Former boy soldier, youngest Guantanamo detainee, heads toward military tribunal

Omar Khadr, who grew up in part in an al-Qaeda camp, was 15 when he was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan.
Omar Khadr, who grew up in part in an al-Qaeda camp, was 15 when he was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan. (Rick Eglinton - Toronto Star)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was 15 when he allegedly threw a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic in Afghanistan. Now, more than seven years later, Khadr is drawing the Obama administration into a fierce debate over the propriety of putting a child soldier on trial.

The struggle against al-Qaeda has thrown up few detainees with as baleful and unlikely a background as Khadr's -- a father who moved his family to Afghanistan and inside Osama bin Laden's circle of intimates when Omar was 10; a mother and sister who said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were deserved; and a brother, the black sheep of the clan, who said he became a CIA asset after his capture in Afghanistan.

This background has convinced U.N. officials, human rights advocates and defense lawyers that Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was an indoctrinated child soldier and, in line with international practice in other conflicts, should be rehabilitated, not prosecuted.

"The U.N. position is that children should not be prosecuted for war crimes," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, after meeting administration officials in October.

But U.S. government officials said they expect to go to trial at Guantanamo Bay in July and will put Khadr before a jury of military officers on multiple war crimes charges, including murder. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said that the Khadr prosecution is one of six detainee cases assigned to a military commission rather than federal court.

Holder's decision initially drew little notice amid the clamor that followed the simultaneous announcement that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other alleged conspirators in the Sept. 11 attacks would be tried in New York.

But the Khadr case could prove to be another lightning rod in the debate over the administration's detention and prosecution decisions, sparking the kind of international scrutiny that few other military tribunals will generate.

Khadr's fate seems increasingly certain. Last month, Canada's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it would not compel the Canadian government to seek his repatriation, as it had been previously ordered to do. Now, Khadr's case will probably be the first full military commission trial under President Obama.

Grenades from the rubble

On July 27, 2002, U.S. Special Forces working with Afghan troops surrounded a compound in a village in eastern Afghanistan. When those inside refused to surrender -- and opened fire, killing two Afghan soldiers -- Apache attack helicopters, A-10 Warthog fighter jets and, finally, two F-18 jets unleashed their arsenals, reducing the hideout to rubble.

When the dust settled, American forces approached the ruined compound, only to be blasted by a grenade thrown by someone inside. Delta Force 1st Sgt. Christopher Speer, a father of two, would die more than a week later at a military hospital in Germany. Another Special Forces soldier, Sgt. Layne Morris, was blinded in one eye by another grenade.

Inside the compound was one survivor, Khadr, who had been shot twice in the chest.

Military prosecutors, who charge that Khadr threw the deadly grenade, said the Canadian's age does not excuse his actions. They note that a military judge in 2008 rejected a defense motion that the commissions did not have jurisdiction over the crimes of a child soldier.


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