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Khadr appears healthy, polite before U.S. tribunal


Flanked by, and in the firm grip of, two beefy U.S. sailors, a healthy-looking Omar Khadr was marched, unshackled, into a military tribunal at a U.S. naval base yesterday, the youngest defendant ever charged with serious war crimes.

Mr. Khadr entered no plea and his actual tribunal doesn't seem likely to begin until next summer, at the earliest. He is charged with murder by an "unprivileged combatant," "aiding the enemy" and "conspiracy to attack civilians," and faces life in prison if convicted.

Yesterday was the first time he had been seen in public since he disappeared into the twilight zone of U.S. detention for suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.

Tall and strapping, Mr. Khadr showed no lingering evidence of the grievous wounds he suffered in the fierce gun battle 3½ years ago as a 15-year-old near Khost, Afghanistan. There, he allegedly threw a grenade that killed a U.S. special-services medic.

Mr. Khadr spoke softly yesterday, politely answering "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to the U.S. Marine colonel presiding over the controversial military tribunal. Throughout, he paid rapt attention as his lawyers wrangled with the presiding officer over representational and procedural matters.

"I want a Canadian lawyer added to my legal team," said Mr. Khadr, who was wearing a red, white and blue jersey emblazoned with large capital letters saying "Roots" in white and "Athletics" in blue script underneath.

Under the current rules, all civilian lawyers added to a defendant's team must be U.S. citizens.

"That's not possible, right now," Colonel Robert Chester said, leaving open the possibility that some way might be found to add a Canadian lawyer, perhaps one retained by Mr. Khadr's family, as an adviser without full status.

The colonel repeatedly paused to make sure Mr. Khadr, who had waived his right to an Arabic translator, was following the proceedings in English. "I consider it very important that you understand everything that is going on," he said.

The colonel also said he didn't much like "the accused's attire," and made it clear he expected fewer logos in future.

Mr. Khadr, his black hair trimmed very short, but sporting a bushy, somewhat unruly beard and a sparse adolescent mustache, listened without translation, seemed to follow the proceedings with keen interest and engaged in repeated, long, whispered exchanges with Muneer Ahmad, the civilian lawyer seated alongside him.

Both eyes tracked activity, suggesting previous reports that he had been blinded in one during the battle may be incorrect. An evident indentation marred his left temple.

He paid no attention to the small crowd of spectators, nor the battery of remote-controlled cameras scattered around the room. He never touched the flag-labelled bottle of "Freedom Springs" water on the table in front of him, but at times he pulled his long sleeves over his hands, as though, after years in detention in the Caribbean heat, he found the whirling fans and air conditioning of the tribunal room chilly.

Most of the long, painstaking afternoon session was spent with Mr. Khadr's defence team attempting, and failing, to have the hearing stopped, at least until thorny matters of legal representation could be sorted out.

"My interest is to get these proceedings started . . . and [set] the beginnings of a trial schedule," Col. Chester said, dismissing one of several defence attempts to postpone proceedings by Captain John Merriam, the young army lawyer conducting Mr. Khadr's defence.

Capt. Merriam insisted: "This session should be terminated at this point. [Mr. Khadr is] entitled to the advocate he has selected and he doesn't have that now," he added.

A more senior and experienced military lawyer, U.S. Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Colby Vokey, was originally ordered to defend Mr. Khadr. But a turf fight over Lt.-Col. Vokey's availability ensued and Capt. Merriam was named instead. That fight seems to have been sorted out, with Col. Chester indicating that both officers would soon be assigned to the case.

Mr. Khadr's hearing, the second of the day on the fourth anniversary of the opening of detention facilities at Guantanamo for terrorist suspects, was a model of calm, procedural deliberation compared with the high drama and low farce of yesterday's first tribunal.

At it, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, a Yemeni and former member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle in al-Qaeda, rejected all U.S. military and civilian counsel. He vowed to boycott proceedings and displayed a carefully prepared, half-page sign reading "boycott" in Arabic.

Mr. al Bahlul calmly told the tribunal to "do what you have to do and rule however you have to rule."

Mr. Khadr's hearing will resume today to consider motions about pretrial comments made by the chief prosecutor, Colonel Morris Davis. Among his more pointed comments at a Tuesday news conference was a scathing reference to the time Mr. Khadr allegedly spent in al-Qaeda training camps. "They weren't making s'mores and learning how to tie knots, they were learning how to make bombs and kill Americans," he said.

Further procedural sessions are scheduled for the end of March and mid-May. No date has been set for the tribunal.

Terrorism tribunals

An airport terminal on the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been turned into a courtroom for the controversial military tribunals the United State is using to try suspected terrorists, including 19-year-old Canadian Omar Khadr.

Commission: Defendants are not afforded the right to a jury trial; judgment instead is rendered by a presiding officer (military judge) and four other officers. Convictions require a two-thirds majority.

Witness: Unlike federal trials, the defendant's right to confront witnesses is not guaranteed and hearsay evidence is allowed.

Prosecution: Can use classified evidence withheld from defendant in closed proceedings and evidence that may have been obtained through torture.

Defence: Represented by military or civilian counsel. Conversations between counsel and the defendant can be monitored by military.

Exculpatory evidence: Evidence that may establish innocence can be withheld if it is deemed classified or "protected."


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