killed U.S. medic Christopher Speer.

Several other U.S. soldiers were injured, including Sgt. Layne Morris.

Mr. Khadr's case is being closely monitored by international human rights groups upset about torture allegations and Mr. Khadr's juvenile status at the time of the alleged offences.

Authorities said they took Mr. Khadr's youth into account when they decided not to seek the death penalty. Instead, he faces life in prison.

He was charged as an “unprivileged belligerent,” meaning he was not legally considered to be able to wage war and throw the grenade.

Only nine of some 500 detainees at the Guantanamo prison camp have been formally charged after years in detention.

The Khadr family has provoked intense debate in Canada. Each of the five Khadr siblings, all of whom are Canadian citizens, has at one time or another been separately accused or investigated for alleged links to terrorism.

Their father, Egyptian-born Canadian Ahmed Said Khadr, was an accused al-Qaeda financier killed in a battle with Pakistani forces in 2003.

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