Earlier today, Omar Khadr pled guilty to all charges against him, averting a full-blown military commissions trial that was slated to restart today. A sentencing hearing will commence tomorrow. (But like Ibrahim al-Qosi before him, his actual sentence — reportedly one more year at Gitmo, and seven more to be served in Canada — has already been negotiated; the sentencing hearing will only matter if the jury delivers a sentence shorter than the one negotiated.)
Khadr is the youngest of Guantanamo’s remaining 174 detainees. Captured eight years ago at the age of 15, Khadr turned 24 since I was last here in August, when his trial was abruptly cut short by his lawyer’s collapse in court. Khadr is accused of throwing the grenade that killed Delta Force Sgt. Christopher Speer in a firefight in Afghanistan.
Over a week ago, reports surfaced a plea deal was in the works that would have Khadr serve a sentence of eight years, with one year to be served in isolation in Gitmo and seven years in Canada, on top of the eight years he’s already served. Such an arrangement requires the assent of the Canadian government, and an exchange of diplomatic notes, which occurred Saturday. On Friday, Hillary Clinton and Canadian foreign minister Lawrence Cannon discussed the Khadr case, but no more details about the rumored plea deal and diplomatic negotiations were made public.
On Friday, I flew here with 26 journalists, half of whom are Canadian, and four NGO observers also here to observe Khadr’s case. Also on board were several witnesses expected to testify at Khadr’s sentencing: Sgt. Speer’s widow, Tabitha; Layne Morris, the former National Guard soldier blinded in one eye by the grenade Khadr is accused of throwing; and psych experts for the prosecution and defense.
Also on the Pentagon flight was a State Department spokesperson, whose first-time presence is probably an indication of the Obama administration’s concern that this case, the first war crimes prosecution of an alleged child soldier since WWII, undermines U.S. legitimacy overseas.
Yesterday, when reporters asked Edney why Khadr might plead guilty, he said, “There’s not much choice.” Edney added, “He either pleads guilty to avoid trial or he goes to trial, and the trial is not a fair process.”
Indeed, the prospect of trial in the illegitimate military commissions system was an awful one. Khadr could have faced life imprisonment if convicted. Self-incriminating statements that were coerced out of him by interrogators at Bagram and Gitmo were to be used against him at trial. And under a new military commisions rulebook issued in the spring, he could not get credit for the eight years he has already served. Omar Khadr’s entire military commissions experience thus far has been a circus spanning several years, 11 lawyers, more than three arraignments, and multiple sets of rules since he was first charged in 2004. It has been plagued by legal and procedural problems since the beginning, and any result at trial would probably have been subject to years of appeals.
Despite today’s good news that a trial has been averted, Khadr’s case is emblematic of a set of fundamental flaws of the military commissions that won’t be resolved by a plea deal. These tribunals are simply incapable of providing fair trials, and they ought to be shut down altogether. Individuals accused of terrorism-related crimes should be prosecuted in federal courts. Those courts have shown over and over again that they are capable of delivering results that are both legitimate and seen as legitimate.